“I remember you were conflicted. Misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same. Abusing my power, full of resentment. Resentment that turned into a deep depression. Found myself screaming in the hotel room. I didn’t want to self-destruct. The evils of Lucy was all around me. So I went running for answers. Until I came home. But that didn’t stop survivors’ guilt. Going back and forth trying to convince myself the stripes I earned. Or maybe how A1 my foundation was. But while my loved ones were fighting a continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one. A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination. It made me want to go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned. The word was respect. Just because you wore a different gang color than mine doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man. Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets, if I respect you we unify and stop the enemy from killing us. But I don’t know. I’m no mortal man. Maybe I’m just another nigga.” – Kendrick Lamar’s “not really a poem,” repeated over the course of To Pimp a Butterfly
If you go to the Wikipedia page for Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On, you’ll learn that it is a nine-song concept album, “told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing nothing but injustice, suffering and hatred.” That summary might offer some sense of why the album is special, but, ultimately, it could also be a description of Sylvester Stallone’s character Rambo. What’s Going On is one of the greatest albums of all time not because Wikipedia says so but because it is suffused with emotion. It is an album that you become immersed in, that you feel deeply, that you experience in ways that are far more tied to your life than the Vietnam War ever will be. The real world political backdrop is almost incidental; the ingrained political feeling is timeless.
Since the buzz began to build in the months leading up to his 2012 album good kid m.A.A.d. city, Kendrick Lamar has been an artist of whom people—fans, critics—expected canonical, “classic” material. That tag was brought up as soon as gkmc arrived, and it has stuck, aided in no small part by the fact that the album very self-consciously presented itself as such. Right away, cries emerged that it was far too soon to designate the album a classic because that’s not a term that can just be idly thrown around, and such cries are still happening. For my part, I put off listening to gkmc until it had been out a month and a half. It turned out to be very good. I haven’t listened to it in full in well over a year. But, look, people love that album. Call it a classic if you’re so inclined, and let’s all agree to be OK with that.
Last night, Kendrick released his highly anticipated follow-up, To Pimp a Butterfly, a little over a week early, into a world that, once again, has been expecting a “classic.” And so we’re going to leap into discussing it accordingly (Twitter personality and cultural commentator @desusnice quickly framed the situation: “Haven't downloaded or streamed the Kendrick album but gonna go ahead and call it classic via Twitter laws”). Based on my frame of reference, people already love To Pimp a Butterfly, and they should. It’s simultaneously everything everyone wanted from a Kendrick album—smart, political, soulful, in touch with musical tradition yet modern and adventurous—without being obvious or preachy.
Yet there’s also a wary cynicism that the overnight release means the reviews will come in too fast, that there are too many layers for us to unpack on just one listen, that we won’t really get it until we’ve been able to listen to it way more and read and write a ton more essays. This is true to some extent. To Pimp a Butterfly is an incredibly dense album, novelistic in the way its songs tie together and turn around on each other and revisit the same themes over and over again. And I’m not using the term “novelistic” idly—the way the album immediately introduces its core ideas before returning to them and fleshing them out with more information is the same way great American novels like Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved are structured. Obviously there is a lot to explore, and there are many elements to sink our teeth into. Let’s talk about the jazz! The soul! The funk! George motherfucking Clinton is along for the ride, and so is Snoop Dogg!
But I have a good feeling about this new Kendrick because it’s also an album that you don’t need to unpack to understand. To Pimp a Butterfly is an album full of funk and soul that is rooted in emotion, and, like all emotion and all funk and all soul, it’s best approached by simply giving in to it. The inevitable Genius diatribes and Reddit conspiracy theories and Wikipedia summaries will be, to a large extent, missing the point. The point isn’t trying to figure out what Kendrick means on his gradually unfolding monologue about screaming in a hotel room. The point is that Kendrick Lamar is screaming in a hotel room.
Let’s backtrack: Tying the album together is a monologue, quoted above in full, that Kendrick Lamar repeats at the end of many of the songs, adding lines on each successive repetition. Contextually, it's delivered to Tupac. To me, the key phrase is Kendrick’s concern about “misusing your influence.” The obvious pressure on Kendrick Lamar—compounded by the chatter about gkmc as a classic album and his verse on “Control” as a game-changing hip-hop event and the backlash within the hip-hop community against high-profile rappers as public figures in the wake of events like Ferguson—was to not only deliver another “classic” album but to speak to the broader condition of being black in America and, if there was time, to maybe save hip-hop from the creeping specter of songs about turning up in the process. Anyone, with those kinds of expectations placed upon them, would probably lose it. That Kendrick managed to make an album that not only lives up to those expectations but discusses the pressure of fulfilling them—while also finding a way to sidestep dealing with them directly—is a miracle.
To Pimp a Butterfly, whether you believe it’s premature to say so or not, pulls the same trick as What’s Going On, in that it sublimates all its complex themes into a direct emotional appeal. It invites you, before anything else, to get lost in its sonic world. Its lessons are meant to be as easily appreciated with a joint in your hand on your couch as they are in the classroom. You’re supposed to let them grow with you and sink into your life. Just look, already, at how much more sense the snippets that had previously emerged make in the context of the album, at how much cooler they feel.
Kendrick Lamar is, unfortunately for those of us who would like to listen to our music in peace, at the heart of a debate about what hip-hop and music in general should represent. To many fans, Kendrick embodies a return to the classic social and lyrical ideals of hip-hop. By extension, he also offers a rejection of contemporary hip-hop’s (and contemporary music in general’s) fixation on quick, empty, perhaps disposable hits. He is a reminder that music is art that is labored over and deeply invested with meaning, which can then be exhaustively unpacked. good kid m.A.A.d. city isn’t just a reflection of the emotional reality of growing up in Compton, it’s a text to be dissected. I’m glad that people can appreciate Kendrick in this way—by all means, enjoy music in a way that makes you happy!—but I’m equally glad that To Pimp a Butterfly is an album that avoids this debate in favor of something more elemental, even as it will inevitably appeal to those who prefer to think of Kendrick as hip-hop’s savior. As he recently told the New York Times, thinking of this album as solely political “would be shortchanging it,” since “it’s a record full of strength and courage and honesty” as well as “growth and acknowledgment and denial.”
If gkmc was an album about Compton, To Pimp a Butterfly is an album about America. That’s clear when Kendrick addresses being black in America on songs like “The Blacker the Berry” with lyrics like “I know you hate me, don't you? / You hate my people, I can tell cause it's threats when I see you.” It’s clear given the album cover showing a range of black faces in front of the White House. But it’s also buried in the album’s DNA, the same way that D’Angelo’s Black Messiah or Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead presented themselves as political even when the lyrics were not: It assumes funk, soul, and jazz as a sonic default, and it explicitly places hip-hop within that lineage of canonical American music, which is also inextricably black music.
It is full of vibes. It is funky. It is not, like gkmc, a depiction of a place as it is (Compton) but an imagining of one (America) as it could be. Kendrick Lamar’s dick, once as big as the Eiffel Tower, engorged with hip-hop bravado, is back in simple, human, base, sexual terms, measuring in on “For Free? (Interlude)” at nine inches. This album's scale is similarly more approachable, even if it might ultimately be harder to wrap your head around. The key to understanding it is to stop trying so hard to understand it. Stop worrying that there are too many layers or too many threads to follow or too much to decode. To Pimp a Butterfly is immediate. Its sound is instantly timeless. Everything here is straightforwardly human, self-evidently black, implicitly American, transparently important, inevitably imperfect, and reassuringly, critically, meant to be felt.