2Pac famously said "I'm not saying I'm gonna change the world, but I guarantee I will spark the brain that will change the world".
No-one is in a better place to to that than Kendrick Lamar. He is born of the age of information. Whilst his spiritual and revolutionary ancestors; Mandela, Malcolm X, and Tupac himself, all battled to have their message seen and heard and felt by as many people as possible, with the advent of the internet and the wildfire that is social media, Kendrick has the entire world at his fingertips.
To Pimp A Butterfly is an extension of the narrative that was so beautifully described on good kid, m.A.A.d. city. We were introduced to a young, naive, intellectual soul who, through experiences like Swimming Pools (Drank), The Art of Peer Pressure and Money Trees grew in to a figurehead of hood mentality. In much the same way that E-40 presents himself as hood famous through literal depictions of ghetto life, Kendrick used his mother and father to ground him and his actions in reality, with the brilliant closing remarks from his mother on Real a precursor for exactly what To Pimp A Butterfly is trying to achieve.
Opening with the sample of Every Nigger is a Star, by Boris Gardiner, is a more subtle way of re-stating the classic 2014 track by Lil B; "No Black Person Is Ugly". It sounds dated at first, until the incredible production from Flying Lotus, Thudercat and Sounwave gives way to a menacing, futuristic funk odyssey, in which Kendrick lays his feelings on the table from the drop: "At first I did love you, but now I just wanna fuck". Fame, fortune, violence, "fugazi" thuggery is all housed within this judicious intro. The scene is set..
If you haven't been able to follow the narrative, it is one of immediate simplicity, but the further you dig around in it, the more complex it becomes. During 2014, Kendrick appeared on The Breakfast Club to 'spruik' his polarising new single "i", which had blogs and heads alike wondering if Kendrick had, in fact, done exactly what he preaches against on this record. Rather than get in to the mechanics and specifics of the song, he explained that since the success of his first record, he felt he needed clarity of thought. So he travelled. He travelled the world as a successful hip hop artist, something only a blessed few have the luxury of doing. During that time, rather than soaking up his surroundings and living in the moment, Kendrick thought. He observed, he pondered, he noted and he filed each experience away in his memory bank, and he took them out again and considered how to apply in a way that would benefit his culture and his people. The message of To Pimp A Butterfly is one of hope and empowerment of a culture and a race; the same kind of thing that rappers have been focused on since the art of rap was created. But the conversation has gotten muddled along the way. When Jay Z rapped "If you put crabs in a barrel to ensure your survival / You're gonna end up pulling down niggas that look just like you", it was instructive of an entire generation of kids in the street, which Kendrick addressed even more potently on The Blacker The Berry, with "So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!".
The release of that song prior to the album was almost an act of defiance by Lamar and his label. For anyone lost in the throes of racism, it was inflammatory, and stand-offish. When you consider that Drake sold nearly 500,000 copies of his record in it's first week, with nothing more aggressive than a youthful phone hustle scheme, the bravery of Kendrick to put something like The Blacker The Berry out in to a world of diminishing album sales and diminishing returns was huge. In fact, it's a bravery that is echoed throughout the entire record, although rarely can he be accused of a lack of humility. On the despondent "u", in fact, he takes sharp aim at himself, "I place blame on you still, Place shame on you still, Feel like you ain't shit, Feel like you don't feel confidence in yourself". It's a moment of raw introspection that is not uncommon, but more viscereal for the words that follow, "I fuckin' tell you, you fuckin' faiulure, you ain't no leader".
It's during these moments that the beauty of TPAB comes forth. Whilst 2Pac was a visionary and a revolutionary who was hell bent on sparking change, his self-doubt was not over his actions, but rather what would become of them. Kendrick is chastising himself in much of this record. When he turns his focus inwards, such as on "These Walls", the results are startling, "wall tellin me they full of pain, resentment, Need someone to live in them just to relieve tension". The deeper you scratch away at the message of cultural empowerment, the more you expose the open wound that is the personality of Kendrick Lamar.
