Label: TDE, Aftermath, Interscope
Producers: The Antydote, Boi-1da, Flying Lotus, Flippa, KOZ, Knxwledge, Larrance Dopson, LoveDragon, Pharrell Williams, Rahki, Sounwave, Tommy Black, Terrace Martin, Tae Beast, Taz Arnold, Thundercat, Whoarei
Features: George Clinton, Thundercat, Bilal, Anna Wise, Snoop Dogg, James Fauntleroy, Ronald Isley, Rapsody
If Section.80 and Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City established Kendrick as a technician and storyteller, To Pimp a Butterfly reinvented him as a conduit. Much of the fanfare for the album centered around how unabashedly black it was, but the true thrust of the record is how nimbly it articulates that blackness. Diaspora is traditionally defined in terms of shared geographic origins, but Kendrick portrays blackness as a shared experience—of pain, of joy, of rage, of will. Forcefully he springs back and forth through time and space, connecting Wesley Snipes to Kunta Kinte to Tupac to Nelson Mandela to Kendrick himself. The rhythms of funk, the audacity of rap, the pain of soul, the ecstasy of gospel, and even the theatrics of spoken word propel this journey, and it’s a marvel how effortlessly these traditions fit together. Hip-hop has been an omni-archive of blackness since Bronx DJs first pilfered their parents’ record collections, but few artists have brought that archive to life as vividly as Kendrick. To Pimp a Butterfly doesn't just invoke blackness, it feels it, giving it texture, temperature, and depth.
There's a staggering amount of voices on this record and Kendrick singularly channels them all, slurring, tweaking, bending, and twisting his own voice to find the precise timbre for every speaker. The record falters when Kendrick’s one-man show feels like exactly that (black women are mostly just vessels for his enemy Lucy, for instance), and the butterfly metaphor is nonsensical and convoluted. (Caterpillars pimp butterflies out of jealousy, thus depriving themselves and butterflies of freedom? Wut?) But these blemishes feel like limits more than failures. At its best this record is a nuanced rebuke of the post-racial fantasy inaugurated alongside the nation’s first black president. Kendrick uses blackness as a sword and shield, dismantling the false promises of the American dream and building a cautious hope from the black lives that somehow endure the dream’s deception. The record is an unwieldy blob, but isn't that the story of blackness? —Stephen Kearse