Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

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The short version of the review is that this sounds like Kendrick Lamar took the racial undertones of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and turned them into overtones, took Bilal’s A Love Surreal Brainfeeder-influenced lucid grooves and made them even more lucid, took good kid, m.A.A.d. city’s cohesive vision and brought it to a much larger subject matter that he only hinted he was interested in in Section.80’s half-concept. I find it laughable that people think that an artist needs to be around for a long time (or needs to die early) in order for their status as a legend to be solidified. No, they just need to make legendary work.

I’ve long believed that Kanye West’s beat for Common’s “Be (Intro)” was a great song that’s been mercilessly delegated to a “non-song” status by its parenthesized description. That status now goes to “For Free (Interlude),” where Terrace Martin lays down a free jazz template that seems impossible to rap over while Kendrick Lamar does some of his best rapping, not just on this album, but of his career. Alliteration after alliteration and internal rhymes on internal rhymes and quotable after quotable; “Titty juice and pussy lips kept me obnoxious / Kept me watching pornos in poverty – apology? No”; “Pension, more pension, you’re pinchin’, my consensus / Been relentless, fuck forgiveness, fuck your feelings / Fuck your sources, all distortion, if you fuck it’s more abortion / More divorce courts and portion / My check with less endorsement left medormant / Dusted, doomed, disgusted”; “Porcelain pipes pressure, bust ’em twice”; “Oh America, you bad bitch, I picked cotton that made you rich / Now my dick ain’t free.” Key moment: the 1:20 mark, where Kendrick Lamar goes “Matador, matador / Had the door knocking,” signaling the drums to come back in and give us that sound effect. It’s details like that that I live for. “Ab-Soul’s Outro” – the best song on Section.80 – sounds amateurish in comparison.

And yeah, let’s talk about those details, because Kendrick Lamar is one of the few hip-hop artists who packs his songs with sonic detail such that there’s so much replay value even after you’ve memorized every line (ie. the backing harmonies in “u”‘s hook that I just noticed). Take “King Kunta” for example. Catchy bass line, right? The album’s funkiest, no doubt. Catchy choruses, right? Replete with likeable cheerleader-like vocals (sidebar: the only criticisms I have against the untitled song that appeared on The Colbert Report that doesn’t appear here was that Anna Wise’s vocals were annoying; Whitney Alford’s vocals feel much more natural here, and add to the experience instead of detracting from it). Catchy rapping, right? “Life ain’t shit but a fat vagina”’s a new mantra. But listen to those details: the blips that remind me of some beats from2pacalypse Now, the digitized sigh that begins at the 1:34 mark; the guitar solo in the outro that turns a dance into a march through the streets.

“King Kunta” is a bit of an anomaly though; the album doesn’t have anything as catchy except maybe “i” (more on that later). But there are certainly other tracks that match if not exceed the grooves because Flying Lotus and Thundercat have left their trademark sound all over the record, even when they’re not directly involved. “Wesley’s Theory” has a bass line so thick, you could swim in it (sidebar: Dr. Dre’s voicemail on the song is hilarious; “But remember, anybody can get it / The hard part is keeping it, motherfucker”; you mean, like dropping a classic hip-hop album, making a lazy follow-up that took you 7 years and disappearing from hip-hop permanently?). “Momma” is built out of dreamy percussion and soul samples. “These Walls” has a Yes-like keyboard bridge (starting at the 3:15 mark) that recalls Thundercat’s Apocalypse or Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead!. “Alright” features Pharrell’s typically catchy production in the backing vocals, but the saxophone is all co-producer Sounwave’s doing (I’m guessing); dig those drum rolls that move everything along. “How Much a Dollar Cost” purposefully recalls Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song,” but emphasizes that song’s jazz influences (recall: it was itself influenced by Charles Mingus). This is jazz rap in a way that a lot of jazz rap isn’t (/wasn’t): this emphasizes the genre’s origins lyrically and improvisations sonically instead of merely sampling its grooves. Hell, as soon as they work up a good groove on “Hood Politics,” they drop it for something else.

And the rapping is on point, as expected. I could be here dropping quotables all day (a few to get started: “My innocence limited the experience lacked / Ten of us with no tentative tactic that cracked”; “Everybody want to talk about who this and who that / Who the realest and who wack, or who white or who black / Critics want to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin’ / Motherfucker if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum”; the second verse of “Alright”), or an in-depth analysis on Rapsody’s verse on “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” that does everything from reference 2Pac to Jay Z and from Star Wars to James Bond while keeping it consistently about race. But the best example to highlight how far Kendrick Lamar’s rapping has improved is on “The Blacker the Berry,” where Kendrick Lamar’s anger feels real (in comparison to “Kendrick’s Interlude” where it felt like it was just done to recall “Control”) over the most piledriving beat on the album, retooling every stereotype known against black people as fuel for his hatred (“I’m African American, I’m African / I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan” might be the heaviest couplet he’s ever spat) and climaxing in a way that makes previous similarly structured songs (ie. “Keisha’s Song”) feel like they flatlined; getting more and more visceral before he finally throws open the curtains. (On the beat, dig the intro, with Lalah Hathaway’s backing vocals. Dig the outro, which feels like a weight has been lifted off Kendrick’s shoulders after his confession. And dig the demonic voice that rounds off the first half of the choruses, “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice / The blacker the berry, THE BIGGER I SHOOT!”)

Like good kid, m.A.A.d. city, this record is flawed. The album version of “i” doesn’t come close to the single version. Hearing Kendrick Lamar punctuate the hook with an off-key and high-pitched Chance-like yelp grates, but it’s bathetic, not just once, but twice. The final verse is one of Kendrick Lamar’s best, “I’ve been dealing with depression ever since an adolescence” is one of his heaviest lines that rolls off his tongue so effortlessly. But it sounds distant on a song that’s been rerecorded to give it a live feel (just listen to the volume drop from the preceding countdown, and just compare the bass mix in the empty spaces following “I went to war last night” with the original), and removing the vocal harmonies (during the couplet “From a negative and letting them annihilate me / And it’s evident that I’m moving at a meteor speed”) was a bad move, even if they try to cover it up with a lovely bed of female vocals (starting at the 2:48 mark). And part of the reason why the third verse of the original was so good was because it climaxed into a cathartic scream, “I LOVE MYSELF.” This one robs it from us to add to the political message of the outro – ask yourself if it was worth it.

Elsewhere, the second and third verses of “u” is Kendrick Lamar at his most recklessly histrionic, the “boo boo” hook of “Hood Politics” has Kendrick Lamar trying turn a phrase into mantra (like he did “Ya Bish” on “Money Trees”) but fails (and the Sufjan Stevens sample isn’t nearly loud enough to save the choruses; also, Sufjan Stevens strikes again – twice in one month!), and no matter how I slice it, “Dark as the midnight hour or bright as the mornin’ sun / Give a fuck about your complexion, I know what the Germans done” is a forced couplet (and done much better in the aforementioned couplet from “The Blacker the Berry”). And finally, “Mortal Man” feels the same as good kid, m.A.A.d. city’s “Real” and “Compton”; a satisfying wrap-up of everything that’s preceded it and nothing more, where Kendrick Lamar finally completes the poem that he’s been working on throughout the album and then interviews his greatest influence. And though it is with great compliment that I write the interview should be cheesy as all hell, but he manages to pull it off, I probably won’t have the urge to sit through it ever again.

A

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