Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly

Earlier this week, Kendrick Lamar released his much anticipated and long-awaited follow up to “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” called “To Pimp a Butterfly.” The album has been showered with early praise. Lamar has done a few interviews, including this one in the New York Times that situates him among “prophetic witnesses” like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield.

I’ve listened to the album a handful of times in the last couple of days and it has yet to lose its effect. Albums (or films, or books, or really anything) that are highly anticipated often don’t live up to the hype. There have been only a few moments in the last few years when something I have high expectations for ends up meeting and surpassing those expectations. After whetting my appetite earlier this year with “Blacker the Berry” and “Untitled” (performed only on Colbert Report), Lamar has accomplished a rare and difficult feat; his album has met and surpassed high expectations.

Aesthetically, the album delivers. Lamar invites legends like George Clinton, flows over beats by Flying Lotus, invites sublime singers like Lalah Hathaway, samples Sufjan Stevens and brings in some of the best jazz riffs I’ve heard in hip hop in a while. The album is well-balanced, it ebbs and flows to keep your attention but doesn’t seem to compromise in production quality. Each track stands well on its own but is elevated as an ensemble album.

But that is only the honey with which Lamar attracts the listener. Behind this beautiful music is the story of Kendrick Lamar in the last few years. His battles with depression, survivor’s guilt, success, fame and the strong weight of responsibility as he has become more famous and more powerful. Lamar is the post-modern artist we’ve been blessed with. Like James Baldwin in his time, Lamar struggles out loud with the contradictions in his life. With his inability to draw a clear narrative arc through his upbringing in Compton and now his new found success as an internationally touring artist. And like Baldwin, and Langston Hughes and other worthy comparisons, Lamar expresses all of these feelings in his poetry. And like those predecessors, Lamar isn’t interested in distancing himself from his upbringing, even though his life now couldn’t be any more different. Lamar is trying, with all his might, to take what he’s been given, think and write critically about what that means for him, for his community, and come up with some answers about how he can bring all this back together. The prophetic preachers of soul and hip hop’s past have been fighting this battle from the pulpit of fame for generations.

This album has signs of maturity that were not present in “good kid, m.A.A.d city.” If that album was a day in the life of 25 year old Lamar, this album is deeper look at a young adult coming to terms with growing up. He struggles, at once, with being a hypocrite, but also needing to build self-confidence to survive in a competitive world. These struggles are not too different from what Kanye West has been going through in recent years. But Kanye’s resolution has been different. His focus has been on high art and on high culture. Kendrick, on the other hand, is squarely situated in popular culture. For my money, I’d much rather hear a man describe his struggle for meaning in every day life than trying to find meaning in some higher, more philosophical milieu.