Sixteen songs, 79 minutes, a wealth of ideas, both musical and lyrical… It feels silly to be writing about Kendrick Lamar’s labyrinthine To Pimp a Butterfly after a couple of listens, but this is the Internet, so here we are. And in fairness, an album like this deserves an immediate response — it’s clearly a lot for me to take in, to quote Drake, but also the sort of thing that you find yourself exclaiming in wonder about after just three songs. Though I suspect I’ll be digesting this album for the rest of the year, it’s a testament to Lamar’s writing that despite its lyrical and conceptual ambitions, its themes and ideas come through instantly.
Plenty of artists have confronted the conundrum that Lamar starts from with this record: if your music was inspired by struggle and adversity, and you’ve made it out of that situation, what happens next? But Lamar is far too interesting and intelligent an artist to confine himself to mere solipsism. The result is an album that moves fluidly between the personal and the political — or, perhaps more accurately, weaves them into a single narrative. The questions raised by his rise to fame are certainly considered here, but they also provide jumping-off points for more universal themes. The first is self-respect, which is extrapolated from personal self-respect to African-American self-respect in a society whose oppression is ongoing. The second is the idea that success in his chosen endeavor means buying into an industry that has historically exploited black artists (and, indeed, continues to do so). And the third is the idea that his success has changed his life — and the lives of those associated with him — but beyond that, the world he grew up in still stays the same.
This theme is particularly prominent early in the album. Opener “Wesley’s Theory” and “King Kunta” (references to Wesley Snipes and Kunta Kinte, respectively) examine the idea that fame can be fleeting and can also be a vehicle for exploitation. There are echoes of the “broke nigga racism” and “rich nigga racism” of Kanye West’s “New Slaves,” although if West examines the disposal of income, Lamar seems more interested in its source. The title To Pimp a Butterfly alludes to the title of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and seems to examine the idea that black artists — butterflies — are pimped as long as they are productive. And when they’re done?
The answer comes with the skit “For Free?,” which on first listen plays as a dialogue between Lamar and a demanding, obnoxious woman who only wants him for his money. (It’s not unlike the extended intro to Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker” video.) It’s only on a closer reading that you realize that the woman in question is an analogue for America. As his verse comes to an end, Lamar snarls, “Oh America, you bad bitch, I the picked cotton that made you rich/ Now my dick ain’t free.” In response, the woman screams, “I’mma get my Uncle Sam to fuck you up!” It’s funny and also subtly subversive — I suspect pretty much everyone on first listen will read the woman as being black, when the society she stands for is, of course, largely run by whites.
The resultant struggle for self-respect and self-acceptance is most prominent in sister tracks “u” and “i.” The latter has of course already appeared as a single, and it was largely met with bewilderment when it was released last year. It makes a lot more sense when taken as the yin to “u’s” yang — “u” is a harrowing, unforgiving self-examination wherein Lamar harangues himself in the second person, questioning pretty much everything about his career and his personal life, and at one point deriding himself as “a fucking failure” and “no leader.” In this context, the defiant self-love of “i” is very much a personal endeavor — but, as Lamar notes here, it’s also a sort of latter-day echo of Nas’ “One Love,” urging self-respect and love for “homies that’s in the penitentiary right now… [and] kids that come up to my shows with… slashes on they wrists, saying they don’t want to live no more.”
To Pimp a Butterfly‘s most fascinating device is the poem that Lamar unveils slowly as the album goes on, stanza by stanza, between songs. It reads as a letter, and it’s not until the final track that you find out to whom it’s addressed: none other than Tupac Shakur, Lamar’s great inspiration and artistic forebear. As the album comes to a close, we hear Lamar’s voice intercut with archive recordings from a 1994 interview, creating a sort of imagined dialogue between West Coast heroes past and present. Lamar confesses to “misusing my influence… abusing my power, full of resentment… that turned into a deep depression.” It seems these struggles have ultimately brought him perspective: “[I wanted to] go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned/ The word was respect/ Just because you wore a different gang color than mines/ Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man/ Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets/ If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us.”
As the album goes on, its perspective gradually expands, like an aerial shot that zooms out from a close view of a single neighborhood to reveal the surrounding landscape. In this case, the larger landscape is just as bleak as it is when viewed close up — the implication, surely, is that black oppression is a global problem, and that one rapper making it out of the ghetto doesn’t change that one little bit. Lamar alludes to a visit to South Africa to see Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for decades. The outro of “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” makes this connection clear, drawing an analogy between the ghettos of the USA and the war-blighted nations of Africa: “Barefoot babies with no cares/ Teenage gun toters that don’t play fair, should I get out the car?/ I don’t see Compton, I see something much worse/The land of the landmines, the hell that’s on earth.”
None of this, of course, even begins to address the musical side of the equation, which is a whole separate source of satisfaction. There are allusions to the sound of ’70s funk throughout, both subtle and less so (George Clinton guests on “Wesley’s Theory,” and “King Kunta” borrows the outro of Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker).”) Parts of it are reminiscent of the music Gil Scott-Heron was making in the 1970s, marrying a delivery that’s almost spoken word over airy, freeform jazz tracks. There’s certainly something notable about the fact that the two most powerful and fascinating political records of the last few months — namely this album and D’Angelo’s Black Messiah — have taken sonic inspiration from the sounds of the 1970s. That’s a subject for another piece, perhaps; for now, for goodness sake, stop reading and download this album already.