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Stereoboard Albums Of The Year: Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly

Friday, 18 December 2015 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

When it comes to album of the year, ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ is a no-brainer. The appeal of Kendrick Lamar’s third full LP is that it becomes a more insightful and eye-opening experience with every listen. You know a record is good when the process of internalising it is as good as simply feeling it.

In other words, absorbing this album is a journey in itself. Initially, you appreciate the aesthetic he establishes, through the album’s prominent funk grooves and clear-cut old-school influences. You subsequently appreciate Kendrick’s superb rapping abilities; his masterful control of syllabics and his changeable flow and delivery.

Even the structure of the album is a source of enjoyment, as he conveys messages and mantras in a kind of free-form poetry. Most notably, he ties together the album’s various track preludes into a fictionalised address to west coast hero 2pac. Beyond all that, you still get to digest the evocative images and double entendres that characterise Kendrick’s lyrics.

These layers shouldn’t be mistaken as padding – if anything they better transmit his rawness and authenticity. While critics referenced these elements in their almost unanimously positive reviews, only a few identified the key themes of the album beyond a vague allusion to “black empowerment”.

Myke C-Town of Dead End Hip Hop was more perceptive, offering a unique interpretation of the title and suggesting that black people in America are stuck in a cocoon that’s been “imposed by outside forces” and that these forces try and “pimp their struggle”.

Like any black hip hop emcee, Kendrick is no stranger to being demeaned by the mainstream media. ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ is the third record in a row where he has taken a novelistic approach, but to the average rockist or white critic he’s ‘still a rapper’.

It’s not only white America’s patronising attitudes towards hip hop as an artform that riles him, but the appropriation of black culture as a whole. On album highlight The Blacker the Berry he dispenses with metaphors and puts his point across bluntly: “I’m a proud monkey/You vandalise my perception but can’t take style from me.”

We see African-American culture represented here in countless ways, whether it’s the jazz, funk and soul influences that emanate from every pore or references to Dave Chappelle, Wesley Snipes and Kunta Kinte. These are more than just touchstones for Kendrick – he’s holding a mirror up to his community when he crafts the stories and characters that move through these tracks.

When reviewing the album in late March, I wrote that Kendrick’s “dense, multifaceted portrayals of urban life are similar in scale to The Wire or a Junot Diaz novel.” Looking back, these comparisons were accurate, but I don’t think I realised quite to what extent. These tracks are more than just songs by a well-read rapper; they’re profound short stories that are channelled through whichever musical wavelength Kendrick feels is complementary.

We get rollicking funk on King Kunta as Kendrick rails against “the power that be”. On Hood Politics, he recounts his childhood next to a trippy sample of a Sufjan Stevens song. How Much a Dollar Costs gets a more reflective treatment. Piano chords, that are eerily similar to Radiohead’s Pyramid Song, trudge in the background as Kendrick critiques the value of money through a meeting with God at a gas station.

The majority of these songs lack the immediate accessibility of his previous records, but they’re memorable for different reasons. Sometimes it’s a shocking punchline, sometimes it’s a grotesque sample and at other points it’s simply a mood he conveys. The closing track, Mortal Man, is an incredibly dramatic finale for its 2pac interview reveal alone.

‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ is appealing because it’s both expressive and experimental. Not a fan of rap? Try out Kendrick’s reverence for styles that pre-date hip hop. If you love rap like like I do, you can appreciate his uncompromising determination to push the genre forward artistically (not to mention his unbelievably tight rhymes).

And that’s exactly how Kendrick Lamar should be recognised – as an artist. No mainstream rock or pop album this year has had the same sense of scope or ambition. Kendrick Lamar isn’t just the best rap storyteller since Nas, he’s one of the finest American artists of the new millennium.

Click here for Jonny's hip hop albums of the year.

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