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SPIN Essentials

Review: Kendrick Lamar Returns With the Great American Hip-Hop Album, ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’

SPIN Rating: 10 of 10
Release Date: March 17, 2015
Label: Top Dawg

Azealia Banks — the immensely skilled and completely without-filter rapper who appeared in Playboy the same day that Kendrick Lamar’s long-awaited To Pimp a Butterfly appeared for sale on iTunes a week early — told the magazine that Lamar is “playing that non-threatening black man shit, and that gets all the white soccer moms” to love him. This is as it should be, because unlike many rappers, the man born Kendrick Duckworth isn’t afraid to be misunderstood. K-Dot is the rare rapper who’s comfortable with others speaking for him because he’s comfortable speaking for others. Not that he talks over anyone or interrupts — he’s a starter, not an ender. Having the last word is so far from his interests; he doesn’t want anyone to have the last word. The last word means people will stop talking, and — on the evidence of his bled-out magnum opus — that’s one of the many, many things he’s afraid of.

Hailing from gangsta rap’s storied snitches-get-stitches capital, Compton, Lamar increases dialogue nonetheless, even if that means inventing characters as a vessel to converse with himself. The record begins and ends with imaginary conversations between real people — Dr. Dre and Tupac — and believe you me, he’d trade the one he’s met (the one to whom he owes his career) for the one he hasn’t. Dre admonishes him in a muffled, voicemail-like taunt (“Remember, anybody can get it / But the hard part is keeping it, motherfucker”) that Lamar probably scripted himself while having a private laugh too. This is a guy whose spiritual sequel to Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Bottle” accidentally became a club hit. Keep it? You can have it, motherfucker.

Say what you will about Kanye, the champion, but his unwillingness to stop explaining himself and let his music stand for itself gives the challenger an advantage. But why does the most vital (black) music of our day only allow for one MVP, one GOAT? Bracket tournaments ranking art might be the arena of nerds, but the allowance of only one female MC to prosper at a time is a little too real, as Banks — a foe of not just Iggy Azalea but Nicki Minaj — should also know. Likewise, I shouldn’t be pitting these two against each other; I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015.

“I want you to feel uncomfortable,” Lamar told the New York Times, and all the naked black skin on To Pimp a Butterfly‘s incredible, Denis Rouvre-shot cover alone will make many a police department squirm. Kicking off the music itself by sampling a Sly Stone inversion called “Every Nigger Is a Star,” the false intro on “Wesley’s Theory” hurries to the weirdest funk imaginable, namely George Clinton atop Thundercat’s lava-lamp blobs of bass. The central conceit mirrors the conscientious objector of Public Enemy’s “Black Steel” — actor Wesley Snipes’ failed theory that he could protest against paying taxes, which landed him in jail a few years ago. It’s perfectly supplemented by Thundercat’s sardonic-sad chorus of “We never should’ve gave niggas money / Go back home,” before Lamar twists the knife further two tracks later, identifying with Roots‘ Kunta Kinte getting dismembered. Uncomfortable yet?

Lamar addresses most of the album’s questions, literally, to Tupac Shakur, who not only knows what it’s like to be famous, he knows what it’s like to be dead. “Mortal Man” buries a Fela Kuti sample and exhumes a Shakur interview from 1994, replacing a Swedish interviewer with himself, adding six surreal minutes to a song that ends the music proper by asking, “When the shit hits the fan / Is you still a fan?” and invoking Michael Jackson as the ultimate fan-loyalty test. The hubris of Kendrick sandwiching himself between legends gives way to him being too hard on himself, comparing his sins to two men tried for sexual assault. (Maybe that wasn’t what he had in mind when he repeatedly mentions “misusing” one’s influence in a poem strewn throughout the record, though he’s more vocal about his enthusiasm for Fruity Pebbles than sex, and your eyes will roll out of your head at the prehistoric device of personifying Lucifer as Lucy or likening fame to a first girlfriend he “just wants to fuck.”)

This album is mandatory listening; serious rap fans who shun Mr. West due to his interfering personality (or Wayne, Drake, Nicki, Jay, and Em) don’t have that out here because Kendrick doesn’t pretend to be Hova or Yeezus — just another young black man that Uncle Sam’s ready to fuck up. Survivor’s guilt drives To Pimp a Butterfly, whether he’s castigating himself on “The Blacker the Berry” for being no better than the police, or chiding anyone listening to “Institutionalized” that “Shit don’t change until you wash your ass.”

These are dangerous ideas in macro (essentially victim-blaming) that he sometimes dares to point out we do all the time individually, connecting it with the health of doubt. At the same time, he explains the lost term “negus” to a crowd after a live-sounding, foreshortened “i”: “N-E-G-U-S / Description: black emperor, king, ruler, now let me finish / The history books overlooked the word and hide it / America tried to make it to a house divided.” On the “i” flipside that is “u,” Lamar hysterically squeaks out, “Loving you is complicated,” before excoriating himself for “FaceTiming instead of a hospital visit” over a slow march of New Orleans jazz. It’s one of the most difficult songs to listen to in recent memory that’s actually worth your time.

Listenability is the difference between the majesty of this 79-minute behemoth on paper, and the songs it needs to succeed. So let’s give it up to the astounding thicket of music here, the best-produced rap since the dawn of Drake: shades of Miles Davis’ On the Corner and free jazz all over (which follows the news that jazz has become the lowest-selling music genre), as well as Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Funkadelic and Erykah Badu’s similarly wah-crazy but comparatively lo-fi New Amerykah: 4th World War. The drums on “Momma” click metallically like some unholy matrimony between the Neptunes and Einstürzende Neubauten. When he samples Sufjan Stevens, it’s from The Age of fucking Adz.

Most impressively, Robert Glasper’s piano races around the vérité “For Free? (Interlude)” while Kendrick raps like an auctioneer and holds onto the beat like a mechanical bull. So let’s also take a moment to commend the athletics of it alone, how he manages to breathe. Kendrick’s not just the conductor and designer of this orchestra — he’s a player, bowing his own larynx to choke out disturbing new yelps on the weightier version of “i” included, or turning “cut the legs off him” into a hook on the nearly danceable “King Kunta.” “These Walls” has the first repeating melody on the album, and few others appear. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” was like “Hey Ya!” compared to anything here — which doesn’t make Butterfly uncommercial; just screwy enough to make one look back and notice how pop good kid, m.A.A.d city really was.

“You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” is the only track that could be mistaken for something on good kid, and it contains the biggest lie on the album: “You ain’t gotta try so hard.” Well, maybe he ain’t gotta. But he can’t stop asking and thinking and processing and… get the idea yet that this guy doesn’t sleep much? Butterfly ends with him asking, “Pac? Pac?” like he’s waking up from a dream where he spoke to his hero. In some ways, it’s as powerful as the gunshot that punctuates Biggie’s “Suicidal Thoughts,” except Biggie got to rest in peace, while Kendrick continues to serve out a life sentence of being haunted by his depression, which no matter what he rasps on “The Blacker the Berry,” is not the threat to his existence. The distorted voice explaining “The bigger I shoot”? The Aryan whose black heart matches his skin? Everybody want to cut the legs off him? He knows full well who wants to pimp the butterfly, and he loves himself too much to let it distract him from his art. Sleep? There’s time for that when he’s no longer the realest negus alive.