Kendrick Lamar is the king of rap. His fans, myself among the throngs, are already aware of this. Some may find his newest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, as an alright effort, but short of the status good kid, m.a.a.d. city held to them. I found, in my repeated listens to Butterfly, a testament. Lamar has meticulously crafted a follow up that covers so many topics it becomes both an album but something far more. It is a monologue and a sermon and a confessional ending in a conversation.
What rap lacks is socially conscious lyricists who want to have rhymes that are more than surface value limericks, catchy turn up songs, or hard gang beats. For awhile, there have been top level rappers who come close to what the old school rappers did, to what 2Pac, Public Enemy, N.W.A. or Notorious B.I.G. did; Jay-Z was once at that level before he got too rich to care, Drake has mingled with it before he turned to a hear throb, and Kanye West can’t seem to want to go anywhere without delivering some sort of rant. But the commentary tied to get people more than pumped, to get people informed and exchange actual dialogue and change the world through the music, it has long been gone.
Lamar stands on Butterfly as a human first, a preacher second. His sermon is instilled throughout the album, on songs like “King Kunta” and the phenomenal “The Blacker the Berry”. The former is a truly funky exploration of a black man who has grown out of the hood to being a hip hop icon, all the while sticking it to the things that could have happened because of “the yams”. In all simplicity, the yams are many things, as he himself raps calling them “the powers that be”. They are what made Richard Pryor an addict and President Bill Clinton a cheater, what lingers in the streets. “The Blacker the Berry” is one of the deepest rap songs ever, delivering a moving depiction of the hypocrisy experienced in Kendrick’s life with self-hatred based on race. The ending lyrics are the most potent lines on the album, summing up the entire message: “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? / When gang banging make me kill a n**** blacker than me? / Hypocrite!”
Not that this crown is totally unblemished; a few songs, though the lyrics are good, just don’t stand out as well as other tracks. “For Sale? (Interlude)” and “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” are such cases. Both have well developed meanings, but just don’t strike much of a chord. “For Sale?” is an interlude all the way, building where “For Free? (Interlude)” left off, showing how the luxuries and lifestyle presented in being a celebrity rapper seem so glorious and tempting. “Complexion” is a discourse on how everyone should be loved regardless of how dark or light. Yet they lack the depth and fervor all other tracks present.
It took so long for myself to write a review on this album because there is so much to it. On my first listen, I was impressed but yet not enthralled, and found myself wondering where is the funk and jazz I was hoping for? Where is good kid m.a.a.d. city?
Yet growing out of this, I listened to it repeatedly and found what really mattered, the tinges of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X.; of John Coltrane and George Clinton; of most importance, 2Pac. All throughout the album, the depth and vein great African American leaders before him exhibit themselves. The messages are Lamar’s own, wanting his listeners to be moved to ask questions of themselves and their identity, of not accepting what they’re told and not falling into the traps people place before them. It may appear to be a dark album, but celebration and hope exist; celebration of one’s culture, of standing for one’s beliefs and community, and having to fight depression and the unknown to realize what truly matters is the love and connections we have, by birth or by choice.
The longest and final track, “Mortal Man”, is unique because much like the hologram appearance at 2012’s Coachella, 2Pac is raised from the dead. Lamar found some old interview, but takes it and transforms it into a conversation between himself and 2Pac. And full circle, Lamar reads a poem that ties up the entire album, about a poor caterpillar who is stuck in a city turned against him. By combating the oppression he becomes a butterfly, all of this of course being a treatise of themes explored across the album and concluding to be the message of hope listeners need, that they can change if they fight the inherent prejudices and powers that be. When he finishes reciting the poem, he asks 2Pac what he thinks of it, to no answer.
On this level, he leaves the listener hanging, and gives the reality, that the future cannot be answered from the past.
Now, as the king of rap, Kendrick Lamar has only got to keep his message alive, which will be a road to see.
Anthony Campbell // Staff Writer