Sometime over the past few years, trap music has become the dominant form in hip hop. As a subgenre it owes everything to spare, menacing beats, MIDI-triggered snare rolls that resemble the chatter of assault rifle fire, and a sing-song flow of drug-game braggadocio and ignorance that is infinitely more Soulja Boy than Sista Souljah. It’s a cathartic form, to be sure, but in the wake of several high-profile killings of unarmed black men by the police (and police wannabes) in America, it has little to offer in the way of commentary besides more nihilism. It’s no wonder then, perhaps, that there has been a recent movement towards the past, a retreat that suggests that the inspiration for progress might be better mined from earlier forms of black music. Joey Bada$$ went back to the gritty streets of New York in the 1990s; D’Angelo enlisted The Vanguard and went back to the conscious movement days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, specifically Sly and the Family Stone, hard soul, and quiet storm; Flying Lotus turned back to a kaleidoscope of jazz forms, and even Kanye has reached back (slightly) in his apparent embrace of British grime.
Then there’s King Kendrick, the man who brought Compton back to the limelight with what was easily the best album of 2012, good kid m.A.A.d. city. That was an album of hard beats and hood politics, a grandiose concept album that summed up what was best about pre-trap hip hop. To Pimp A Butterfly is not that album – it’s an entirely different thing altogether.
Right from the beginning you can smell the p-funk – squelchy instruments, stomping basslines, ass-shaking grooves. Lamar isn’t even subtle about where he’s going – he’s got Parliament/Funkadelic madman George Clinton right there, guesting on it. Then there’s what can best be described as a spoken word poetry piece over squalling jazz improvisation. Then “King Kunta” comes on and conquers the world with one groove. This is Kendrick Lamar, 2015: willing to scribble madly outside the lines, not content to simply be a commercialized unit, making a name for himself as an honest-to-god artist.
That’s what the album seems to be about, incidentally: the constant conflict between Kendrick Lamar, the rapper who made it up out of the streets of Compton, shattered expectations, and became widely recognized as the leading light of hip hop, and Kendrick Lamar, the guy from the streets, still caught up in petty beefs and those hood politics from good kid m.A.A.d. city, a man who abandoned his friends and family to live and die in L.A. while he puffed himself up and toured the world. On one side, “u”, which features a second verse where he breaks down and raps while sobbing, screaming at himself in a hotel mirror about how he failed, he let down everyone he knew, how he wasn’t there when the people he cared about bled out and died. On the other side, “i”, which is much better on the album than it ever was as a single: the To Pimp A Butterfly version has a serious dance groove running through it, making the declarations of self-confidence, love, and the world being more than slow suicide all the more powerful. The conflict is given poetic roots at the very end, following the “interview” Kendrick conducts with Tupac Shakur for the last five minutes of “Mortal Man”. He identifies the caterpillar, the hard part of him that scrambles to survive in the “mad city” of L.A., the part that constantly looks for ways to survive. The butterfly, then, is the beautiful, artistic, human part inside of him, the talent that is only looking for an outlet. Being hardened by the struggles of life in the mad city, the caterpillar only looks for ways to pimp the butterfly out, to use it to continue the survival of the caterpillar. Trapped inside the cycle of thoughts that this produces, the only way out is for the caterpillar to use the butterfly to bring new ideas and ways back to the mad city, and to free itself from the stagnancy of the past.
It’s a heavy concept far removed from the surface-level nihilism that has infected hip hop for the past several years, and I think that’s kind of the point. Lamar conjures up the old ideals of race consciousness and unity, taking specific aim at the idea of dividing a people by arbitrary and useless lines: on “Mortal Man”, he says “While my loved ones was fighting the continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one / A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination / Made me wanna go back to the cities and tell the homies what I’d learned / The word was respect / Just because you wore a different gang colour than mines / Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man”. On “Complexion” he discusses the ridiculousness inherent in discussing who’s “more black” than the next person, and segregating each other based on the darkness of skin. “Hood Politics” sets out the bigger picture beyond the constant infighting between street gangs: “From Compton to Congress it’s set trippin’ all around / Ain’t nothin’ new but a flow of new DemoCrips and ReBloodLicans / Red state vs. a blue state, which one you governin’? / They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs / Make it they promise to fuck with you / No condom they fuck with you / Obama say “What it do?”. On “The Blacker The Berry” Kendrick turns the finger on himself, calling himself a hypocrite for preaching black politics and mourning the death of those like Trayvon Martin when gangbanging caused him to kill another black man and set back unity just as much as any external enemy.
To Pimp A Butterfly is the most powerful album released in some time, an examination of the state of local and national race politics and an examination of the meaning of the conflict between art and money. Married to mutant funk, jazz, and soul, it uses old music to sound new again, in turn escaping the useless cycle of money and violence between rival sets to embrace a much wider scope of “us vs. them” – the struggle between the downtrodden and those that seek to keep them down. It’s much more than simply a worthy followup to good kid m.A.A.d city – it’s takes a gigantic leap forward to establish a much fuller circle with which to define Kendrick Lamar’s artistry as a whole. 5/5