It’s been three years since Kendrick Lamar released an album. His debut good kid, m.A.A.d city set a pace that everyone has found difficult to keep to. Though for K-Dot himself? He’s gone from following a story of a young Lamar running amok in the infamous streets of Compton to addressing socially sensitive issues and more emotional concepts. As leaps go, it’s a pretty good one.
Taking a hugely different direction from his previous work, To Pimp A Butterfly echoes with the sonic influences of his collaborators Flying Lotus and Thundercat. The haphazard jazz elements and the components of West Coast funk give it a whole new lane to explore, creating a collection that shimmers with creativity, unpredictability, and heaps of socially astute rhymes. Bare bones? Kendrick creates classics. This new album is no different.
K-Dot wastes no time in being acerbic – he kicks off the album with Wesley’s Theory, a song directed at exploitation in the music industry, discussing the corruption of a young, talented artist and becoming essentially “pimped” by the industry. It’s a pattern he follows throughout the record, as he continues to bring up topics that are close to the bone but dealt with precision. All, of course, while skipping over the intricate, complex production with elaborate rhyme schemes and tongue-twisting delivery that just comes naturally.
Like that stark cover and the Harper Lee parallel of the title, this is an album that deals with hip-hop culture and the current climate for young black America. With tracks like The Blacker The Berry and Complexion (A Zulu Love) speaking on the beauty standards expected from certain sections of society, Lamar taps into very real concerns and deals with them in a surprisingly commercial way. On the other end of the spectrum there’s still the classic rap tropes: King Kunta, for example, lending some references to 18th century slavery whilst still owning the concept of claiming the throne. Essentially, the transition he’s undergone from being just a young boy in Compton to being one of the biggest players in the game.
That there’s been appreciation from the likes of Questlove all the way to Taylor Swift speaks volumes about the legacy of Kendrick Lamar. He might still be maturing as an artist – and there are parts of this album that need to fit better to form an cohesive unit – but it’s very telling that the album ends with Lamar interviewing the ghost of Tupac. Sure, that might sound like a ridiculous sentence but, like it or not, he seems to be the only person in the current landscape that’s fit to have a conversation with legends.