In the world of trap beats, smoking blunts and getting money, there is very much a recurring (and quite frankly, boring) theme in mainstream hip-hop these days. Rarely in the modern age of Migos, Rich Homie Quan and Young Thug, does an artist go against the grain and drop a truly thought-provoking, fearless gem in the genre, in a realm as gimmicky as the mainstream. One which not only redefines it, but can also stand the test of time and rest alongside classics across all lexicons of music. And challenge an entire generation to change its values for the better.
Enter Kendrick Lamar. After a truly amazing major label debut Good Kid Maad City, the Compton MC, after a long drawn out creative process in which he shook the rap game with THAT verse on Big Sean’s ‘Control’ and mind-blowing live performances that further inflated expectancy among fans, has returned with To Pimp a Butterfly. This is nothing like his previous effort, and constitutes a dark, angry, and unapologetic critique of the oppressed, violent and harsh conditions of the black man in America. All of this over the funkiest, jazziest, uncompromising and, dare I say, black, production the mainstream has heard in a while. Godfather of funk George Clinton sets the mood in album opener “Wesley’s Theory”, a mourning for the innocence lost by many aiming to become hip-hop’s latest star. The p-funk, jazz and improvisation influenced production is splashed throughout the entire album, to further amplify Kendrick’s message.
Lamar is taking the listener on a journey of temptation and the struggle to free one’s mind in the midst of madness, typified by such vices as Lucy, the Devil in the form of a groupie, perhaps most eloquently told in ‘u’, despite Kendrick’s drunken candour. Throughout this journey, the black struggle, both internally created by the black community’s own hypocrisies, as told most bluntly on the hard-hitting ‘The Blacker the Berry’, but also externally by the racism of white America, explored in the menacing ‘Hood Politics’, is made poignantly clear by Kendrick’s emotionally-charged lyrics and witty spoken word, particularly on such interludes as “For Free”.
The Grammy Award-winning ‘i’ is given a new angle of black self-affirmation when, in arguably the album’s most powerful moment, he professes: “So I’ma dedicate this one verse to Oprah / On how the infamous, sensitive N-word control us / So many artist gave her an explanation to hold us / Well this is my explanation straight from Ethiopia / N-E-G-U-S / Definition: royalty King royalty / N-E-G-U-S / Description: Black emperor, King, ruler… The history books overlooked the word and hide it / America tried to make it a house divided / The homies don’t recognize we be using it wrong… Take it from Oprah Winfrey / Tell her she right on time / Kendrick Lamar by far the realest Negus alive.”
In the space of a few lines, the entire history of the n-word is flipped on its side to empower the black man in these unsettling post-Ferguson, post-Mike Brown, racially volatile times. And just when you thought Kendrick could not top this album’s greatness, he delves into a perfectly put together conversation with Tupac Shakur at the end of album closer ‘Mortal Man’, chopping it up on still very relevant topics of oppression and the black man’s position in America. While Shakur predicts a situation similar to Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831, Lamar’s explanation of the concept of pimping a butterfly (reminiscent of his own world) and the beauty it represents being ravaged within its mad city, serves as a call for all people to blossom from a caterpillar, with values that can have a positive change.
To Pimp a Butterfly represents a truly dizzying, ambitious, timely and truly bold statement of anguish and self-examination, one with the potential to alter an entire culture. All hail King Kendrick. 5 STARS