It would be remiss if this review didn't mention the incredible bomb that he drops on the music industry as a whole. Kendrick's admission on The Breakfast Club was a disillusionment with the fame he worked so hard to achieve, and on King Kunta he thrashes industry vets, "The yam is the power that be, You can smell it when I'm walking down the street" "Now I run the game, got whole world talkin' King Kunta, Everybody wanna cut the legs off him". This is, essentially, an extension of the title, as explained in the outro to Mortal Man. Kendrick is the butterfly, or "the talent", and the faceless men (think Lyor Cohen if you need a face) are using him and his beauty, in essence pimping him, and rappers as a collective. On For Sale? (Interlude) he spins a tale on just how seductive the lifestyle can be (just check out 50 Cent's instagram if you need proof), detailing all the way in which Lucy (Lucifer, or an extension of the rockstar lifestyle that comes with selling your soul for record sales) attempts to seduce him.
Kendrick will not be seduced.
Why is this record perfect? It's probably quite easy to sit back and say "well of course he was going to be critically acclaimed, look at his subject matter, he basically walked in to a classic". True, speaking from the heart, rejecting violence and embracing cultural revolution in a time of incredible racial upheaval will probably win you some fans. But I bet you haven't heard CyHi The Prynce's new mixtape have you? Did you hear Killer Mike's R.A.P Music? Did you go out and buy Tetsuo and Youth? The point is that not just anyone can do what Kendrick has done here, and a lot of it can be attributed to the brilliance of those around him. Sounwave, Flying Lotus, George Clinton, Rahki, Thundercat and LoveDragon are all on hand to soundtrack the movie that Kendrick is acting in. The wonderful funk throwback feels so much more immediate than anything Prince has done lately, and the only person you can truly compare it to on the same mainstream scale is D'Angelo. The way that Institutionalized begins almost like a slow burning Marvin Gaye song, but morphs so stunningly in to a Parliament riot (complete with yet another Win for Snoop Dogg). The way in which These Walls provokes a crazy inner groove, and yet still grounds itself with a swelling of orchestral dark clouds every now and then so the party atmosphere doesn't pervade too much. The free-reign jazz of For Free? then bleeds in to the effortless SWAGGER of King Kunta, which makes so much more sense as part of the record than a single. Kendrick has a team of writers around him, and major label backing. CyHi doesn't. In an interview last year, he was asked whether Dre was on the record (he is, but only via phone on Wesley's Theory). Kendrick replied that Dre was a consultant, and that he was such a useful resource because he "knows the frequency of a snare drum that listeners enjoy hearing on the radio". The sonics on TPAB are just dirty enough to have you reaching for your afro comb, but so wonderfully polished that they do not once sound dated, and probably still won't in a decade's time. Try telling that to Joey Bada$$.
Will Kendrick be the champion of change he seeks to be? Probably not. G-Unit will come out in a few weeks with a tape about beating people up for their chains and flying in G6's. It is ironic that in such an age of enlightenment and information immediacy that people like Kendrick have even less of a voice than 2Pac and Malcolm X. Whilst the power of words appear to become more important with time, their true power to provoke action seems to diminish the more we are exposed to them. Everyone likes to be seen doing something. No-one seems to enjoy doing it.
As he said on Institutionalized: "Fuck am I s'posed to do when I'm lookin at walkin licks? / The constant big money talk about mainsions and foreign whips / The private jets and passports, presidential glass floor / Gold bottles, gold models, sniffin up the ass for / Instagram flicks, suck a dick, fuck is this? One more suck away from wavin flashy wrist / My defense mechanism tell me to get him, quickly because he got it / It's the recession, then why the fuck he in King of Diamonds? No more living poor, meet my four four / When I see em put the per diem on the floor" Institutionalized. It's going to take more than a hit record to reverse indoctrination, but if this is the first step, it's been made by a true genius.