It has been impossible to escape the orbit of Michael Brown’s murder and the subsequent police response to protests since summer 2014. In a year of what felt like unparalleled political lowlights, it was demonstrative of how little black lives appear to matter in contemporary American society. As a recent article in Forbes magazine by economist Stephen Bronars highlighted, Census data suggests approximately half of Ferguson’s African American male population aged 20-35 is missing. There are several explanations as to why this might be, but unfortunately high mortality rates and incarceration are two of the most common. An injustice is being committed, largely invisible despite its scale, and there can be little doubt that its roots are social, political and economic.
It is through this troubling filter that Kendrick Lamar’s second major label album, To Pimp a Butterfly, implicitly engages, its primary concern being the question of what it means to be African American and male in this time. The cover says it plainly. The album itself is a remarkable effort, one that pays dividends to the listener both in terms of its musical ability and lyrical depth. It also doesn’t shy from articulating the complexities and contradictions Lamar encounters, as a successful performer feeling remote from his community, and in the wider tensions that exist in the simplification of these complexities for the sake of entertainment.
There aren’t many contemporary rappers dedicated to presenting the concept of a record as a consistent statement – Kendrick Lamar is a rare exception.
One of the rapper’s greatest strengths, amongst many, is his candour. It manifests over and over on To Pimp a Butterfly, from the furious ‘Hypocrite!” that closes The Blacker The Berry to the concession that he knows nothing after returning to his community on Momma, moments after listing all the knowledge he has acquired through success. This kind of storytelling sets Lamar apart from many of his contemporaries; he is able to be introspective in a way that is distinct and yet profoundly relatable. Few people experience the kind of isolationism brought about by the toxic levels of wealth that Kayne West raps about, far more encounter the pain of returning home to realise both it and yourself have changed. The self-doubt Kendrick describes during u is galvanised by his characterisation of an associate bad-mouthing him. His delivery is drunken, sorrowful, and it is a showcase of the rapper’s adaptable vocal style. There are flourishes like it everywhere on To Pimp a Butterfly, confident engagements with spoken traditions that connect with jazz (For Free?) , soul (You Ain’t Gotta Lie) and straight boom bap hip-hop (Hood Politics).
While To Pimp a Butterfly would be a great album on the strength of Lamar’s vocal performances alone, its music sets it up as one of the most definitive artistic statements of recent memory. Featuring contributions from bassist Thundercat and producer Terrace Martin, amongst many others, the album is warm and human in its interpretations of funk and soul. Tracks like King Kunta and i are unapologetically groove-based, even feeling unusual in the current post-Yeezus environment, but they do not come across as throwbacks. How Much A Dollar Costs sets a mournful piano and horn against double-bass and a snapping drum beat, its sorrowful subject matter complemented by the use of a sample from Radiohead’s Pyramid Song. The songwriting and sequencing on the album serve to reinforce Lamar’s shifts in tone and subject matter, at times celebratory, tender or melancholy. There aren’t many contemporary rappers dedicated to presenting the concept of a record as a consistent statement – Kendrick Lamar is a rare exception.
It is significant that 2015 (or late 2014 for those who really care about these things) has seen the return of D’Angelo, with his remarkable Black Messiah. It seems that Lamar has unwittingly produced a companion piece, an album that enables the listener to immerse themselves in something adult, vicarious and complex. It side-steps much of what is expected of hip-hop, refusing to operate as a disposable commodity while simultaneously demanding serious thought and devotion. It recalls the work of Sly and the Family Stone, or James Brown, in its unapologetic presentation of an America that is both urgently alive and under constant threat from its own contradictions. To Pimp A Butterfly is exceptional in how it flips a personal sense of conflict, of doubt, and turns it into something to be more widely applied. There are few more urgent messages from a population being forced into invisible regions, and it deserves your closest attention.
Words: Frankie Basweld