Returning today to the world of hip-hop, we have the next release from Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp a Butterfly”. Lamar is probably the most highly regarded hip-hop artist of the last decade, with each release coming with great expectations and anticipation. To his large core fanbase, this album was a major success, and it was also a critically acclaimed album, coming in at #19 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
As I listened to this record several times, I was challenged and confronted with a complicated reality. There is only one song on this album that comes across with even a hint of pop sensibility or infectious hooks, and that is the first single, “i”. Perfectly incorporating a sample from “That Lady” by the Isley Brothers, I embraced this song several years ago as my favorite Kendrick Lamar song. The MC work is stellar, and this song runs at a pace that truly showcases his talent as a performer.
While there were other highlights along the way, I find myself looking at this record the same way as I do with a Miles Davis jazz album, and that isn’t just because there is a lot of jazz feel to this record. What I believe it reflects is that I can tell this intellectual and spiritual delivery is somehow more than I can fully process, as if I’m not smart enough, sophisticated enough, or capable enough of connecting on this higher plane with Lamar. I mean that with 100% sincerity and authenticity. The incorporation of the recurring and building spoken word (“I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same…”) helps amplify Lamar’s struggles with temptation, and the overall theme of this record moves at a dizzying pace as Lamar drops intense story after intense story.
Among the most impactful tracks were me included the opener “Wesley’s Theory”, which kicks off with some George Clinton woven in. “King Kunta” is another powerful song, embedding both Michael Jackson and James Brown in his own inimitable style. I loved Snoop Dogg’s low-key delivery on “Institutionalized”, and “Alright”, with help from Pharell Williams, is another of the high points on this record. “Hood Politics” opens with a Steely Dan-esque vibe that I would have loved to see extend through the song, but unfortunately it went in a more abrasive direction, which probably makes sense given the title and theme of the song.
“The Blacker the Berry” shares a title with a Harlem renaissance novel, and I will confess it also had me fondly recalling a similar line from the song “Run and Tell That”, one of the very best musical theater songs I have ever seen, as presented in Hairspray. The message and meaning of this song were even more direct and timely. Lamar’s delivery is thunderous on this track, as he is joined by Assassin and Lalah Hathaway, and it references the murder of Trayvon Martin, a racially motivated killing that happened just miles away from where my own son went to high school. It isn’t lost on me, ten years after that murder, that he and Martin were essentially the same age.
For all these moments of greatness, there are other tracks I just can’t quite latch on to, and there is nothing wrong with that. I can’t even begin to comprehend the world Lamar grew up in coming from Compton, so I’m not shocked that songs like “For Free? Interlude” and “u” leave me a bit bewildered. They are not easy listens, and frankly just above my ability to comprehend, not unlike a Miles Davis masterpiece.
I had to make sure I invested the time and effort to go as far as I could with this one. Not only is it one of the most influential and highly regarded albums of the last ten years, but it is also an all-time favorite of my son, and I owed it to him (and myself) to do my very best on this record. I’m glad I was able to build on my enthusiasm for “i” with several other impressive songs and gain a much greater understanding of Kendrick Lamar along the way.