To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope)
Reviewed by Kahron Spearman, Fri., April 10, 2015
Kendrick LamarTo Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope)
A sampled vocal of Jamaican crooner Boris Gardiner poses a question as explicit and prescient now as when asked in 1974: "Who will deny that you and I and every nigger is a star?" Trekking barbwire thickets of the dense, pitfall-enriched forest called "existence of (successful) black men," Kendrick Lamar machetes strange new arteries into the heart of the concrete jungle. Rejecting all actions from his debut, one of the great bows in any genre – 2012's good kid, m.A.A.d city – the Compton wordsmith blazes new ground in our most vital and still blossoming art form, using live jazz and West Coast G-funk arrangements as its exposed nervous and circulatory system. To Pimp a Butterfly thus wades away from the shallow end, and into the opaque trenches not only of black music, but the existentialism of blackness in America. A masochist Lamar personalizes answers to the overarching question by parsing out each piece. In the Parliamentary "Wesley's Theory," the antagonist "Who" is the Man, regretful of letting the darker hues prosper as bass god Thundercat laments: "We should never gave niggas money, go back home." The other "who" dwells in the boozy "u," finding the raw, drunken rapper screaming in complete horror and engulfed by whale-sized survivor's guilt over his success. By "For Sale?" the denial of stardom to both "you and I" ends up in the hands of the self – especially in the face of the nefarious Lucy. A beautiful composite pimp, she aims to satiate the faithful Kendrick into submission: "I loosely heard prayers on your first album truly/ Lucy don't mind cause at the end of the day you'll pursue me." Having realized himself through experience (including rotation burners "The Blacker the Berry" and Off the Wall-era "These Walls"), the MC's confidence rebounds by the revamped "i," where he compels every black man to step up in name of the divisive "nigger" and its African blue blood roots. Even more specifically, he urges them to answer their own question(s) by refusing denial of their own stardom. Stepping upward into the macro, the album's landmark achievement lies in Kendrick Lamar's elevation of hip-hop into subtle invisibility, his blackness not exclusively tied to the rapper image. Incredibly, for the first time, the audacious urgency of rap flattens out into a reduced essence while becoming, at once, a medium completely subservient to its message.