In the thick of its release, the conversation surrounding Kendrick Lamar’s extraordinary new album is bound to be mired in debate about its proximity to, or more specifically the distance it keeps from, the rap genre. Which is to say, To Pimp a Butterfly will inevitably be held up against Lamar’s 2012 breakthrough, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, judged against that album’s status as a young classic of the hip-hop genre and the reputation the rapper built in its wake. Lamar earned that reputation by being an artist with that rarest of skill sets: technical mastery, narrative focus, and social consciousness, able to conjure up comparisons to 2Pac, Biggie, and Illmatic-era Nas.
Lamar’s ascension came at a time when the biggest names in rap tended not to fit the expectation of a rap icon. Former Canadian TV star Drake staked his claim to fame on the boast of pairing his rap talents with R&B-leaning vocals, and Kanye West was coming off an ostentatiously eclectic album that juxtaposed rap against every genre he could cram alongside it. Lamar took rap back to the streets with a knotty, Joycian account of a man in Compton navigating daily life’s travails. He intimated the vices of this milieu to expose their appeal and identify the life choices that perpetuate them. It was an ambitious album that brought Lamar fame, but left him conflicted about its cost. The idea of “getting out of the ghetto,” a concept so many rappers strive for, left him with what he terms “survivor’s guilt.”
To Pimp a Butterfly was born of this guilt, but it was emboldened by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner—by the heightened awareness of what it means to be black in America. On the album Lamar condemns police brutality and slights Obama; he fears the government, recognizes an institutionalized incentive to ghetto life, and identifies with an 18th-century slave. Its sprawl and concerns conjure a new set of comparisons: G-Funk made nearly indistinguishable from its P-Funk antecedents, Sign ’O’ the Times-era Prince, and maybe what Jimi Hendrix might’ve given us had he been around a little longer. It’s not completely without precedent in rap, existing in the same general vicinity as OutKast’s Stankonia, or the Roots’ most ambitious work (Things Fall Apart and Phrenology), and its jazzier passages find a kindred spirit in the ’90s group Digable Planets’ Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space). But coming from the artist behind misappropriated party jams like “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Swimming Pools (Drank),” it’s a seismic departure.
Where there were once big hooks, energetic rhyming in perfect lockstep with the beat, and a clear narrative thrust, there’s now an expansive morass of live music grooves, heady and sometimes contradictory stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and not so much as an overarching narrative as lots of fractured ones ducking in and out of obscurity. Opener “Wesley’s Theory” immediately establishes the black-power theme by throwing up a sample of Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger Is a Star,” and the album descends (or ascends, perhaps) through black culture from there. The same song formulates its title based on Wesley Snipes’s tax-evasion prison sentence, an analogue for the vices of black celebrity and the aggression of those institutions that prey on its failure. It’s a song that unites Kanye West’s “New Slaves” theory with funk spirit, complete with funk founding father George Clinton intoning strange poetry over Thundercat’s wobbling, drunker-than-Dilla bass bleats.
Tidy this album isn’t, but like There’s a Riot Goin’ On or the distended jams of One Nation Under a Groove, the uncompromising messiness is the point. The focused and fervent anger, politics, cosmic knowledge, and above all unshakable self-doubt is the point too. Lamar’s every bit as invested in the 11th-hour positivity anthem he’s elected to include here as a visceral live take (substantially upgrading the single version that leaned a bit too heavy on its highly recognizable Isley Brothers sample) as he is in the song that trumpets him as “the biggest hypocrite of 2015” and pivots on a third verse devoted to ruthless self-critique; as invested in the disco-ish one that sexualizes the prison industrial complex as he is in the second song he devotes to the concept of fame being unable to save black men from themselves. And his investment is so convincing that it sells even his more dubious claims, like excusing Michael Jackson for “touching those kids” because he wrote “Billie Jean.”
Lamar is also greatly invested in the post-rap sound he’s aligned himself with, which is another pointed departure from Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. In the years since that album, the R&B and hip-hop-connected jazz pianist Robert Glasper released two distinctive efforts that together with the jazz-transfiguring music by Flying Lotus and Thundercat of the Brainfeeder label essentially laid the groundwork for Lamar’s opus. All of those artists are present here, joining West Coast rap figureheads like Snoop Dogg and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City producer Sounwave to mine a sound steeped not just in regional traditions, like Lamar’s last album, but evocative of a whole culture’s history, as expansive in its sonic repertoire as Lamar’s raps are unmoored from his specific realities. It’s the logical next step for a conscious rapper unable or unwilling to report from the corner.
Give it time, and it won’t be Lamar’s move away from classicist rap that bugaboos his fans in hip-hop, but more likely it will be To Pimp a Butterfly’s unwillingness, its refusal even, to present the kind of authoritative statement ’heads crave from their heroes. This fact adds a fascinating ripple to the album’s lengthy finale, a poetry-reciting that turns into an interview with 2Pac (Lamar dubs in his own questions over the Swedish interviewee, along with copious displays of enthusiastic agreement), circling back to poetry, and arriving finally at a frantic question left unanswered.
Lamar has certain things in common with 2Pac for sure, citing the icon on numerous occasions as a major inspiration. But there’s no question that the personality put forth throughout To Pimp a Butterfly is nothing like the cocksure attitude the late rapper exudes in his posthumous cameo. Lamar instead shares something with D’Angelo, black music’s other reluctant Messiah. Like him, he has a lot to say, but willfully obscures his intent perhaps out of the great wisdom of his fallibility, or maybe just because he knows there aren’t any easy answers to the questions he’s asking. “I want you to feel uncomfortable,” Lamar has said of his intent for this album—because loving it is complicated, and it should be.