‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ – Kendrick Lamar’s Fiery ‘Soundtrack To A New Civil Rights Movement’ Unravelled

Kunta Kinte lived most of his life in shackles: ripped aged 20 from the Gambian village his family had lived in for generations, thrown bloodied into the grubby belly of a slave ship and taken to the cotton prairies of 1760s America. After four botched attempts to escape the savagery of his white masters, he was faced with a choice: either be punished by castration or have a foot amputated. He chose the latter, and writhed, wide-eyed, against the tree he was tied to as an axe hacked through bone. For decades, other slaves on the plantation spoke of how his screams seemed to hang in the air for months after: as if caught in the trees, pushed around in the wind like a paper bag.

Kunta died still in chains in 1822, but his story – which became the basis of Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1976 novel Roots – has been thrown back into focus recently, this time amid a glorious slink of G-funk bass and simmering rage on ‘King Kunta’, the standout track on inarguably one of the biggest albums of the year.
Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ follows his magnificent, million-selling 2012 major-label debut ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’, about the rapper’s upbringing in gangland Compton, Los Angeles – his experiences and search for spirituality, set to howling siren sounds and huge trap beats. It announced Lamar as more than a rapper: he was a storyteller, a gravel-throated Oliver Twist at the heart of a Dickensian tale about a neglected urban underclass. Some predicted ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ would be a straight-up sequel; others imagined a move towards the mainstream, understandably so, given the Isley Brothers-sampling radio-bait jangle of the album’s first single, ‘i’, released last September. Precisely no-one expected the dense, ferocious space-soul adventure that finally emerged on March 16: a record that, led by ‘King Kunta’, with its angsty rasps of “everybody wants to cut the legs off him, the black man takin’ no losses”, questions exactly how far America has moved on since Kinte’s time. “I wish somebody would look in our neighbourhood knowing that it’s a situation, mentally, where it’s fucked up,” he told The New York Times in March. “We’re in the last days, man.”

A country built on the backs of slaves like Kunta can’t ever make good on its promise of a place where all men are born equal, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ seems to seethe.

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Here are the bones of the 27-year-old’s remarkable rise to rap’s upper echelons. Born: 1987. His mother: a crack addict. His father: a reformed gang member who fled his native Chicago in an attempt to leave behind his violent past. The moment he fell in love with hip-hop: seeing Tupac and Dr Dre shoot the video for ‘California Love’ – filmed partly in Compton – aged 8. The moment it all could have ended so differently: watching “one of my homeboys get smoked”, as Lamar told Billboard, in a grocery store car park as a teenager.

“She had seen that we weren’t right in the head. That was her being an angel for us,” the rapper said recently of the unnamed elderly woman that day who, as a red mist descended and a lust for revenge rose in him, stepped in and asked him to accept God. Now, he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke weed, dates his high school sweetheart and, ever since breakout mixtape – 2011’s ‘Section 80’ – has packed a peace-seeking message that’s prevalent once more on ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’.

“He had a vision for its music and its message. He knew exactly what he wanted to say. He knew exactly how he wanted to say it,” says Josef Leimberg, who plays brass throughout the record and shares a co-writing credit on the stately, ‘Amnesiac’-era Radiohead-ish ‘How Much A Dollar Cost’. “There are kids in the street with complexes about their skin colour. C’monnnnnn, it’s time for that to change. My brother Kendrick, he’s here to inspire change – in hip-hop and outside of that. It feels conscious, it feels classic, it’s got heart, it’s got groove.”

“He was so in that space, so focused on getting across what he wanted to get across when I was with him in the studio, it was like watching a method actor,” says Lamar’s labelmate, neo-R&B star SZA, who sings on ‘u’ and ‘For Sale’ on the album. “He lived every one of those songs to give them that intensity. Where other people in the studio would be giggling and goofing off sometimes – the usual studio shit – Kendrick was focused on making something that mattered. He wanted to say something.”

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Since it dropped, rap fans have been tripping over themselves to unpick exactly what ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is saying. One thing’s for certain – fiercely political, it’s undoubtedly an album forged in the fury and flames of Ferguson, Missouri, where protests erupted last August after the killing of unarmed black man Michael Brown. The police officer responsible for Brown’s killing, as is the case with an unarmed Staten Island father of six, choked to death in broad daylight for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes, remains unpunished.

