Kendrick Lamar might be the new king of west coast hip-hop, but don’t think it’s a crown he’s wearing lightly. Exploring the dangers of being a thoughtful youth forced to come up hard on the streets of Los Angeles’ gangster-rap capital, the Compton MC’s 2012 major label debut, ‘good kid, mAAd city’, told the story of a young man at war with himself, in a community at war with itself.
Fast-forward to the present, and that war has become endemic, the lie of a ‘post-racial society’ peddled in the wake of Obama’s first presidential win brutally exposed by the acquittal of 17-year-old Florida teenager Trayvon Martin’s killer, and nationwide unrest following police killings of African-American men in Ferguson and New York. It’s a grim reality that makes its presence felt on ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ – Lamar’s insanely sprawling, seething follow-up to ‘good kid…’ – though arguably it’s an even more personal work than its predecessor.
Let’s pause to consider some facts. ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is 79 minutes long, prone to outbursts of jazz and spoken-word poetry, and its name is a loosely worded play on Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Its most significant guest spot comes from a rapper who’s been dead nearly 20 years, in the form of an imagined conversation between Lamar and Tupac Shakur using a sample from a 1994 Swedish radio interview with Lamar’s voice pasted over journalist Mats Nileskär’s. And if you still somehow missed that Lamar is taking the whole voice-of-a-generation thing very seriously indeed, know this: before he started the record, he visited Robben Island in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was locked up during apartheid.
So what’s the 27-year-old got to say now that he’s off the streets? The Isley Brothers-sampling first single, ‘i’, was a joyous slice of self-affirmation that suggested this album might herald a hip-hop summer of love. But in truth, it’s dark second single ‘The Blacker The Berry’ (“Why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? / when gangbanging make me kill a nigger blacker than me?“) that ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ more closely resembles, as Lamar attempts to square his “survivor’s guilt” with the impulse to use his platform as a pulpit.
Accusing fingers jab from all angles. On opener ‘Wesley’s Theory’, Lamar takes aim at the music industry’s exploitation of ghetto life over a prickly P-funk number assisted by genre originator George Clinton and some Bootsy-licious bass from Flying Lotus collaborator Thundercat (FlyLo co-produces). On ‘The Blacker The Berry’, he turns his ire on institutionalised racism (“It’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society / That’s what you’re telling me, penitentiary would only hire me“). And on ‘u’, he directs his rage back in on himself, spilling his guts in a drunken confessional: (“You even Facetimed instead of a hospital visit“).
Musically, Lamar’s ambition is every bit as wide-ranging, the line between arty self-indulgence and inspired invention frequently disappearing from view in among the madness. Nonetheless, certain cuts hum with realised potential: ‘King Kunta’, a stone-cold jam and undoubted highlight, is a crisp modern update of the G-funk sound, riffing on a little-known early ‘00s production from Compton’s DJ Quik and boasting some great disses (“Y’all share bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two man cell“). The beautiful ‘These Walls’ has the mellow sophistication of a ‘Thriller’ album cut, and ‘How Much A Dollar Cost?’, which relates an encounter with a tramp (who might really be God) in a garage forecourt, evokes the stately piano dirge of Radiohead’s ‘Pyramid Song’.
‘Mortal Man’ closes the record on a note of tentative hope, acknowledging the tragic fate of many leaders in the African American community before Lamar turns to his hero, Tupac, for illumination. It’s a grand, slightly unwieldy gesture on an album that, lacking the neatly redemptive arc of ‘good kid, mAAd city’, is also grand and slightly unwieldy. Has Lamar followed a classic with another classic? Not quite, but in laying his demons and his contradictions bare, he has stayed true to his formidable talent.