Performed just after the last of the flames had died down around Ferguson, and amidst heightened protests in and around New York City following the decision not to indict the police officers responsible for the murder of Eric Garner, race relations in America were (and remain) at their lowest point since the LA riots of the early 90s.
Lamar himself has suggested that he is “the closest thing to a preacher that they [his young fans] have” and you could almost feel the weight of expectation on his shoulders. To say he absolutely killed it would be an understatement.
The performance is one of immense power and style. Musically, it is a throwback to one of the golden periods of modern black American music, the early to mid 1970s. The funk is real and the anger is most certainly real. According to Terrace Martin, who played saxophone on the track and produced much of To Pimp a Butterfly, the song has never been recorded and was only written the day before the performance, a fact that makes it all the more impressive.
To Pimp a Butterfly is the most refreshing hip hop record since 2013 when Yeezus further entrenched Kanye West as the king at the top of the popular music pile. Whilst Yeezus excelled because of the unparalleled genius and originality of its musical content, To Pimp a Butterfly finds power in words and atmosphere, bolstering Kendrick’s credentials as one of the lyrical kings of modern popular music. The record’s various messages and their atmospheric heft, spread far and wide over the near 80 minute run time, create a singularly compelling piece of work.
The themes touched on in To Pimp a Butterfly show Lamar to be a fiercely intelligent and complicated individual. He makes exhortations that challenge, articulate and reinforce ideas about himself and his place in the world as a hip hop superstar and his view of the wider black community of the United States. These ideas come together to create a fever dream atmosphere; challenging, contradictory and thought provoking.
There is tempered braggadocio (‘King Kunta’ and ‘I’), self-loathing and self-doubt (‘U’ and ‘The Blacker the Berry’), metaphysical excursions (‘These Walls’ and, channeling David Foster Wallace, ‘How Much a Dollar Cost’), racial politics (‘Institutionalized’ and ‘Complexion (A Zulu Love)’), thoughts on the rap game and his place in it (‘Wesley’s Theory’ and ‘You Ain’t Gotta Lie’) and ultimately acceptance (‘Mortal Man’).
Along with Lamar’s verses, the record is jammed with spoken word interstitials. Stand-alone poetic stanzas are peppered throughout, building on one another, until coming together in ‘Mortal Man’, where he lays his cards on the table. Lamar comes to see himself as a spokesman for a generation of young black men and women and urges them to respect themselves and one another and to come together. However doubt is never far away: “I don’t know, I’m no mortal man, maybe I’m just another nigga.”
All of this focus on the lyrical content of the record should not obscure the fact that the musical arrangements on To Pimp a Butterfly are also top notch. Lamar assembled a team of some of the finest black musicians and producers in the States from the worlds of jazz, rnb and hip hop to collaborate with. The results are eclectic and versatile, with a heavy focus on mid 1970s black music, highlighted by the fact that virtually every sample used on the record is from that time period. We see examples of cosmic funk, soul, rock and roll, rnb, old school hip hop and psychedelia amongst others.
The influence of jazz is perhaps the most profound. Anyone looking for cookie cutter arrangements similar to those that appeared on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City will be largely disappointed. ‘For Free? (Interlude)’ provides the best example of this. It is a freewheeling piece of modern jazz, accompanied by some of Lamar’s most deranged ramblings. Pianist Robert Gasper gives an illuminating insight into the creative process behind the record, specifically his playing on the above track. Note the creative input of Lamar on the musical direction of the record.
It is perhaps too early to suggest that this record will be remembered as one of the highlights of early 21st century hip hop, but I am more than willing to make the claim. I can’t wait to see what the next phase of his career will entail.