Hip-hop phenomenon Kendrick Lamar released his third studio album To Pimp a Butterfly on March 16 to rave reviews from audiences and critics. The album marks the rapper’s first release following his breakthrough 2012 LP Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Despite critical acclaim, Lamar’s newest effort has had a polarizing effect on fans due to its less-than-conventional musical direction and raw, sometimes jarring lyrical content. Regardless of its reception, the album is undoubtedly a pivotal installation in the rapper’s career.
TPAB opens with the song “Wesley’s Theory,” a brooding amalgam of jazz and funk influences. The song features contributions from celebrated Los Angeles producer Steven Ellison—A.K.A. Flying Lotus—his partner in crime, bassist Stephen Bruner—A.K.A. Thundercat—and American funk icon George Clinton, whom Ellison had joked about featuring on the beat when he first played it for Lamar.
It is immediately clear that Lamar has deviated from the musical tendencies of his past records, which were significantly more on par with the contemporary rap landscape. The heavy involvement of jazz-fusion elements throughout TPAB serves as a breaking-off point from this earlier aesthetic.
TPAB also sees Lamar pushing the lyrical boundaries of his previous work. This can be seen in the song “u,” the most emotionally powerful track on the record––and the most impressive vocal performance as well. Serving as a counterpoint to the album’s first single, “i,” “u” is a painful look into the period following Lamar’s rise to fame. He role-plays figures from his past in Compton, California to illustrate the guilt that he feels having escaped and left his family to pursue his career. He shouts and growls and his voice breaks as he pleads with the listener to understand the pain that haunts him.
“I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence,” Kendrick speaks solemnly at the end of the album’s third track “King Kunta.” His words are uninflected––which is rare for the rapper––and his tone is narrative rather than lyrical. The question arises: To whom is he speaking? A first listen might suggest he is addressing himself in third person in a kind of reflective monologue.
Like a memory that becomes more lucid as time goes on, the monologue evolves as its context within the album changes, and it becomes clear that Kendrick is speaking to someone very specific. It ultimately serves as a narrative guide through the extensive subject matter of the record. On the final track “Mortal Man,” the person to whom Lamar is speaking is revealed to be the late Tupac Shakur. Lamar uses an old interview recording with Shakur as a means of holding a conversation with the rap legend about current racial turmoil in the United States. What’s old becomes new.
This kind of vision is something seldom associated with contemporary pop music. Mainstream hip-hop is particularly cluttered with single-mindedness and self-absorption, characteristically sacrificing message for remix-ability and radio appeal. That’s just the way the genre has evolved to meet the demands of the market. The subject matter of those songs that perform best in the market rarely extends beyond a shallow preoccupation with sex, drugs and ego.
In this way, Kendrick Lamar is a visionary. Where other popular artists rely on the petty struggles of our generation to form a connection with audiences, Lamar concerns himself with the eternal struggles between generations, races, factions and social classes to create meaning and emotion out of conflict.