Kendrick Lamar may not be the Best Rapper Alive, but except for a few thesaurus users from the hip-hop underground he may very well be the most intellectual. No other rapper right now, major-label or otherwise, is so committed to straightforward, observational analysis. Whether pondering the state of Black America or examining his own immortal soul, he seems to think everything through, presenting his songs evenly, carefully, keeping an open mind. Sometimes he will throw the occasional temper tantrum, and he’s not above trashing his rivals or screaming his head off about racism as the case may be. But even then he’s dealing in heavy concept, usually meant to illustrate some larger point. Always he comes across as a real, thoughtful, vulnerable human being.
That doesn’t mean he is one, of course, at least not the same one he presents on his new album, To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s an artificially constructed persona, a clear variation on a hip-hop authenticity fixation that has in the past revealed itself in gangsta rap’s tough talk as well as alternative rap’s irritable insularity, against both of which Lamar’s own peculiar brand of realism is a reaction. Nevertheless, he simulates authenticity so skillfully that hearing him rap feels refreshing and down-to-earth; knowing full well this is a world-famous rapper you’re listening to, you imagine an ordinary Compton resident facing everyday ghetto life and avoiding street crime. In a February 2013 New York Times op-ed called “Hip-Hop Speaks to the Guns,” Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that Lamar plays the victim of violence where most rappers play the perpetrator. Since To Pimp a Butterfly doesn’t focus specifically on gang warfare like its predecessor, 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, let’s adjust “victim” to the more comprehensive “everyman.” Marked by Lamar’s sharp, astute eye for telling details and lucid commentary, the album portrays, contemplates, and addresses an African-American community in crisis.
Having drawn Dr. Dre’s attention in 2010 with the release of his Overly Dedicated mixtape, Lamar quickly became a critical darling when the music journalism world noticed his official debut, 2011’s independently released Section.80. Dre promptly signed him to the Aftermath label and by extension its parent corporation Interscope, giving him and his fellow possemates in the Black Hippy group access to an audience wider and more diverse than the average rap audience, thanks to Lamar’s propensity for what used to be called conscious rap before interlopers started blurring the categories. good kid, m.A.A.d city, his first major-label offering, received massive acclaim and went platinum in less than a year, during which time he garnered even more publicity by touring with Kanye West. He’s hardly the most commercial presence in the rap game; the closest thing he’s had to a smash hit was 2012’s “Swimming Pools (Drank),” which peaked at #17 on the Billboard Hot 100. His albums generally outsell his singles, although his guest appearances tend to stir up trouble (c.f. his verse on Big Sean’s “Control,” in which he just read off a list of other rappers doomed for proscription, one of whom was Big Sean). His music isn’t loud, brash, or swaggering enough to make a sizable dent in hip-hop radio, not to mention the club circuit where so much modern rap gets commercially validated, nor does he appeal to alternarap bohemians who are theoretically down with his verbal smarts and fondness for slam poetry, but uncomfortable with the underclass empathy implied by his loyalty to the black ghetto where he grew up. But his modest everyman act converts plenty of fans, and critics adore him. If To Pimp a Butterfly isn’t the flawless masterpiece it’s been hailed to be — it’s loaded with spoken-word interludes that interrupt the music’s natural flow, and the second half drags — it’s a tremendously brave and exquisite record regardless.
On good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lamar tells a story, a straightforward narrative so dominant he took to calling the album a “short film.” Step by step, turn by turn, he recounts the epic tale of how he got sucked into gang warfare as a Compton adolescent and how he eventually escaped, starting when he meets a girlfriend with gang connections and ending when he has an epiphany about the authenticity myth behind gang life. The beats, haunting as they string together tuneful electronic sparkle, warbly femme backup, and crackling drum machines, provide a constant musical backdrop that shifts with Lamar’s rhymes in tandem, a physical setting symbolic of the rundown neighborhood where the story takes place. To Pimp a Butterfly isn’t quite so unified — declining the burden of heavy narrative, this time around he writes standard observational/evocative songs, each addressing different aspects of the ghetto and its culture. Finally, the Black Lives Matter movement has its flagship album; Lamar doesn’t just attack racism, he analyzes it from three or four angles at once, keeps chewing on it long after a lesser rapper would have moved on to the next free-associative topic, and then wonders if he might be complicit himself. He explains how the societal pressures of being a black man can adversely affect one’s mental health. He weighs the pros and cons of giving money to panhandlers. He urges his compatriots to climb the upwardly mobile class ladder even as he wonders whether or not that can even happen anymore. He slams hip-hop braggadocio and worries about the media’s treatment of black celebrities. He fantasizes throughout about attacking the police. Other recent worthy contenders to the title of Best Political Rap Album, like Kanye West’s Yeezus and Run the Jewels’ RTJ2, squander their outreach potential in crude irony and crude synthbeats, respectively. By contrast, To Pimp a Butterfly moves elegantly, with a delicacy that undermines its punch hardly a smidgen.
