“Every n***** is a star”. From the opening lyric to Kendrick Lamar’s latest album it’s immediately apparent this is an album about race. Yet where other artists (I’m looking at you Kanye) have created abrasive and aggressive works on the subject, Lamar makes a political statement whilst maintaining integrity, subtlety and musicality.
Where ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ was a personal album on gang life in Compton, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ sees Lamar exploring his position in society, specifically as a black man. It’s a broader theme but with a far wider cultural reach. He questions the media’s exploitation of race, racial stereotypes and utilises slave imagery to make his point – and that’s just in the first handful of tracks. From there, this is a story of his own redemption, his growth as an artist, escaping the Hood Politics of his past into a (potentially) brighter future.
The album’s central conceit is epitomised by the contrasting lyrics of u and i. The former track begins with a series of screams and it soon becomes clear that the “you” of the title is himself as he delves into the darkest corners of his own mind, berating himself (“loving you is complicated”). It’s in contrast with the latter track, lead single i, that’s tellingly the penultimate of the album – finally he’s found peace (“I love myself”). But that comes after his most spiteful moment, The Blacker The Berry, on which he scrutinises racial self-hatred and the impact of gang culture – “the blacker the berry, the bigger I shoot”. Together with previous track Complexion (“complexion don’t mean a thing”), it proves that he’s the “biggest hypocrite of 2015”, the album as a whole reflecting the contradictions of life as an African-American.
Of course, race and black anger is a typical theme within hip-hop, but Lamar takes things a step further with form. Where ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ used skits to create a cinematic approach to music, here the lyrical content is more introspective and poetic with an overarching narrative of, to use the title, a butterfly breaking free of the cocoon of institutionalised racism and politics. The album’s central message is conveyed in a poem repeated in snippets throughout the album, a unifying statement. There’s thematic depth here that requires repeated listening to comprehend, but it proves far more rewarding than the shouted rants of other similar hip hop artists. This is an album that surely resonates with a wider cultural context.
Racial politics are inherent within the music too. Just as Lamar looks at his own past to consider his future, musically he re-appropriates traditionally black genres: funk, r&b, jazz and, of course, hip-hop. It lends the album a palatable old school flavour, full of bubbling basslines, relaxed beats and a semi-improvised jazz sensibility that reflects the lyrical stream of consciousness. Production-wise, the likes of Prince and Michael Jackson are big influences – the latter in particular is quoted on numerous occasions. It has a more consistent tone than the previous album, but equally it’s missing an anthem akin to Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe or Swimming Pools (Drank). Combined, though, the tracks make a far more powerful statement – bristling, snarling, angry, yet equally sexy.
Final track Mortal Man is more of a coda; a beautifully sombre track that references the likes of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr and John F. Kennedy, before launching into a conversation with Tupac (sampled from a 1994 interview). Through this, Lamar is positioning himself not only as the next king of hip-hop but as a great black leader. It’s a moment of braggadocio that undermines the subtlety of the rest of the album and comes off as preaching. It’s unnecessary; even without it he's the most important rapper of our time.
* These Walls
Listen: ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is available now.