posted on: March 24, 2015
It’s safe to say Kendrick Lamar did not take the obvious route on his sophomore major. He released GKMC two-and-a-half years ago to explosive acclaim, but never flooded the market with guest verses. The relative few he did let off were more often than not low profile as fuck. The only person with less of a public presence since his last acclaimed album is Frank Ocean. But now, in the Age of the “Surprise” Release, Kendrick announces To Pimp a Butterfly and releases it just two weeks later. The album is dense but rewarding, unique, and rarely unexciting. Kendrick released “i” this past September. It was polarizing and called out for being too poppy, but (surprise!) it makes a lot more sense in context. Also, the song is actually weird as fuck and not poppy. A better indicator of the album as a whole was the MC’s appearance on FlyLo’s “Never Catch Me.” That style was the spine for TPAB, and you can read all about the guys who helped construct the album over at Fader. Otherwise, the biggest name you’ll see in the credits is Boi-1da, who worked on “Blacker the Berry,” the album’s only real sonic outlier. The album eschews any true pop ambition. “Hood Politics” is one of the best songs Kendrick has ever released. While not as colossal, it’s reminiscent of fan favorite “Backseat Freestyle.” He flips the old “My come-up was real, and fuck yours” into a brilliantly subtle hook. No one does the tongue-in-cheek take better than Kendrick. But “Freestyle” is comparatively playful. This is a darker, more aggressive, and exceedingly embittered depiction of rapper and African American stereotypes. Toward the top of the third verse, Kendrick calls out critics who might be quick to take (and by extension, many of his own fans—diehard supporters of “real” hip hop): “mention that they miss the days when hip hop was rappin’/ motherfucker if you did then Killer Mike would be platinum.” Whew. On “Institutionalized,” Kendrick rasps, “I’m trapped inside the ghetto and I ain’t proud to admit it/ Institutionalized, I keep running back for a visit.” Even when we feel like prisoners to a lifestyle, we have a sort of Stockholm syndrome. It could be to a place, a drug, a relationship—anything. And Kendrick makes clear the hardest part of such a situation: We return to it even when we may not have to, in order to prove something to ourselves or to others, and even at it’s worst, there’s a sliver of comfort in the familiar. You could go through it song by song like this if you really wanted to. Kendrick’s feelings are so palpable throughout, maybe never moreso than on “u,” when he spends the majority of the song tearing himself down to the point of tears. Maybe never moreso than in the venom-fueled final verse of “The Blacker the Berry.” It goes on and on, and it’s excellent. The amount of characters Kendrick embodies is one of the album’s most impressive aspects. Voices, flows, and intimate details make it all feel organic. The missteps are few. Kendrick even pulls off a spoken word interlude that repeats throughout the album, revealing a few more lines each time, and leads up to a 12 minute long album closer where Kendrick fakes an interview with Tupac. That should be too brazen to work, but what the hell? It does. Corniness almost totally avoided. Kendrick has got to knock it off doing things like referring to evils/temptations/the Devil as “Lucy.” I don’t normally sprinkle these things with personal anecdotes, but here is why it’s a bad idea: In college, a girl did this exact thing in a one-act for our playwriting class. God was a judge, and Jesus and Satan were lawyers. Jesus kept referring to Satan as “Lucy.” Five years later, in a completely different context, one with way more cultural significance than that play, it’s still cheesy. The wait for this album was longer than expected, especially after Top Dawg’s failed plan to have every artist on the label drop last year (will all other TDE members drop two albums before Jay Rock gets even one?). Each day that passed with no news made the project more and more of an enigma. And now that we finally have this funky, uninhibited, spazzing, thing, one thing is obvious: it’s dense enough, and powerful enough, for well more than week’s worth of listening. 9/10 Patrick Bierut (@pafifi) Purchase: iTunes|Amazon|Best Buy Check out Sermon and Reese‘s video review on To Pimp A Butterfly too.