Every now and then, an album elicits wildly different reactions from our writers. With One Album, Two Opinions, we aim to explore both perspectives, pro and con. This week, Stephen F. Kearse and Adrian Spinelli dig into Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
CLUMSY METAPHORS AND SELF-DOUBT
By Stephen F. Kearse
Kendrick Lamar has been busy. Between the release of his previous album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, and To Pimp a Butterfly, he has embarked on multiple world tours, headlined music festivals, opened for huge acts like Kanye West and Eminem, and has been nominated for and received multiple Grammys. This kind of hectic itinerary is expected for platinum-selling artists, and its consequences—time away from friends and family, pressure to live lavishly, homesickness, frayed relationships—are expected as well. On To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick details what he didn’t expect about this new life: his inability to live up to his own ideals.
Self-flagellation is a peculiar theme, but Kendrick explores it in depth, flaying himself at every turn. The album opens with “Wesley’s Theory,” a dark track that begins with a sample of Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger is a Star,” a bittersweet soul song that wears its ambivalence on its sleeve. Kendrick quickly follows suit, describing himself as a successful rapper who has essentially sold his soul. In the song’s second verse, he makes the terms of this transaction clear, speaking as a malevolent Uncle Sam who encourages reckless spending in order to someday “Wesley snipe” Kendrick in the distant future. The song oozes paranoia, from Kendrick’s modulated, high-pitched voice to the shrieking production that madly dances around it. At one point Dr. Dre breezes in like a wraith and eerily warns Kendrick that keeping money is harder than earning it.
As the album continues, these outside voices continue to materialize, shaming Kendrick for his perceived failures. On “For Free” he is accosted by a cartoonishly selfish woman who lambasts him for not spending enough money on her. On “u” he is confronted by himself, accused of being an inadequate older brother and friend. “Alright” and “For Sale” feature Kendrick encountering Lucy, a clumsy metaphor for Lucifer. Kendrick reacts with painful honesty in all of these situations, hanging his head or grabbing his groin as appropriate. Tellingly, on “u,” his sole response to his conscience’s scathing accusations are suicidal chugs from a liquor bottle. But despite Kendrick’s bold emotional transparency, these scenarios are weighed down by the fact that they all center around Kendrick himself. All of the voices that appear speak to him and him alone, reducing the ugly world he reacts to to a solipsistic echo chamber where Kendrick’s lashes ring out louder than his observations.
Of course, Kendrick Lamar isn’t the first rapper or celebrity to be partially blinded by the prism of his own life, but the tragedy of all this self-centeredness is that Kendrick genuinely attempts to connect his struggles to other peoples’. “Institutionalized,” for example, features Kendrick describing how his own success doesn’t guarantee success for his homies. While he sees the BET Awards as an opportunity to celebrate black success, the friends he’s invited along see them as an opportunity for successful heists. The disconnect between his old friends and his new environment is incredibly relatable. Likewise, on “Complexion,” Kendrick joins Rapsody for a strong takedown of colorism. While both artists use their personal experiences with colorism as a launchpad, they still manage to make a general statement about the beauty of all skin colors.
Regrettably, these moments of coherence and connection are rare. “The Blacker the Berry” and “i,” the album’s two singles, are just plain duds. Though Kendrick palpably channels his anger on the former, he’s inhibited by his chronic self-focus. Backed by sharp piano chords and strident percussion, each verse features a laundry list of grievances against systemic racism and unrepentant bigots. The song feels indignant, but each verse begins with, “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015.” It’s almost as if Kendrick can only shoot at his enemies if he uses his own brain as a silencer.
On “i,” Kendrick declares his self-love. The album version of this Grammy-winning song is a live recording that curiously features altered lyrics and an interruption. Kendrick responds to the interruption, a fight between audience members, first with pleas for self-respect, and then an a capella verse that features a false etymology connecting the words “negus” and “nigger.” His earnestness is beautiful; you can feel the urgency in his voice. But there’s something telling in the audience’s undisturbed chatter and eventual lack of cheer: To Pimp a Butterfly just doesn’t work. Kendrick Lamar works best as a sharp-eyed observer, not a self-obsessed diarist. There’s nothing wrong with self-doubt or self-shame, but Kendrick rarely articulates what exactly plagues him. His thoughts, like the album’s production, are persistently hazy, their incoherence amplified by his inability to describe the disembodied specters that haunt his mind. There’s no doubt that those ghosts really do haunt Kendrick and implicitly the rest of us, but here he is frequently a poor medium.
On the final song, “Mortal Man,” before a bizarre interview with 2Pac, Kendrick summons the ghost of Nelson Mandela, asking to be “loved like Nelson.” His supporters are probably capable of such love, but the more immediate question is what does Kendrick Lamar offer that is on par with what Nelson Mandela offered? If the answer is nothing but posthumous interviews with 2Pac, impossible ideals, hamfisted symbolism, clunky hooks and incomplete songs, he shouldn’t be surprised by their answer.
