In a recent lecture for my poetry module, the lecturer managed to stray from the topic of Gilgamesh and the early history of poetry, to rap. What followed was some bizarre anti-rap music rant, bandying around brash claims like “misogyny and violence are the life-blood of hip-hop.” While my main concern at this point was to subtly zip up my coat to shamefully conceal my fetching tee sporting a Renaissance style painting of Kanye West in a suit of armour, this off-topic tirade in a poetry lecture stands as evidence of a saddening ignorance some have of the poetic brilliance some rappers have.
Kendrick Lamar’s albums can arguably stand toe to toe with not only the best of modern music, but also the best of modern literature. His last album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, is a cinematic portrayal of life as a teenager in Compton, California amongst the stresses of peer pressure, family, gang violence, sex, and ambition. Through a range of characters and voices, styles and genres, blending memoir, satire, and poetry, it is easily the best concept rap album of all time. That is, perhaps, until To Pimp a Butterfly. Kendrick’s latest offering is an album in the truest sense of the word. It is not just a collection of tracks, it is a thematically and musically cohesive odyssey, which takes Kendrick’s previous focus on life in Compton and explodes it to encompass the whole of black America.
As Shakespeare’s plays start with a short scene to set the tone and to establish some of the key themes, To Pimp a Butterfly fades in with a brief looped sample of the soul-funk song Every N***** is a Star by Boris Gardiner. This immediately signals the album’s concerns of race and self-affirmation, and the adoption of a jazzier G-funk genre. We are quickly segued into the opener, Wesley’s Theory, which critiques the entertainment industry for exploiting and twisting black culture. It features some stellar vocals from funk veteran George Clinton, sounding cooler than ever, and bass from Thundercat, who is becoming something of a nu-jazz legend.
The jazz influences on the album are most obvious on the second track, For Free. Starting with screeching saxophones and free jazz drumming, it then slips into an infectious bebop style groove, complete with jazz piano and upright bass. The lyrics dramatise a domestic argument between a woman and her man as she demands more of his money without offering him love or respect, cleverly reflecting the music industry’s “pimping” of black culture as seen in the first song. Kendrick spits his lines like a beat poet at break neck speed, between crooning the songs’ hook: “This. Dick. Ain’t. Free.” A crude phrase, perhaps, but one which encompasses a number of the album’s concerns: sexuality, money, relationships, and freedom in general.
The first single to drop before the album was i: an anthem of self-affirmation and self-love in a style not dissimilar to Outkast. I loved the single version, but the album’s rerecording with live instrumentation and the use of a live audience gives the song an even more powerful effect, as if it were being performed at a rally or protest. While race is an essential theme to the album (the title To Pimp a Butterfly obviously alluding to Harper Lee’s racially concerned To Kill a Mockingbird), to interpret the album as a generalised moan about being black in America would be overly simplistic. While the track i is a celebration of blackness and individuality, it is countered by The Blacker The Berry, an exploration of racialized self-hatred. Kendrick boldly confronts what he perceives to be certain hypocrisies in the African American community, with cutting lines such as: “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street, / When gang banging make me kill a n**** blacker than me?” On this track, Kendrick swaps his usual high nasal tone of voice for one seething with anger.
Another prominent theme is personal responsibility, especially the responsibility that comes with fame. For example, in u Kendrick reflects on the times he hasn’t been there for his loved ones because of his newfound wealth. He shrieks the hook, “loving you is complicated,” above deep dirty synths, an improvising saxophone, and jazz flute. The second half of the track has Kendrick adopt the voice of a family member, weeping and drunk, his voice cracking, angry at Kendrick’s negligence, the sound of a bottle chinking as he pours another drink. Similarly, on the track These Walls he explores how the allure of sex distracts from his wider responsibilities as a human being. He’s asking himself how he can justify complaining about issues of race and consumerism if he’s too distracted to do anything about it, something we can all relate to. Change won’t come unless it’s initiated. Or as he quotes his grandma on the track Institutionalized: “Shit don’t change until you get up and wash your ass.”
Perhaps the most innovative feature of the album is a poem which is recited, bit by bit, at the end of certain tracks. At each recital another line is added, with the last added line hinting at the themes and concerns of the next song. This recital is completed in the last track, where we learn that Kendrick has been reciting it, and perhaps the whole album, to the late Tupac Shakur, an idol for Kendrick, both as a rapper and a political activist for black rights. Kendrick takes snippets from a 1994 interview with Tupac, tying them together and inserting his own questions. This gives an eerie and uncanny, yet strangely empowering impression that Kendrick is actually conversing with Tupac. In doing so he explicitly places himself within a legacy of rap music being used for self-reflection, examination of one’s identities and communities, self-empowerment, and being proud of who one is. With To Pimp a Butterfly, without preaching or ranting, he is harnessing the power art has to positively change the world.
I feel like To Pimp a Butterfly is an album we need. Although it focuses specifically on black culture, that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant to people who aren’t black. As the title of an earlier Kendrick Lamar single says: “Fuck your ethnicity.” While we can’t deny the pervasiveness of race and identity politics, we need to look beyond creed and colour (and gender, and sexuality, and wealth) as a common division between people. This is an album relevant to everyone. In a world of confusion, lacking in sense and meaning, we need art like this to help us find our bearings, and to show us something of where we were, and a glimpse of where we’re going.