Premature Evaluation: Kendrick Lamar To Pimp A Butterfly
To talk about To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar’s new album, we need to talk about Tupac Amaru Shakur. Tupac is the ghost that haunts To Pimp A Butterfly, and among so many other things, the LP functions as a piece of Pac hero-worship. Kendrick surprise-released the album a week early so that it would drop on the 20th anniversary of Pac’s Me Against The World, and the final track, “Mortal Man,” is structured as a conversation with the dead icon. (Kendrick Forrest Gumped himself into audio from a 1994 Swedish-radio interview with Tupac, a move just as creepy, in its way, as the Coachella Tupac hologram, or the moment on “Mortal Man” where Kendrick excuses Michael Jackson of the “touched those kids” accusations because of “Billie Jean.”) As an inspiration for Kendrick, Tupac is a fascinating study. Pac was a dichotomous figure, a sensitive poet who studied drama as a kid but who also presented himself, quite convincingly, as the hardest motherfucker out. To this day, he’s probably the only rapper in history who shot cops and didn’t go to prison for it, which is rap-superhero stuff. That combination — insight and sensitivity with cocksure snarl — is what’s made Kendrick one of the two or three most important rappers working. But Kendrick is no superhero, and To Pimp A Butterfly is no declaration of supremacy. Instead, it keeps coming back to all the ways that Kendrick feels he’s failed.
Shakur kept his two sides studiously separate. There are college classes on his written poetry now, but he wasn’t out there hyping that poetry when he was alive. Instead, he’s a folk hero because of the crackling, defiant charisma he gave off on his music, in his movies, in the famous footage of him swaggering out of a courtroom. He’d occasionally write thoughtful and uplifting songs like “Dear Mama,” but even there, he’d sound supernaturally confident. Kendrick, by contrast, sounds nervous and jittery and doubtful even in his most triumphant moments. On his infamous “Control” verse, you can practically hear the sweat dripping from Kendrick’s palm; it has that should I say it? fuck it, I’ll say it anxiety about it. And with To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick has made an album about the anxiety of his own influence, about making it to the top and only being able to see his own failings. It’s an overwhelmingly ambitious album, but I don’t know if I’ve ever heard an ambitious album this packed with self-doubt. Even if he’d lived to be 100, Tupac would’ve never made an album like it.
The first single from To Pimp A Butterfly was “i,” the self-affirmation anthem that many people (wrongly, I think) derided as being corny. That song is on the album, but it’s buried near the end, in a live version for some reason. It’s not representative of the album. A song that comes a lot closer, in fact, is “u,” the track that Kendrick clearly means to be the opposite of “i.” On “u,” Kendrick rants in churchy slam-poet cadences over a beatless soup of guitars and horns and piano. “You fuckin’ failure, you ain’t no leader!,” he barks at himself, either taking on the voice of one of his detractors or of the voices inside his own head. On “Institutionalized,” guest Anna Wise fantasizes about becoming president, about finally being able to change some of the heartbreaking realities that come from being black in America, even though the first actual black president wasn’t able to change any of them. Kendrick seems acutely aware that he got famous just as America was heading into one of its most turbulent racial periods in recent memory. Kendrick could proclaim amorphous positivity from on high, but he couldn’t keep Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown from being killed. He takes that hard.
He’s not even sure he can save himself or keep himself on the right path. The life of a rap star is not a normal human life, and Kendrick talks, over and over, about getting lost in temptation and adulation. He stresses, constantly, about losing focus and allowing America to drag him back down again. Opening track “Wesley’s Theory,” inspired by Wesley Snipes’ tax-evasion prison sentence, is about the idea that the powers that be are hungering to drag down any black man who ascends to a certain peak without figuring out how to handle things when he gets there. Elsewhere, Kendrick refers to the idea of “Lucy,” a metaphorical woman who seems to represent every shitty self-destructive urge Kendrick might harbor. If I’m reading it right, “These Walls” is a deeply problematic extended metaphor that seems to equate prison with having too much sex, about the idea that you need to break through “these walls” to keep yourself from becoming complacent. And “How Much A Dollar Cost” is a long parable about Kendrick meeting a homeless man at a gas station, refusing to give him any money, and then finding out that the homeless man is God. This is heavy, heady stuff. Kendrick is wrestling, often messily, with big ideas. He’s struggling with his place in the world. When rappers reach the transcendent-star level, they usually come out with victory-lap albums, albums about solidifying their place in the cosmos. On To Pimp A Butterfly, it feels like Kendrick is actually trying to rip himself out of that spot. To find another album from a rap star this clearly uncomfortable with being a rap star, you’d have to go all the way back to The Love Below.