One of the few criticisms levelled against the album so far is that there aren’t more moments of explicit anger directed at an American legal system still stacked against people of colour – moments like the incendiary ‘The Blacker The Berry’, released as a single before the album. “Six in the morn’, fire in the street/Burn, baby, burn, that’s all I wanna see”, the track begins, laying its lyrical echoes of last summer’s Ferguson riots over a thunderously grimy Boi-1da beat. “You hate me don’t you? You hate my people/Your plan is to terminate my culture/You’re fuckin’ evil/I want you to recognise that I’m a proud monkey”.

On ‘King Kunta’, Lamar says he has a “bone to pick”, but it’s with “monkey mouth motherfuckers sittin’ in my throne again”, and elsewhere, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ – the title references Harper Lee’s race-drama classic ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ – is noticeably not fixated on retribution, unlike with other hip-hop records that have been released since Brown’s death. Another Compton-born MC, The Game – also an apprentice of Dr Dre’s – fantasised about taking to the St Louis suburb’s streets to “murder all the cops, then the cops will probably stop killing” on October 2014’s ‘The Purge’. Meanwhile, Run The Jewels’ ‘Close Your Eyes And Count To Fuck’ from their 2013 second album, ‘RTJ2’, called for “niggas [to] unite and kill the police motherfuckers”.

Kendrick instead spends ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ exploring what changes he can make within himself to combat racism, rather than raging against the machine. “In order to grow in any way, you have to step outside your comfort zone,” says Anna Wise of Boston band Sonnymoon, who provides breathy vocals on mid-album groovers ‘These Walls’ and ‘Institutionalised’. “I think it’s great to see someone in his position talking about what’s actually going on in the world, instead of bragging about how exclusive their lifestyle is. How can we as artists not be political right now? The world is messed up and we all know it.”

Mats Nileskär is a cult hero of Swedish radio, having spent 37 years on the airwaves, broadcasting strange, dreamy interviews with big names from the world of rap punctuated with strange splashes of free-form jazz. He was asleep at his Malmö apartment when the call came through that November morning. “I pick up and it’s a man from Top Dawg Entertainment, Kendrick’s label,” he explains. “The guy tells me, ‘Oh good, we’ve been trying to get hold of you for a long time. Let me connect you with Kendrick.’” He’d met the rapper before – interviewing him twice – but had no idea what he wanted. “Kendrick tells me he wants to use audio from an old interview of mine. He says only that he has an idea for an art piece.”

That ‘art piece’ became among ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’’s most poignant, inspired moments. Tacked onto the end of ‘Mortal Man’, a track the rapper ventured to Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island prison cell to create, Kendrick imposes his voice over Mats’ during an interview with Tupac Shakur, appearing to converse from beyond the grave about how “niggas is tired of grabbin’ shit out the stores” when police brutality claims another black life, as Pac puts it. “Next time it’s a riot there’s gonna be, like, uh, bloodshed for real. I don’t think America know that. I think American think we was just playing but we ain’t playing. It’s gonna be murder.”

“Kendrick’s version puts subtle variations on my original interview,” says Mats. “There’s a part in mine I’m surprised he didn’t use, where Tupac explains something I think taps into a loose theme on ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’… ‘Bill Clinton can pull his dick out in the Oval Office, but when Tupac Shakur does it it’s a two-year prison sentence,’” he laughs.

“It’s a wonderful album that I feel so grateful to be involved in, in an indirect way. The way Kendrick changes his voice in his music to create characters in his songs, he’s like a virtuoso jazz instrumentalist. The sound on the album is coming from an environment of Los Angeles sounds that the likes of Flying Lotus and Shlohmo have been pioneering for a few years now, but Kendrick takes it to another level. It’s an important, important album, sonically and politically. What we’ve been seeing in America recently is the seeds of a new civil rights movement being sown. I really feel that this album is its soundtrack.”

Alex Haley’s retelling of Kunta Kinte’s story was a big deal, spending 22 weeks atop the New York Times’ best-seller list before Roots, the 1977 television series, became equally successful – commercially and culturally. Kendrick, on ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, brings the fable and its accompanying conversation about black oppression to a new audience, in perhaps the clearest example of the rapper’s ambition and confidence, but also his sense of place in history.

“It’s not even about rap any more: he’s the most important artist in music, period,” says Anna Wise. “He takes no prisoners – no hypocrite left behind, including himself.” The night the album hit the internet, she was on a bike ride around Brooklyn. “Around 1.30am my phone started buzzing out of control, getting notifications of congratulations. I went straight home and listened. And all I could think was… he did it.”

Photos: Tom Medvedich

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