To Pimp a Butterfly
(Interscope/Aftermath/Top Dawg; 2015)
By Chet Betz | 25 March 2015
To Pimp a Butterfly is not a rap album. Rather, it is a funk manifesto, a screed that grooves in the same grooves that Sly and the Family Stone sparked on There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971) and Mayfield on Curtis (1970); it carries those grooves forward like torches into the post-millennial dusk. Rather, it is a packed, self-reflexive novel of a thesis statement, Kendrick Lamar proclaiming himself here a “literate writer,” this his sprawling opus that even rocks annotation (the echoing, hollowed-out footnote of “These Walls” unravels with Kendrick remarking after a pointed bar that “that sentence so important” and referencing us back to his first verse so that we can dig there is no metaphor present on To Pimp a Butterfly without at least two meanings). Rather, it is a spoken word installation, gimmicks on gimmicks (“For Free?” and “For Sale?” and “u” and “i” and Momma and a recurring poem and a resurrected Tupac and every other stitch in this tapestry), gimmicks as motifs as blessings of art, art as self-expression demanding to be heard, to be pondered, inhaled—exhaled only when our minds or bodies complete their decay, and from that ruin to be exhumed. Rather, it is the spiritual successor to the first part of Badu’s New Amerykah (2008). Rather, it is the spiritual recessor like a dead-eye bolt backwards through time, parting Rich Gang, Ying Yang, MC Hammer pants, ripping into the presence of that nascent moment when Gil Scott-Heron spoke, over soul music, that the “revolution will not be televised.” And music turned on its head. And it’s been turning ever since, through The Low-End Theory (1991) and Illmatic (1994) and Aquemini (1998), turning into now, this moment, the pimping of a butterfly.
Rather, it is not a rap album; it is the absolute rap album. There is craft here (and in fact this is the most musical mainstream rap record since Aquemini) but just enough room for it. There is drama and narrative, but they are clutched in tight to the pit in Kendrick Lamar’s chest, thus infused into the spit your ears can see seething through his clenched teeth. There is calculation only insomuch as Kendrick takes in the next cache of West Coast rap and sees Flying Lotus and so Flying Lotus’ opener provides the template and the template is fusion and the template is necessary and the template is the concept and the concept is the pit in Kendrick‘s chest. Pac’s ghost states that the black male in America only has about five years or so at their peak to make a difference, to exert full power, before their hearts are ripped out, before they’re neutered, neutralized. Whether fully true or not, look at Hov. Look at Nas. Look at Wu-Tang. In this statement is To Pimp a Butterfly’s impetus, this overwhelming urgency. The explosion of consciousness and message, splayed out so savagely that all Kendrick’s inner conflicts and wrongs and doubts and dreams are there, too, entwined in the guts for all to see. The tension is at ten, non-stop. The arc is a somersault through Hades into Valhalla. Kendrick’s word is bond and the music is just more wordless words, uber-expressive symbols. To Pimp a Butterfly is not calculated nor crafted. It is rapped.
The jazz here is not afro-centrism, it is survival. Kendrick finds the pocket on each of those tracks and then—no matter how loose they swing—rides those pockets so hard they cry, they break, they have to change, find a new tempo or instrument to live in. Even Kendrick’s scatting on “For Free?” slays. Pharrell’s Swiss-clockwork drum pattern and elegant rhythmic codes on “Alright” reassure us along with the hook that everything is “gonna be alright,” locking Kendrick into a MC’s master class on stretching and shrinking his meters through inflection, each bar a flickering but steady flame, an island of stability amidst To Pimp a Butterfly’s sea of skronk. Yet “Alright” still has a horn howling at the night, reminding us how this music must bend to Kendrick‘s will, the horn the primary accompaniment when Kendrick does run-on bars to switch back to a double-time flow that then flips the drums over into drops and fills, a tumbling finish at its virtuoso’s behest.
