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Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly (Album Review)

Friday, 27 March 2015 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

It’s only three years since Kendrick Lamar released ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’, but the album has already been assigned legendary status by fans and critics alike. Branded a short film on the front cover, that album would re-frame how listeners view mainstream hip hop, bringing a level of artistry that was perhaps missing throughout previous decade.

In hindsight, though, his songwriting, as much as anything else, elevated the piece. Kendrick may have been angry, politically-aware and passionate about black empowerment, but that was nothing new. From Public Enemy through to Dead Prez, hip hop has always boasted a legion seeking to inspire wider social change.

‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ is another album in this mould. But to pigeonhole it in any way would belittle the achievement here. This isn’t just an album that “transcends” black America, as some of the more patronising critics have suggested, it’s one that that represents and scrutinises black America, raising the bar for every genre in the process.

Though it is less immediate than its predecessor, this is undeniably the Compton emcee’s most focused work on a thematic level.

Each track is prefaced with a line from an overarching poem that Kendrick uses to not only balance the structure of the album, but also to eerily address deceased west coast legend 2pac on the closing cut, Mortal Man. The album’s route is unsurprisingly idiosyncratic, with Kendrick giving voice to different characters and perspectives along the way to reinforce his various points.

While this novelistic approach is almost second nature for Kendrick, the album is unquestionably intimidating on first listen. It takes in spasmodic beat poetry (For Free?) and Radiohead samples (How Much a Dollar Cost), but there is also less emphasis on rap hooks or pop choruses. Even i, the lead single, is replaced with a more dramatic live take of the track when it does appear.

Despite that, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ isn’t necessarily an abstract record. The production is groove-oriented, with big percussion and funky basslines directing the first half, while These Walls and Complexion are some of the most beautiful, soulful pieces Kendrick’s ever rapped over. Vocal melodies aren’t much of a concern but repetition plays a big part, with assorted mantras and quotes subtly littered throughout.

On top of everything else, Kendrick’s rap performance is quite ridiculous. Alright, a perceived weak spot, is enjoyable for his flow alone, while The Blacker the Berry might be an even more convincing a display of his ability than his controversial Control verse.

The west coast artist is not only the architect here, he is the frontman, and the stories he conveys are dense, multifaceted portrayals of urban life, similar in scale to The Wire or a Junot Diaz novel. It’s only March but this is already a shout for album of the year.

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