Kicking off with a carefully chosen sample from Jamaican reggae crooner Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger is a Star” (itself making veiled reference to Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everybody is a Star,” a glorious beam of escapist sunshine that’s not ironic but corrective), To Pimp a Butterfly crackles into action as lead track “Wesley’s Theory” lays on slippery bass, glassy piano, and a spoken intro courtesy of George Clinton in prophet mode. The following album is lighter and calmer than most hip-hop and maybe a little slower too, avoiding straightforward hummable hooks in favor of a softer, more coloristic style. Frequently the beats drop out between songs so that Lamar can read his poetic interludes unaccompanied, which, along with the endless snippets of recorded dialogue from a 1994 2Pac interview spliced into the closing “Mortal Man,” lends the whole project a weighty aura of self-consciousness. Lamar’s raps deserve better. But the music itself shimmers, wails, and prevails anyway. Far from the clean, minimalist loops that musically dominate most hip-hop, including much of good kid, m.A.A.d. city, the beats on To Pimp a Butterfly are more than just beats; they form their own rich, warm, sui generis groove. Always foregrounding some electronic rhythmatic riff, Lamar also includes a decisive number of live musicians, nudging the music in different directions and sometimes transforming it entirely — Thundercat’s bass, Robert Glasper’s piano, and especially the high, thin, wistful horns of Terrance Martin and Kamasi Washington all squiggle through the mix with magically jazzlike dissonance, creating a sonic environment that evokes the intellectual/aspirational/communitarian side of the African-American hood as deeply as good kid, m.A.A.d. city’s cold jeepbeats do its alienated youth. Those breathy bursts of saxophone juxtaposed with glittering keyboard arpeggios on “Institutionalized” typify the workings of a studio-tweaked band whose airy cadence freely swings between bubbly-cool and edgy-angular, between bitter and pretty.
And by placing his own voice in the center of this constructed musical world, Lamar symbolically situates himself smack in the dead center of the ghetto. Defiantly, implacably, ideologically, with unbending reliability, he stands by his ordinary everyman persona — when he assumes the voice of his whole neighborhood, when he reassures his fellow strugglers that everything will be all right, when he projects his own thoughts onto a little boy on the street who resembles him, when the pressure gets to him and he suffers a psychotic breakdown. Just as he openly admits to a crippling anxiety he blames on growing up in a war zone, so for a hip-hop voice his is rather nonmacho; usually his rickety bursts of rhyme gush forth with the rhythms of casual conversation, but when the beat builds he’ll speed up a little and then there’s no stopping his nervous, nerdy outpouring verbiage. Although he lowers pitch when he’s angry, most of the time he chatters away in a mousy bleat, enunciating consonants more clearly than the current fashion without sounding remotely bookish. This is not the voice of a rapper in control. It’s the voice of a rapper totally scared out of his mind, a rapper who holds his breath whenever he walks down the street, a rapper who recognizes hip-hop bluster as a defensive reaction designed to keep its practitioners alive yet who chooses instead to express more immediate emotions, like sheer terror. The jumpy energy in his voice sticks instantly in the mind’s ear, and it strains against the breezy calm of the music to gripping effect. Sinking his lyrical fangs into the impressionistic jazz-rap pastiche before him, he just won’t let go.
To Pimp a Butterfly is a violently irresistible, immensely moving rap jewel. Its greatest strength lies not in the beauty of the music itself, accomplished and engaging and sonically cool though it may be, nor in the veracity or acuity of Lamar’s ideas, no matter what the critics diving into their Token Rapper’s new dissertation think. Rather, the album is special for the way it creates a tone — a tense, brave, intelligent, gritty, alert tone. Having never lived in or even been to Compton myself, I have no idea whether the feeling Lamar captures in his music accurately reflects the character of his actual neighborhood. Artistically, however, that feeling achieves a measure of compelling social realism that could make you think twice about dismissing claims of authenticity even though you know Lamar’s authenticity is a construction. As long as he can maintain this tone, he’ll be an artist worthy of the audience that loves him.