In recent years hip-hop has arguably entered a metaphysical phase, with ’emo’ MCs such as Drake dominating the scene. Increasingly, though, political (or ‘conscious’) rap is back in a way not seen since the 80s when KRS-One, Public Enemy and, yes, NWA, blew up. Today, whilst Yeezy is definitely considered transgressive, it’s Run The Jewels who dominate any media commentary, yet young rappers, too, are challenging America’s twisted race relations.
Kendrick Lamar, who shares the hometown of Compton, California with NWA, has re-emerged with an album that, foreshadowed by Boi-1da’s compelling electro-grime single The Blacker The Berry, could be the hip-hop companion to D’Angelo’s fervently righteous Black Messiah. The title To Pimp A Butterfly, almost as confounding as Young Fathers’ soul-driven White Men Are Black Men Too, flips Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Mariah Carey’s butterfly motif will never look the same…
TPAB is daringly conceptual, albeit more loosely so than Lamar’s breakthrough ‘movie’, good kid, mAAd city. Like Drizzy, he ponders achievement and fame (the spacey These Walls) but in contrast to the Canadian, Lamar’s existentialist outpourings are informed by the civil rights movement #BlackLivesMatter, protesting successive police killings of African-Americans.
He feels “conflicted” and riddled with self-doubt over his supposed failings as a black role model. In Hood Politics, which borrows from folkie Sufjan Stevens (!), Lamar confesses to experiencing “survivor’s guilt”. As always, the personal is intrinsically political. Notably, last year’s buoyant Isleys-sampling hit i appears here in a radically altered form, counterpointed with the darker u.
If good kid wavered, it was because the beats were ordinary. But Lamar has found his musical niche and it’s in hip-hop psychedelia. TPAB spans P-funk, G-funk, Southern Dungeon Family rap, jazz-hop and neo-soul, but all of it is hyper-modern with extravagant live instrumentation segueing into avant electronic hip-hop.
Lamar’s key collaborators on TPAB are Flying Lotus and his Brainfeeder bassist Thundercat, and their influence is pervasive. (They’ve seemingly recommended the neo-soulster Bilal.) Top Dawg’s in-house beatmakers have also come into their own. Sounwave’s King Kunta is angsty funk – in addition to recontextualising James Brown, it’s spliced with fierce electric guitar, befitting Lamar’s titular inspiration, a real-life rebel slave. Lamar also disses those fake rappers employing ghostwriters. Aftermath mogul Dr Dre again serves as the album’s executive producer but, while featured on a voice message heard in the intro, Wesley’s Theory, he doesn’t provide beats. Maybe the OG is busy finishing Detox.
Nonetheless, Lamar is all about closing urban music’s generational divides. He brings in George Clinton for FlyLo’s aforementioned Wesley’s Theory, which alludes to Wesley Snipes, who was jailed on tax charges. A reinvigorated Snoop Dogg, Dre’s original protégé, cameos alongside Bilal on Rahki’s free jazz Institutionalized. Even Lalah Hathaway, Donny’s daughter, sings.
Ultimately, TPAB is Lamar’s show and he doesn’t rely overly on the numerous guests. The MC experiments with his delivery, occasionally switching to spoken word. He develops figurative raps, casting God as a vagrant in the post-math rock How Much A Dollar Cost (Ronald Isley, another R&B legend, takes the outro). On Complexion (A Zulu Love) – an affirmative Native Tongues-mode jam – Lamar shares the mic with Rapsody, a slept-on femcee down with 9th Wonder.
TPAB‘s apotheosis is the symbolic Mortal Man, which concludes with some séance dialogue between Lamar and Tupac Shakur and leaving the listener with an impactful message that speaks of unity extending even across time and space.
To Pimp A Butterfly is out now via Top Dawg/Universal