Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly – ALBUM REVIEW
By David R J Sealey
Sometimes art can be so dense that when you first encounter it, it causes you to recoil in horror and question just what exactly the fuck it was that you just experienced. What the hell just happened? What, exactly, does it want?
With To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar sets his goals right out on front street, just next to that run-down bar with the furniture from the Thirties. He wants nothing short of a jazz revolution; an uprising of wild rhythms, primal funk and lyrical fury. He seethes and rages, scorns and scats, rallying the masses with tales of repression and anti-police rhetoric that feel exceptionally relevant.
On this, his third full record, Lamar lives life in the moment, drawing influences from all corners of hip hop’s history. In turns, he evokes the spectral jazz melodies of Duke Ellington, the big Compton beats of Dr. Dre, the revivalist R&B of the omnipresent Pharrell Williams, and the crisp modern production of luminaries such as Flying Lotus. To Pimp A Butterfly is a heady cocktail of the old and new; a classic Martini on the rocks, a shot of Hennessy and a lungful of pure funk
First track Wesley’s Theory tells the modern moral tale of Wesley Snipes’ downfall at the hands of the taxman. The mutating, funky production opens the door to the jazz club whilst doffing its cap to Lamar’s previous record good kid, m.A.Ad city before the man himself bursts onto the stage with the incredible For Free? – Interlude. The track sees the rapper duelling a drumkit with incredibly complex lyrical dexterity and a ‘this dick ain’t free’ refrain that shows he still has that wry sense of humour.
Big single King Kunta ebbs and flows with an intentional tribal groove as it effortlessly oozes Michael Jackson parodies, references to the seminal Roots, and subtle lead guitar buried deep in the mix. Institutionalized features Bilal, Anna Wise and Snoop Dogg meandering over a sensational funk-fuelled dreamscape created by producer Rahki. And ‘shit dont change until you get up and wash your ass’, apparently written by Lamar’s grandmother, might just be one of the best choruses of all time. It also might not.
It’s not all plain sailing through the velvet night, however. The problem with travelling blind is that you sometimes get lost and, to be honest, some songs lost me. At 16 tracks, one of which is 12 minutes long, the record is a little flabby. Tracks like These Walls and You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said) are pure blubber. Others, like Complexion (A Zulu Love), are perilously close to retreading familiar lyrical ground, and bring nothing new to the party.
That being said, the album does its level best not to outstay its welcome. As it creeps over the halfway mark, tracks begin to alternate in quality, dashing and raising your hopes again and again; it is end to end. How Much A Dollar Cost is a scathing critique of poverty dressed up in narrative finery, and singles The Blacker the Berry and i are alternately furiously funny and joyously uplifting. The evolving spoken-word pieces woven in between songs add to the sense of an overarching sense of personality, of Kendrick Lamar himself – each song a little piece of his soul.
And not just his soul, but the souls of the many incredibly talented and varied artists that made this record a reality. To Pimp a Butterfly is a modern-day masterpiece; a Bayeaux tapestry of jazz and rap, and the array of names that litter the album credits (Rapsody, the Isley brothers and Pete Rock included) all deserve a big piece of the praise.
To find the future of hip-hop, Kendrick Lamar has travelled deep into the past – the Marty McFly of hip-hop, with Flying Lotus as his Doc Brown.