ENGAGING, CREATIVE, VISCERAL
By Adrian Spinelli
Kendrick Lamar might’ve damn near saved hip-hop with 2012’s good kid M.A.A.D. city (GKMC). It was a poetic expression of growing up in the hood, with heartfelt storytelling in the shadow of his hero, Tupac Shakur. The album played itself out like an epic hip-hop opera, akin to Prince Paul’s Prince Among Thieves, and on the heels of anthemic, yet still emotionally powerful jams like “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Money Trees,” Lamar made his way up the hip-hop totem pole.
Stylistically, Kendrick’s GKMC made it acceptable to be a rapper who’s not afraid to show vulnerability. Rather than hiding behind money, cars and women, his vernacular was one of an impassioned struggle to rise out of the perils of the streets he grew up in and into the role of the sage storyteller, yearning to make it out of that place and breathing new life into hip hop.
Yet “i,” the first single on Kendrick’s follow-up album, To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB), hinted at perhaps a move towards a more pop and radio-friendly sound. It seemed as if maybe Kendrick was going to be the next rapper to fall into the cycle of marginalized music. But those concerns were soon quelled and were a seemingly calculated part of a big surprise when the highly anticipated follow-up to GKMC was released. TPAB might as well have fallen from the sky on a Sunday night and set the internet on fire with an exploration of free-jazz concepts, socially conscious themes and a further deconstruction of Kendrick Lamar’s ethos, pathos and logos.
TPAB opens with the Flying Lotus-produced “Wesley’s Theory,” a track that features Thundercat’s deep and twangy bass and additional vocals from the great George Clinton. It’s a more rhythmic step into the hip-hop/free-jazz crossover that Flying Lotus’ Steven Ellison broke ground on in 2014’s You’re Dead!. Jazz musicians like saxophonist Terrace Martin, pianist Robert Glasper, multi-instrumentalist Kemasi Washington and drummer Larrance Dopson, weave the sonic fabric of TPAB, and it’s a refreshingly live incarnation of hip hop. The music never takes the easy route and instead opts for tastefully crafted and complex smooth grooves. From the sublime convergence of piano and saxophone on “How Much A Dollar Cost” to the uplifting arrangement of “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said),” TPAB is fit for both a jazz club table and a Sunday barbecue.
Kendrick extols the lyrical theme of the struggle for empowerment and eventual success throughout the journey. He questions the allegory of hip hop’s wealth establishment in “Institutionalized” and explains that success ultimately rests on his own shoulders when Bilal sings “Shit don’t change, until you get up and wash your ass, nigga” (presumably a reference to the genius of Redd Foxx.) He has no problem calling out music that doesn’t adhere to his values of meaningful expression and on the cleverly titled “King Kunta,” he shouts: “I can dig rapping, but a rapper with a ghostwriter, what the hell happened?” And this is the crux of who Kendrick Lamar is. This is a man who has worked hard to get to where he is and isn’t content with the available answers. Kendrick Lamar made the album he wanted to make, and this is the rapper I want at the helm of hip hop.
I choose Kendrick Lamar. I choose Kendrick Lamar because he wants to keep hip hop honest. I choose Kendrick Lamar because he’ll expose his own weaknesses and vulnerability for the sake of capturing every side of the story. I choose a rapper who’s not afraid to pour his heart out and cry into the microphone (on “u”) while deconstructing his own shortcomings and failings. I choose a rapper who takes a long hard look at himself on “The Blacker The Berry” and punctuates the fiercest track on the album with the line, “So why did I cry when Trayvon Martin was killed in the street, when gangbangin’ make me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!” I choose a rapper who’s bringing hip hop back to the roots of its once-promising mission of being a catalyst for social change through art and expressionism. I choose Kendrick Lamar because he genuinely gives a fuck and respects what hip hop can still be.
The engaging, creative, often chaotic and visceral To Pimp A Butterfly, concludes with a back-and-forth discussion between Kendrick and clips from a 1994 interview with Tupac Shakur on “Mortal Man.” Think of the idealistic revival in that kitschy Coachella 2Pac hologram performance, but with meaning and purpose to it instead of just something nice to look at and share online. Kendrick presents himself to his hip-hop sensei in conversation, where hip hop is the album’s figurative “butterfly” that’s been sapped of its beauty for the sake of money and perceived success. “I can truly tell you that there’s nothing but turmoil goin’ on, so I wanted to ask you what you think is the future for me and my generation today?” Kendrick asks his elder. While he gains some clarity in the words of his predecessor, the questions never stop, and this is the humanity of Kendrick Lamar. He’s navigating the seas of hip hop with a unique perspective on how things were, are and should be, but he’s not done trying to make sense of his higher purpose as a man and as an artist. He’s living the Socratic maxim that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and no one else in hip hop examines it better.