Review: Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’: Dense, difficult, grandiose


So soon after it was unexpectedly issued late Sunday, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” the new record by Compton-raised rapper and lyricist Kendrick Lamar, is still settling in, less a voluminous whole than a germinal swirl of phrases, grooves, bass lines and themes both personal and political working to find purchase.

“I got a bone to pick!” “I went to war last night.” The bounced-beat chants of “King Kunta!” “Obama say what it do?” The dance hall hook in “The Blacker the Berry”; the revelatory last verse of “For Free.” The frantic strangeness of “u,” which features a raw-throated performance worthy of Martin Sheen’s hotel meltdown in “Apocalypse Now.” “Like a Chevy in quicksand.” “We want the funk!” “What’s the yams?” “I’m black as the heart of a .... Aryan.”

“I know you hate me, don’t you? You hate my people.”

And unbeknownst to most people over 40, in these early days many in a young generation have been doing some extracurricular homework: absorbing every syllable and rhyme of “To Pimp a Butterfly’s” 16 tracks, reveling in Lamar’s cadence and the way he so dexterously rolls through his well-crafted verses. It was the most anticipated rap album of the year, delivered by a mature voice born in Chicago and raised in Compton, one who ditched gangland Los Angeles for a shot at hip hop glory.


If you see a kid with earbuds on, chances are she’s working to figure out whether Kendrick’s new Afro-futuristic direction on the record’s first half is cool with her, or whether the more traditional second half, filled with jams like “Hood Politics” and “How Much a Dollar Cost,” is her speed. As she passes you in the hallway or on the street, she’s contemplating a parable about caterpillars and cocoons, connecting “To Pimp a Butterfly” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” wondering on the artist’s messages and pondering Lamar’s inclusion of the posthumous prediction of the late rapper Tupac Shakur regarding the tone and texture of the next revolution.

A thematically linked record teeming with brass, strings, funk, hip hop, Vocoder nods to Parliament-Funkadelic, and a collection of ideas worthy of operatic adaptation, Lamar’s third studio album is a realm away from his breakout 2012 album “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City,” equally rich and way, way further gone.

Throughout it, Lamar, 27, delivers lyrics filled with a similar experiential honesty and self-critique that propelled him to recognition with his debut album “Section.80” and its five-time Grammy-nominated follow-up “Good Kid...”

From the start, his ambition has been astounding. This record is so expansive that it’s tough to wrestle into shape, even as it overflows with wit, smarts and a masterful skill of the language and phrasing. He plays with his voice, dramatizing the tone of an old man here, trading barbs with himself there. He heaves with feigned breakdown, pinches his throat to move into high-pitched whine. He varies the speed and tempo of his lines like Miles Davis lost inside a solo; one second he’s stretching a few syllables through a four-measure phrase, the next he’s dividing and cramming syllables into quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes.

This third record is less readily catchy than its predecessor, dwells within a bottom-end bass zone created by session-man and co-producer Thundercat. The record depicts Lamar running from the devil (who takes the form of a character named Lucy – short for Lucifer), tracing life “from Compton to Congress,” chiding judges, the LAPD and the rap world’s relentless quest for money. He suffers a claustrophobic near-breakdown in “u” and conducts a mock interview with the late Tupac Shakur on the 12-minute album closer “Mortal Man.”

Like “Good Kid ...” the new record mixes up external and internal realities and features conceptually linked lines and interludes. Musically, it loosens its structures until they’re nearly liquid, tapping into a certain Southern California vibe that mixes the smooth, rolling beats with loose John Coltrane-style jazz. Free-floating brass and drum tones suggestive of beatmaker Flying Lotus, who co-produced opening song “Wesley’s Theory,” permeate the record. Lamar and producers including Terrace Martin, Rhaki, Sounwave, Knxwledge, Boi-1da and Taz Martin employ classic Dr. Dre G-Funk sounds as a springboard -- while simultaneously hinting at Prince’s stubbornly exploratory double-album “Sign o’ the Times.”


He’s not the only one tapping this spirit, but he’s the most verbal. Like kindred musicians Janelle Monae, Flying Lotus and D’Angelo, Lamar is thinking in big picture ideas, the kinds that connect artists as far afield as Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Alice Coltrane, Curtis Mayfield, Lauren Hill and Nas. He makes decisions based not in Top 100 placement but in grand conceits, ignoring flimsy catchiness in favor of weighty aural pedestals packed with memory, history and echoes of souls and sounds past.

Musically, it can be schizophrenic, as if the artist was working hard to tether himself lest he alienate his more conservative fans, those who don’t know Flying Lotus from the Flying Wallendas. But the tethering, which unfolds across the record’s second half, is necessary. Were he to fly too far afield, he’d lose his focus.

The record climaxes with “Mortal Man,” a 12-minute epic that features wondrous Lamar verses about Nelson Mandela, devotion, spiritual enlightenment and power. In the aforementioned “interview” with the late Tupac Shakur, Lamar “questions” a recording of Shakur as a soundtrack gradually rises into a free-jazz jam that seems beamed from 1967. It’s kind of a cheesy conceit.

It’s a fiery conversation, though, in which the two “converse” about, among other things, fame, the fattening of the upper class and the life cycle of the black man’s power. Near the end, Shakur makes a prediction, one sure to fuel right-wing fearmongering for the rest of the year.

“I think that [black men] is tired-a grabbin’ ... out the stores and next time it’s a riot, it’s gonna be like bloodshed, for real. I don’t think America know that. I think America think we was just playing, and it’s gonna be some more playing, but it ain’t gonna be no playing. It’s gonna be murder, you know what I’m saying? It’s gonna be like Nat Turner, 1831 ...”

That’s a dead man talking, though, and Lamar’s fully alive on “To Pimp a Butterfly,” too alive to be a doomsayer.

Whether this is the future or not, the messages Lamar has crafted are, as you read this, being memorized in whole verses by tens of thousands, being repeated between classes whether in Des Moines, Detroit or Inglewood. Anyone seeking to understand the grievances, the frustrations, inspirations and creative power of youth culture should be absorbing every word of “To Pimp a Butterfly.”

What they’ll find is dense, ripe for exploration. Or, as Lamar describes the bounty, “a lot of metaphors leaving miracles metaphysically in a state of euphoria.”

Looking for music tips? Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit