In March, Jezebel published the very best and most immediately honest review of To Pimp a Butterfly, the album that Kendrick Lamar is now touring in his eight-city run of “Kunta's Groove Sessions.” Last night Lamar performed in New York.
You’ll recall that To Pimp a Butterfly leaked just 24 hours before its official release date, March 15, and that most major music websites published their reviews of the album within three days of the leak. On such an immediate deadline for filing a feature-length album review, it’s nearly impossible for a young critic to stunt. At Jezebel, Clover Hope just wrote the truth.
With bits of personal and political context interspersed, Hope framed her review as a first-take impression of the “overwhelming blackness” of an album about funk and self-destruction. “This initial feeling is suffocating,” Hope wrote. “It’s the essence of Dis Tew Much.”
I think most fans and critics would agree that Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly is, indeed, overwhelming. I reviewed To Pimp a Butterfly in about 72 hours. In that narrow band of time, I "got" the album's messages and themes but couldn’t grasp the motivations for the album’s sound. Why, in 2015, would a recently platinum-selling rapper make a jazz album with Lalah Hathaway, Ron Isley, and George Clinton?
In its entirety, To Pimp a Butterfly isn't a conventionally enjoyable record; it is, essentially, the screams of an agonized man performing open-heart surgery on himself. But if Kendrick's mission was to make his listeners publicly uncomfortable and exceptionally thoughtful, then To Pimp a Butterfly seems to have backfired: We offered nothing but applause.
To Pimp a Butterfly is, undeniably, an important album. It's also frustrating, painful, chaotic, and wildly derivative of so many black musical influences that Kendrick Lamar barely elevates. Songs like "Institutionalized" and "Complexion" are sleepier than compassionate critics might've wanted to admit when the album dropped. I’m not saying that no one loves To Pimp a Butterfly. I’m saying that no one enjoys this album as much as we'd hoped we'd enjoy it in March.
I’m not saying that no one loves To Pimp a Butterfly. I’m saying that no one enjoys this album as much as we'd hoped we'd enjoy it in March.
Four months earlier, D’Angelo had released his surprise comeback album, Black Messiah, a protest record with a thousand doses of political concern and despair. In most reviews, whether ambivalent or glowing about the music itself, critics linked Black Messiah to the Civil Rights movement and, variously, described D'Angelo's album as perfectly timed and especially black. We echoed one another, as we clamored over the record's importance.
So when Kendrick Lamar delivered his free jazz rap album that sounds like Freestyle Fellowship, Gift of Gab, the Native Tongues, Terence Blanchard, Bahamadia, and Suga Free—which is to say that it sounds nothing like contemporary hip-hop—I expected a second surge of dramatic praise given Kendrick Lamar's pronounced concern with "the Ferguson moment." In the months following the release of Kendrick's first couple singles, "i" and "The Blacker The Berry," Kendrick's music would become somewhat beside the point of our subsequent conversations about Kendrick's ideas and pop leadership potential.
At Passion of the Weiss, the rap critic B.J. Steiner panned Kendrick’s album (“that only intermittently succeeds”) and then suffered a ton of hate tweets for his disliking the musicianship of To Pimp a Butterfly, separating it from the record's importance to black people and to hip-hop culture. I’ll say: It’s strange watching people wholeheartedly defend a thing before they'd full known what to make of it.
At Slate, the music critic Carl Wilson asked, “How should white listeners approach the ‘overwhelming blackness’ of Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant new album?” and that’s when I realized that To Pimp a Butterfly had instantly become the biggest paradox of 2015: This bizarre and supposedly “challenging” album was universally acclaimed and, apparently, unimpeachable.
Two days after Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly, the blog Rap Music Hysteria published two posts and one particularly memorable assessment of all the fawning that followed. “Some very talented and ambitious people worked on this album for over a year,” homeboy wrote.” “A ‘this is gay’ Tweet would be more profound than some platitudes and reductive abstractions cobbled together over a 24-hour period.”
I empathized and was implicated. At Rap Music Hysteria, the blogger's frustration with the massive, term-paper theorizing of To Pimp a Butterfly resembles the irritation I feel whenever someone shares a link to an article that they refuse to describe or characterize in any terms other than “must-read.”
Kendrick Lamar released the “must-read” album of 2015. What a grotesque reduction, I thought.
Upon the album's release, the music journalist Rawiya Kameir suggested that To Pimp a Butterfly is "critic-proof," throwing certain hurdles at white and middle-class listeners. "How do you assess something that is not addressed to you?" Kameir asked.
But that's the job. As bloggers and critics and general spectators of the world around us, we assess messages that aren’t addressed to us all the time, be they in the form of "dog-whistle" political rhetoric or songs written for a core fanbase. Much of the other black protest music that the writer Rembert Browne mentioned in his Grantland analysis of “The Blacker the Berry,” for instance, is simultaneously radical and enjoyable. Would anyone sincerely regard Nina Simone or Public Enemy as critic-proof? Or Lauryn Hill, for instance: Her most insightful and challenging songs are generally enjoyable as fuck.
Clover Hope’s candor about Kendrick’s album reminded me of the critic Wesley Morris’ review of Fruitvale Station, the 2013 film about the 2009 death of Oscar Grant at the hands of transit police officers in Oakland. This actually happened, it’s painful to read about, and seeing Grant’s final hours meticulously dramatized on screen is just about all that a compassionate observer could want to witness of a man’s unjust demise.
By design, Fruitvale Station isn't enjoyable. Unlike much of the general praise of the film, Morris’ criticism hints that Fruitvale Station may indeed be a flawed bit of filmmaking, but Oscar Grant's story is important nonetheless. Wesley Morris thus begins his review: “Sometimes what’s wrong with a movie suddenly no longer matters.”
Fruitvale Station is An Important Film, and To Pimp a Butterfly is An Important Album. I understand the urge to defend such artwork on the strength of its social urgency alone. I do regret, however, that we seem to have papered over much of Kendrick's finer, singular turmoil on songs like "How Much a Dollar Cost," a song about grace, and "i," a song against self-harm, in favor of reading a hot mess of buzzwords about identity. This is, for better and worse, the foremost concern of online writing and performance in 2015.
In this “year (when) we obsessed over identity,” blackness was briefly, modestly profitable as a sort of critical preset—rather like a microwave’s “popcorn” button. Upon the release of such a spectacularly black album, I'd have been thrilled with the remarkable diversity of our review bylines if the subsequent discussion of To Pimp a Butterfly hadn't been so monotonous, solicited by editors with minimal interest in "diversity" as a sustained and thankless effort. I watched publications metabolize white guilt as empty calories. Which is pretty much the status quo.
Ultimately, Complex awarded Kendrick’s latest album 4.5 stars out of five, and we stand by what I wrote in March. But here I’ll add that I enjoyed much of the earlier music that I discovered or revisited thanks to To Pimp a Butterfly more than I enjoy Kendrick’s album itself. I’ll insist that, as a musician and public intellectual, Kendrick Lamar seems to have way more in common with Chuck D than with 2Pac, so the whole “Mortal Man” narrative strikes me as a strange embrace. And, finally, I’ll note that, for such an instantly classic record, To Pimp a Butterfly buckles without “King Kunta” and “Alright.”
I’d be eliding if I wrote otherwise. You ain’t gotta lie to kick it, my n***a.