Kendrick Lamar, despite the break between his masterstroke of a debut and its follow-up, To Pimp a Butterfly, wastes no time in issuing his new album’s mission statement. “Every nigga is a star,” Lamar reminds by inserting a sample from Jamaican singer Boris Gardiner. Throughout his new album, Lamar makes the deliberate decision to subvert all prior notions of what a follow-up to a critically and commercially successful debut should be, leaving us with an album that demonstrates the artist’s depth and impeccable ability to compose cohesive, powerful albums that deftly explore crucial elements of the modern American society.
Only an artist at the top of their craft could develop something quite like this. For what can be considered a mainstream rap album, Butterfly is decidedly insular. Despite that fact, the line between the personal and the political is as blurred now as it ever has been for rap artists, causing Lamar’s inner reflections, of himself and his community, to stand for something greater than its many parts. It is remarkable, then, that To Pimp a Butterfly never caves from the enormous weight it carries. Rather, such high stakes have emboldened and fortified Kendrick Lamar’s resolve.
“i”’s transformation is particularly revealing, with the album version explicitly demonstrating the communal, radical idea of self-acceptance within the black community that was more subtly hinted at on the single version released last September. In many ways, that version now plays as a watered down configuration of the song’s true representation. Taken this way, that version plays like the racial-cleansing of the “#AllLivesMatter” campaign, which attempted to devalue the more timely and prescient “#BlackLivesMatter” movement. Within the context of Butterfly, “i” is strictly a message to and from the black community, made all the more powerful for its refusal to fall into our institutionalized traps.
When paired with the equally devastating “u,” “i” paints a striking, vivid portrait of the constant internal and external struggles weighing on Lamar. “Loving you is complicated,” stresses Lamar, highlighting the dysfunctional, highly combustible relationship between Lamar and the institutions determining his moves. That makes his declaration on “i” defiant and stubborn, refusing to allow white America the satisfaction of altering his perception of the self.
To Pimp a Butterfly will see many comparisons to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah in the coming weeks, and for good reason. Both feature organic, soul-based instrumentations and stories of black empowerment and resiliency. But, whereas Messiah took its title literally, with D’Angelo serving as a messiah sent here from heaven to usher in new truths, Butterfly comes straight from the earth.
On good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Kendrick Lamar had something to prove. Despite hailing from a “mad city,” Lamar asserted that he, and several more like him, are all inherently good. With To Pimp a Butterfly, we have an audio representation of the prevailing sentiments coming from New York and Missouri and the other 48 states, where black lives are still seen as, at best, “less good.” Lamar is tired of being the one on trial, when his accusers are responsible for crimes much worse.
For as much as To Pimp a Butterfly shows the listener a damning view of many of our institutions, it is more interested in elevating the black community. “For Free” tackles black aspiration, and how white America attempts to squash any and all inspiration: “I need 40 acres and a mule, not a 40 oz.,” demands Lamar. His aims are higher than society would prefer, and Lamar pairs his powerful words with productions that are rooted in p-funk and classic soul. Thundercat’s bass is fluid and vital, providing an element of spontaneity to the tracks he plays on.
“We gonna be alright,” assures Lamar on “Alright,” while he reminds his audience, “you ain’t gotta lie to kick it my nigga / you ain’t gotta try so hard,” on “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”. Kendrick Lamar has been around long enough to know that defining the problem is only half of the equation. That’s why he’s conflicted on “The Blacker The Berry,” where he claims himself to be a hypocrite for mourning the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and Eric Garner while being involved with gang violence himself.
When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan? - "Mortal Man"
On album closer “Mortal Man,” he turns the spotlight on the large portion of those who’ll listen to this album who aren’t directly linked to the black struggle, directly asking, “When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?” He later explicitly explores the metaphor behind the album’s title, as well as linking it to his previous LP. In doing so, he posits the album as part of an engrossing, fully realized, ongoing collection that is even more optimistic than it is frustrated and conflicted. “Just because you wore different gang colors than mine, doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man,” Lamar candidly speaks over “Mortal Man”. “If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us,” he explains. If change is to come to the black community, it’s been identified time and time again that white America isn’t going to lead the charge. It has to come from within, and it has to be unapologetic. “I don’t know … maybe I’m just another nigger,” second guesses Lamar. But, taken one way, he’s right.
After all, Kendrick Lamar is certainly a star. Now, he wants the rest of his community to shine.