Musically, too, we’re light years removed from Pac territory. (Actually, we’re a whole lot closer to something that Ezekiel “Spoon” Whitmore, the junkie jazzbo who Pac played in the pretty-good 1997 indie film Gridlock’d, might’ve made.) Sonically, Kendrick and his core crew of TDE producers flirt with the G-funk of the mid-’90s, but To Pimp A Butterfly is far away from being Kendrick’s funk move. It’s more indebted to the Parliament and Funkadelic records that Dr. Dre and his peers sampled during the era, and not just because George Clinton shows up to intone cosmic poetry on “Wesley’s Theory.” “Wesley’s Theory” is also a Flying Lotus co-production, and while it’s FlyLo’s only credit on the album, the murky and decentered astral gurgle of FlyLo’s Low End Theory scene is a clear point of inspiration. Sufjan Stevens appears, in sampled form, on “Hood Politics,” and while Radiohead don’t get a sample credit, that sure sounds like the “Pyramid Song” piano on “How Much A Dollar Cost.” And jazz — dark, cluttered, tangled, Bitches Brew-caliber jazz, rather than the breezy horns Kendrick once used on “Rigamortis” — hangs all over the album. Every track has live musicians noodling madly, and Kendrick’s crew includes way-out virtuosos like Thundercat and Robert Glasper.
There is so much music on the album that, at certain points, it doesn’t sound much like rap anymore. The music tingles and flutters and skronks and cries, but it rarely hits that knuckle-to-your-eye simplistic intensity that was all over Section.80 and Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. The album fluctuates wildly, mirroring Kendrick’s lyrical confusion. There are only a couple of guest rappers on To Pimp A Butterfly: Snoop Dogg, doing a quick Slick Rick impression on “Institutionalized,” Rapsody trading skin-tone musings with Kendrick on “Complexion (A Zulu Love).” (“Complexion” references the mythic Willie Lynch set-the-slaves-against-each-other speech and a flower made out of cotton, and it’s still one of the most straightforward songs here, because that’s the kind of album this is.) Even when mid-’90s New York production great Pete Rock shows up with scratches on “Complexion,” he’s there for texture, not thwack.
And while Kendrick, when he wants to be, is one of rap’s great locked-in rhythmic technicians, even his delivery on To Pimp A Butterfly is flighty and distracted. There’s nothing here even in the same area code as, say, Kendrick’s cocksure “Fuckin’ Problems” verse. Instead, he’s in slam-poet mode, bunching up syllables dramatically in ways that may or may not have anything to do with the music. (And given that the tracks here are so often such beatless soups of instrumentation, it’s not like he could lock in with the beat even if he wanted to.) One of the only songs where he even thinks about going into the rap-blackout zone is “Hood Politics,” the one song about people criticizing him for not acting enough like a rapper. After this album, it’s tough to imagine Kendrick going back to the featured-rapper roundtable. He’s willed himself into another, more spaced-out zone. He’s making post-rap now.
That willingness to follow its own muse down some deeply trippy rabbit holes makes To Pimp A Butterfly a fascinating album, but I’m not convinced that it makes for a great album. There are moments of greatness, of dazzling music and heart-stopping rhetorical power. But there are also long passages where the album drifts up its own ass. The “Premature” in “Premature Evaluation” has never been more true than it is here. This is a dense and complicated album, and it’ll take time to tease out all the directions that Kendrick is going here. For all I know, I’ll be obsessed with the album for months. But instead, in these early listens, I’m finding myself missing the things that Kendrick has always been great at. I miss hooks. I miss bars. I miss those moments of ferocious demonic technical force. I miss music that gives itself some room to breathe. I miss the snarling Tupac-level charisma that Kendrick brings to his live show.
To Pimp A Butterfly is an album consumed by big ideas and lofty goals, and that’s admirable. But Good Kid, m.A.A.d City was that, too, and it also succeeded on rap-album terms. It sounded great on a sunny day with windows open and bass cranked up. I can’t see myself banging To Pimp A Butterfly in any kind of open-air situation. It’s closer to recent internal odysseys like D’Angelo’s Black Messiah or Björk’s Vulnicura: emotionally rich headphones albums that demand so much of you that they might leave you exhausted. It’s a stepping-back-from-the-spotlight album, a Kid A to Good Kid’s OK Computer. On its own terms, it’s a pretty staggering piece of work. But Kendrick doesn’t have to look at Tupac Shakur as some faraway ghost. He could be Tupac. Instead, he’s lost in his own head.