To Pimp a Butterfly
Thanks to multiple hit singles—and no shortage of critical acclaim—2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city propelled Kendrick Lamar into the hip-hop mainstream. His 2015 follow-up, To Pimp a Butterfly, served as a raised-fist rebuke to anyone who thought they had this Compton-born rapper figured out. Intertwining Afrocentric and Afrofuturist motifs with poetically personal themes and jazz-funk aesthetics, To Pimp A Butterfly expands beyond the gangsta rap preconceptions foisted upon Lamar’s earlier works. Even from the album’s first few seconds—which feature the sound of crackling vinyl and a faded Boris Gardiner soul sample—it’s clear To Pimp a Butterfly operates on an altogether different cosmic plane than its decidedly more commercial predecessor. The album’s Flying Lotus-produced opening track, “Wesley’s Theory,” includes a spoken-word invocation from musician Josef Leimberg and an appearance by Parliament-Funkadelic legend George Clinton—names that give To Pimp a Butterfly added atomic weight. Yet Lamar’s lustful and fantastical verses, which are as audacious as the squirmy Thundercat basslines underneath, never get lost in an album packed with huge names. Throughout To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar goes beyond hip-hop success tropes: On “King Kunta,” he explores his newfound fame, alternating between anxiety and big-stepping braggadocio. On “The Blacker the Berry,” meanwhile, Lamar pointedly explores and expounds upon identity and racial dynamics, all the while reaching for a reckoning. And while “Alright” would become one of the rapper’s best-known tracks, it’s couched in harsh realities, and features an anthemic refrain delivered in a knowing, weary rasp that belies Lamar’s young age. He’s only 27, and yet he’s already seen too much. The cast assembled for this massive effort demonstrates not only Lamar’s reach, but also his vast vision. Producers Terrace Martin and Sounwave, both veterans of good kid, m.A.A.d city, are among the many names to work behind-the-boards here. But the album also includes turns from everyone from Snoop Dogg to SZA to Ambrose Akinmusire to Kamasi Washington—an intergenerational reunion of a musical diaspora. Their contributions—as well as the contributions of more than a dozen other players—give To Pimp a Butterfly a remarkable range: The contemplations of “Institutionalized” benefit greatly from guest vocalists Bilal and Anna Wise, as do the hood parables of “How Much A Dollar Cost,” which features James Fauntleroy and Ronald Isley. Meanwhile, Robert Glasper’s frenetic piano on “For Free? (Interlude)” and Pete Rock’s nimble scratches on “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” give To Pimp a Butterfly added energy.