Kendrick pushes this in-the-moment synergy of message and delivery to its fullest extent on To Pimp a Butterfly because he seeks to push it as extant in the culture; as he tells the air where he imagines Pac to be, music is the only hope, vibrations in the air. Kendrick searches for the next step in black empowerment, hopes to evolve the rhetoric. Is this pretentious on a rapper’s part? Or is it vital? To Pimp a Butterfly starts with a loop of “Every Nigger is a Star.” A racist fuck might borrow science’s definition of true black as the absence of light. Kendrick’s record posits next level black pride as metaphysical, spiritual, essential, politics where the picture is so big it can’t be limited, chained, enslaved. Every black person, like every person, is a source of light, power, something inherently good. He questions the efficacy of martyrdom at the same time the window given the black male’s artistic or political potency in America makes him question if there is a viable alternative. On the dense, smooth spew of “Mortal Man” he accuses black culture of abandoning its heroes when the “shit hit the fan,” shouting out Michael Jackson, sampling him on the swaggy stomp of “King Kunta,” that track’s progression as graceful and rewarding as the King of Pop’s own work. Kendrick decries on “Momma” what the black movement at one point called progress, calls it “bullshit,” diversionary tactics. If To Kill a Mockingbird was about progress, To Pimp a Butterfly is about the outward facade of progress as internally it is inverted, as we reverse-mortgage our potential against itself, as we find the material or pragmatic asset in our soul’s home, as we sell to live and live to die. And death is in division. There can be no sum if the parts never come together, and if there is no sum, then there is nothing.
Within the holistic honesty of To Pimp a Butterfly Kendrick is divided against even himself. “u” is a two-parter with the first part proclaiming self-love “complicated,” the verse insinuating that that’s an understatement, and then—after a pregnant sketch—Kendrick’s wrenching bleat in part two which spirals into self-loathing and drunken disillusionment, the flow and tone the most artful example of rap performance artifice since Pharoahe Monch was spitting mental pictures on Stress: The Extinction Agenda (1994). Echoing Kendrick’s dichotomies, the music here plays with contrast religiously; “Hood Politics” thumps as blunt as its title but also sways woozy on a Sufjan sample while Kendrick goes hard and direct yet wryly humorous, “boo boo” the stops in his ferocious telegram and “Obama say, ’what it do’” garbling the transmission. Kendrick’s personal progression on To Pimp a Butterfly is the breaking down of the source of this conflict and division within himself, of finding some semblance of what it means to be whole, and learning that this is impossible without desiring unity with others. And so it is permissible for a record about black power to sample said Sufjan and then practically sample Radiohead on “”How Much Does a Dollar Cost?”, but also tempering Radiohead with Isley. To Pimp a Butterfly’s text is blatant while the sequencing, music, and interstitial materials are an expansive, loaded subtext that draw us in. And this is why the rap for this message is necessary. Because if the theories and thoughts here aren’t new, they’re new in that now white America and every other America isn’t given just theories and thoughts, it is given some form of experience; it is dragged into the center of Kendrick’s pit, our heads filled with the breathless rhythms of his breath, his words replacing our thoughts, his visions etched inside our eyes. Music is our matrimony. Art can make us one. Whole.
Sometimes the intensity can threaten to overwhelm. Sometimes the fabric of the record ripples and cracks under the extreme pressure and the matter/anti-matter clash of harsh reality with po-faced idealism, and out of one of those steaming fissures crawls a beast like “The Blacker the Berry,“ nostrils flared and fire in its belly. And so when To Pimp a Butterfly has brought you to this place where Kendrick’s voice and your awareness inhabit the exact same spot in space-time, a track like “The Blacker the Berry” can truly devastate. When you’re there and it’s there that Kendrick hurls himself into his final cadence stretch that sets black stereotype and black identity in crushing double exposure and finishes with “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street / When gang-bangin’ made me kill a nigga blacker than me / Hypocrite,” then it’s there that you can feel some fraction of the pain as Kendrick violently, mercilessly, stabs his own wind from out of himself and crumples into the track’s smooth jazz postlude. This all-in, no-holds-barred approach to the connection between artist and as much of his audience as possible is important, especially when the message is this important. If the black political aim achieves pride through separation, it has achieved nothing. History, ultimately, is written, so revisionism can be the rewrites that bring that story closest to the essence of truth. At the end of penultimate track “i,” Kendrick calls himself “the realest Negus alive,” giving himself a new/old name, a new/old title. He self-propagates his etymology while self-validating himself, understanding that every good revolution starts with true self-belief that wants others to have self-belief. But, surely, this revolution won’t be televised.
