Kendrick Lamar is basically a genius.
An untouchable creative talent who writes lyrics that place current socio-political themes within a historical context. He balances an incredibly dextrous lyrical flow with a deconstructivist take on hip-hop. He’s a Grammy nominated, platinum-selling artist, whose last album good kid, m.A.A.d city managed both commercial and critical success by dismantling the gangsta rap genre and in doing so made the best gangsta rap album of this or any other generation. And despite having the gruff delivery of a middle-aged chain smoker, he is only 27. Like I said the guy’s a genius.
To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar’s third full-length album, is a wild, challenging, complex work that can barely contain the man at the centre of it.
Beginning with a triple-hit of invention, it’s clear this will be an intricate 79 minute-long journey. That’s not to say it isn’t immediately accessible though. ‘Wesley’s Theory’ is funky as fuck, with fitting appearances from P-Funk legend George Clinton and the squelchy bass of Thundercat. This is followed by the extraordinary free-form jazz of ‘For Free’ and the thunderous standout track ‘King Kunta’, an ever-building stomp featuring a tightly controlled funk rhythm that makes for the most danceable track here.
As with any experimental or challenging album there are occasional misfires. Part of Lamar’s poetic repertoire involves a lot of repetition, and this becomes particularly grating in tracks like ‘For Sale?’ with the name Lucy repeated ad nauseam. Then there’s the stanza of a spoken word poem which Lamar repeats with slight alteration on almost half the tracks here, which quickly becomes tiresome. Plus the Pharrell Williams produced track ‘Alright’ never really breaks out of its stuttering rut. But this is a small price to pay for the heights To Pimp a Butterfly hits.
‘Institutionalised’ would be a straight-up gorgeous slow-jam if it didn’t take so many unhinged left-turns. And this is ultimately the strength of the album, its consistent, wilful desire to stroke you with one hand and slap you with the other.
When you get to the interlude at the halfway mark you’ll be fully committed to continue on this deranged journey, but then out of nowhere the second half hits you with some of the most joyous hip-hop ever recorded. While listening to ‘The Blacker The Berry’ with its dancehall testosterone and lyrics that deal with the killing of Trayvon Martin you won’t believe that later you’ll be listening to the ‘Who’s That Lady’ sampling ‘i’ which sounds like a block-party exploding in your head.
There are more than a million things wrong with the world and Kendrick Lamar is just one of a million people trying to make sense of it, and although his frustration and unbridled imagination may get the best of him at times, the world is certainly a better, more illuminated place for him being in it. 5/5