Could you kill the person sitting next to you? Physically, mentally, spiritually: Could you go through with it? And then, could you live with yourself?
I am safe and fortunate enough to have never truly, dreadfully contemplated such a question as an immediately practical concern; and so, I imagine, are most of our readers. I wish I could say the same for Kendrick Lamar, who, in his music, often wrestles with death and destrudo as if his studio were the dreadful belly of a ghost that has him trapped. Kendrick Lamar has witnessed death, he has suffered its proximate consequences, and he has lived to resent its power over him and the ones he loves.
To Pimp a Butterfly is the avant-garde insanity that naturally results when such a fiercely eloquent introvert, animated by wrath, gets his hands on Olde English 800 and three saxophones. Kendrick's construction of the blackest rap album since Watch the Throne is, thankfully, not the heavy-handed Maya Angelou impersonation implied whenever spoken word poets and the like articulate "blackness" as a defensive shtick, when really blackness is everything. To Pimp a Butterfly is a tour of that everything; the album is black insomuch as the album is a cosmic slop of nearly every musical movement that we Negroes have founded on this continent. From the field spirituals to Gil-Scott Heron, to Graham Central Station and Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man, through the life and rhymes of DJ Quik, Mausberg, and Suga Free. A Spike Lee joint, in other words, with a couple tracks ("Hood Politics," "How Much a Dollar Cost") sounding in fact like the very best of Lee's composer Terence Blanchard.
With all its superfly flourish and talk of Willie Lynch, Butterfly is heady and ambitious, if not unprecedented as subject matter. As promised, Butterfly is (somehow) darker and more thoroughly conflicted than good kid. “I remember you was conflicted,” Kendrick chants between tracks. “Misusing your influence,” admitting that he, like his idols, has rotted due to resentment, which has finally left him depressed. Where good kid, m.A.A.d. city was literature of a time, a place, and precious personal details, the Kendrick Lamar of To Pimp a Butterfly is a disembodied outpouring of rage, dread, and irreverence. In such a scrambled state, no one can get through to Kendrick Lamar: not his father, not Dr. Dre. He is alienated by fame and the sort of distance created by a world tour.
Where good kid, m.A.A.d. city was literature of a time, a place, and precious personal details, the Kendrick Lamar of To Pimp a Butterfly is a disembodied outpouring of rage, dread, and irreverence.
On "Institutionalized," he confesses: “I’m trapped inside the ghetto, and I ain’t proud to admit it/Institutionalized: I keep running back for a visit.” Kendrick’s dense talk of walls, paradoxes, and inexhaustible contradictions might require an uptown therapist to unpack: his various barriers to understanding, and lapses of his own compassion. A month ago, critics honed in on the egregious twist-ending of the “The Blacker the Berry," in which Kendrick spits and declares himself a hypocrite for his supposed role in the implosions of black life, so how dare he protest white power. Butterfly is a Gordian knot of such equivocations, culminating with “Mortal Man,” a finale that's as much a suicide note as it is a proud manifesto for the radicals of future, happier generations.
On “u,” written as the antecedent contrast to “i,” Kendrick howls, gnashes, and berates: “Loving you is complicated!” For every other spiritual nadir, however, Butterfly leads us to a modest peak. Producer Boi-1da and dancehall reaper Assassin assist in Kendrick’s blowing his ambivalence to smithereens on "The Blacker the Berry." Rahki produced "i," the album's one thoroughly joyous moment; in the context of an album that's an onslaught of spiritual crises and black thoughts, the song is a welcome, well-timed breakthrough that's rather like stepping outside to meet friends and fresh air.
For an album that’s so manic and tremendous, a few of Butterfly's soulquarian cuts run rather like speedbumps. While "How Much a Dollar Cost" is contemplative and effectively tender, “Institutionalized” and “Momma” are too mellow to suit an album that’s as bombastic and terrifying at its best. Even the new, extended version of “i” ends not with that ecstatic wail from the don Ron Isley, but with a crowd brawl that suddenly derails Kendrick's "live" set. Aghast as he stands at the mic, Kendrick squashes the fight by shouting a question: "How many niggas we done lost, bro? This year alone," though the question is regrettably timeless. Kendrick’s head and heart are heavy; his darkest hours are brilliant and strange.