Still, always, forever, a sociopath society strives to divide, compartmentalize, marginalize everything that is other from the point of “i” as “i” in process becomes divided from “u.” There are even those that would say as progress is made, as evolution happens, the better or best good differentiates further from the lesser good. Elements of truth but also a great danger abide in this reasoning. For who is the arbiter of these qualities? “I’m blacker than the heart of a fucking Aryan,” Kendrick snarls on “The Blacker the Berry” and a mirror is held, shots fired, inward, outward. “Complexion (Zulu Love)” is the preemptive chaser, color-blind social consciousness streaming towards something bigger, towards the ocean, the cosmos. In the free-jazz outro to “Momma” Kendrick blurts out unfettered wondering if God resides in mankind, in a woman, in money. Two tracks later he is telling a story about an encounter with a homeless person asking for one dollar bill. The “Pyramid Song” lift whirls like monument become quicksand, Kendrick sinking into his justifications against charity, into owning his own debasement, declaring that he’s insensitive and lacks empathy and that “every nickel is mines to keep,” and the twist is Matthew 25:40, Kendrick’s lines blurring into Scripture as a string sustain provides the piercing shaft of light, the homeless man replying: “You’re lookin’ at the Messiah / The son of Jehovah, the higher power / The choir that spoke the Word, the Holy Spirit, the nerve of Nazareth…I am God.”
See, thing is, Dylan Thomas, that the light doesn’t die. Rather, it’s absorbed, reflected, or speeds off into the infinite void (taking Pac’s hologram with it in the closing moments of To Pimp a Butterfly). When we materialize it, when we delineate its spectrum into substance, when we split the light into colors and make our colors deterministic definitions of who and what we are and who and what others are, dividing and conquering the light for the sake of our utterly separate self-interests, then we subscribe to an existence that—like colors—fades. Our distinct colors, personas, genres are beautiful…but in the fusion there is new life. Instead, we eat death. This inspires one thing in To Pimp a Butterfly: rage. Rage that sometimes takes repressed forms (e.g. burbling keys, soft guitar licks, Snoop Dogg), but rage.
Rage that we, the shattered work of the gods, like Triforce shards are drifting—often running—away from each other. And to what? Irrelevance, obsolescence, oblivion.
Rage that we aren’t doing what we’re supposed to be doing, loving like we’re supposed to be loving, living like we’re supposed to be living, we’re not becoming what we’re supposed to be, and it feels like time is running out and soon you have no voice and there’s no one to hear you. We got the club goin’ up on a Tuesday, and we ain’t fuckin’ wit “u,” and we’re in love with that coco, feelin’ ourselves, and we’re running through the 6 with our woes and no one fucking else’s—on Twitter. Rage.
Pac says when the revolution comes it’s gonna be “murder,” and Kendrick murders the only thing he can lay his hands on, the mic. His rage destroys the material barrier: the mic is a ghost signal for “all the dead homies” to speak, because art is honoring the dead, because those who tell the truth shall die and those who tell the truth shall live forever, and the dead homies reside now in the home of the soul of the artist, and the home is freedom. The freedom of one’s own beauty, fully owned, fully expressed, unfurled with all its colors, the flight of the butterfly, the flutter of its wings, the breath of dead homies, rapping.
On “Mortal Man” Kendrick realizes it is man that makes man mortal. Conversely, in the black depths of real spiritual kinship, death is converted to but mere fact, not a truth, for here life springs eternal, for here is where the light streaks on boldly and endlessly, for here love is a bottomless pit that can never be filled and a well that never runs dry. Love “like Nelson.”
Rage over the ruins of Babel, that we didn’t know how to build it right, didn’t know the right spirit to build it in, didn’t understand that it’s not about climbing over each other to reach God, it’s about finding God in our world, in each other. “But I’m no mortal man, maybe I’m just another nigga,” Kendrick’s poem ends. And “Every Nigger is a Star.”
Rage so consuming and holy, To Pimp a Butterfly is not a rap album. It’s a burning bush, Kendrick its prophet, his face beaming, carrying the light. To a people in captivity, their captors themselves captives, every race and creed and person penned in their separate cells, institutions, the prisoners connected only by a spider web of chains, chains run through hoops to wrap around the hands of fear, hate, Death.
Rage, rage against the breaking of the light.