Kendrick Lamar is more ‘mad scientist’ than ever.
And it’s never felt more comfortable. The eccentric K-Dot hybrid of snarling prophet and placid beholder, this time revealed full-force in a wild, unrestrained slew of jazz experimentalism-meets-West Coast grit, makes for the fine line between disciple and maniac. And even if he were a bit kookier, it’s near impossible to criticize his substance: an ever-sprawling labyrinth of Black pride, self-love, hood tales, female veneration, and social consciousness—just recently dressed in funky avant-garde. And while the fact that To Pimp A Butterfly plays more like a feverish Miles Davis session than any streetside cypher should harbor more shock value, it’s nothing short of the old-soul trappings we’d expect from an alchemistic mahatma like Kendrick Lamar.
Its intro (“Wesley’s Theory”) is dark and volatile—.a deep-funk, slap-bass hallucination whereby a slightly paranoid Kendrick drowns in and out of consciousness, of Sherane-esque flashbacks, and a phantom Flying Lotus beat. Lamar races through his Compton memory; an ominous 4:47 that serves as the first turbulent stop in K-Dot mind-trek.
“I remember you was conflicted; misusing your influence…sometimes I did the same”; this is Lamar’s recurring spoken-word, eventually succeeded with a 12-minute monologue on the final track, “Mortal Man”. The phrase lines the chapters of To Pimp A Butterfly, particularly preceding its more delicate moments, like the complex, female matter of “These Walls”, which features Bilal, Anna Wise, & Thundercat on backing vocals while Kendrick paints a dual-purpose metaphor of the soft disco track’s title and intro quote; (“If your walls could talk they’d tell you it’s too late, your destiny accepted your fate/ Burn accessories and stash them where they are…take the recipe, the Bible and God”). Dazed and profound, it’s Lamar first application of the spoken phrase—‘influence misuse’ in relation to himself, his fame, and in a more general sense—the women from which he feels have been taken advantage: a disturbing groupie reality that haunts his still-newfound fame.
Though raw, searing emotion comprises all of the album, not all of it is as sunny as the likes of “i”–its first single, an Isley Brothers-sampled cut aflame with radiant self-love and sped-up bars shouted by an electrified Kendrick. “u” serves as “i”s polar opposite; it’s not even self-effacing, it’s self-hate. A crack-voiced Kendrick whimpers on the downtempo, as he self-converses with despair and shame over his own shortcomings and regret.
“King Kunta” spews ‘Control’-verse self-entitlement; it’s the sole, pungent taste of ‘King of New York’-Kendrick necessary to remind you that the Compton emcee hasn’t totally deserted the frame of mind that shook up August 2013. Vitalized by the identity of 18th-century slave/escapee Kunta Kinte, Lamar channels its context autobiographically—as the persecuted but resolute savior of the rap game. His jabs are well-crafted; (“But most of ya’ll share bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two-man cell”/ “I can dig rapping, but a rapper with a ghost writer?…).
Like any other K-Dot body of work, To Pimp A Butterfly‘s potency lies in its handcrafted cohesion; it’s best digested in this intended form, spun by Lamar’s faculty for storytelling. Mixed by Flying Lotus, Terrace Martin, Pharrell, and others, zany production morphs from scratchy, ’60s jazz to druggy electro-funk to bass-y, sunken hip-hop beats (thanks, Thundercat). Collaborations are few, but an interwoven Tupac interview occurs during Lamar’s conclusion, (“Mortal Man”), obviating the need for any other external voice.
The occasional darkness and tension (“The Blacker The Berry”, “u”) is an often stark contrast to the light (“Complexion (A Zulu Love”, “i”), yet it never feels unwarranted. To Pimp A Butterfly doesn’t always feel like a hip-hop album, but fulfills the soul in an explicable way, only doable by a true work of art. The sixteen tracks form an emotional, social, and racial mosaic; an high-energy, free-flowing display of the Compton artist’s intricate thought, shadowy past, and stubborn conscience…while Kendrick–once again–kicks up a fierce cloud of dust behind him.
Buy it on iTunes here…