It’s disingenuous to think about To Pimp a Butterfly outside the context of the series of events and conversations that escalated, although didn’t begin, with the shooting of Michael Brown. With that, this album has a counterpart in last year’s Run the Jewels 2. Run the Jewels is the fist; Kendrick is the mind.
As happens too often, the mind comes after the fist. As “The Blacker the Berry” reveals, the fist gives way to more pain.
This isn’t to take sides in what has a passing resemblance to a Martin/Malcolm duality. That’s not how I want to pimp this butterfly.
But this album is best understood as an internal dialogue sparked by today’s racial landscape, unique among other works broaching the same topics. More than the police or the many other institutions that hold up racial inequality, Kendrick spits venom at himself.
So, who is Kendrick Lamar? I think he’s best understood as the nega-Kanye, and the comparison is almost suspiciously snug, considering they’re the two most praised rappers today, one a descendent of Big and the other of Pac. Both are well aware of their special places in popular culture and assume their thrones, but while Kanye likes telling the world he’s amazing and reveling in the chaos, Kendrick keeps humble and prefers peace. Kanye is known as well for his celebrity as he is for his music; Kendrick is only his vibrations, his music congruent to his identity, and his invocations of the Zulus signal that his best comparison is Afrika Bambaataa.
Where good kid, m.A.A.d. city was his story, To Pimp a Butterfly is his headspace, reflecting on his place in society as a black male – the album leaving something to be desired outside this gender, with the only woman character being the Lucifer incarnate Lucy – on when and how people use and abuse each other and how all beauty is transformed into consumption. Of the caterpillar and the butterfly, Kendrick says, “I could be both.”
“At first I did love you, but now I just want to fuck” are Kendrick’s first words of the album, personifying the music industry and illuminating his relationship with it as emotionless, mutual taking. The industry might further be attached to Lucy: “Walking around like you’re God’s gift to earth; nigga you ain’t shit” is exactly what record execs might say to Kendrick going number one when the peak of his potential can’t even scratch the numbers of Drake’s pre-cum.
But Kendrick finds other ways to establish his dominance. Kendrick makes Drake’s sad bastard shtick look like cheap vaudeville on “u.” The closest he comes to braggadocio are “For Free,” where his tongue parkours over tumbling piano keys, and “King Kunta,” where he seems more interested in dismemberment and the literature of Alex Haley, Ralph Ellison, and Chinua Achebe. Then there’s the dramatic centerpiece: out of The Clash’s playbook – like “Something About England – a beggar is made larger than life when the homeless caterpillar pleads butterfly Kendrick for money before unmasking Himself on “How Much a Dollar Cost.” Damn right: God is in totally the opposite direction from the validation-by-capitalism Yeezy.
Most impressive are the two songs we’d already heard like we’ve never heard them before. Kendrick’s introspection is all-encompassing, veering to the darkest corners of his headspace like the murder (hypothetical?) murder he alluded to on “m.A.A.d. city.” And it’s this dark place that makes “i” – fresh and familiar in the final act like it’s the freaking “Sgt. Pepper’s” reprise – feel so earned, and what Aimee Cliff called radical self-love is now clear as day.
It’s an earned resolution, but any rumination on Black America with a resolution is a farce. Though everything leading up is colossal, it’s three final segments that push To Pimp a Butterfly over the line from masterwork to lasting conversation. First, “i” fades out under a crowd and free-verses, taking a page from Kingston, invoking Ethiopia to reimagine blackness as royalty, all while putting down liberal guardians of racial politics like Oprah (and Bill Cosby). Speaking of Cosby, the next segment asks, “When the shit hits the fan, is you still a fan?” Kendrick’s not dumb enough to mention Cosby, instead invoking Michael Jackson, a man who always received his people with love rather than Cosby’s disapproval.
But finally concerned for himself and realizing his moment in history, Kendrick has very few peers to reflect on. Bill Cosby is a rapist. Michael Jackson was a child molester. Dr. Dre assaulted Dee Barnes. Tupac Shakur only escaped a sexual assault eternally hanging over him through death. Kendrick seems unconcerned with actual assassinations – like those that came to Tupac, Malcolm, and Martin – but terrified with character assassination conspiracies. I don’t believe these conspiracies, but I can also imagine that any young black man would be terrified of becoming a Tom Robinson.
Finally, Kendrick has a chat with the ghost of Tupac Shakur, whose highlight comes when Kendrick gets comfortable enough chatting with his hero to pitch this idea of pimping a butterfly, only to realize he won’t find affirmation in his worldview from the people who used to control the conversation.
And that’s what To Pimp a Butterfly is. It’s about spending time with thoughts and rooting your actions in self-respect before moving forward to confront a landscape in which this country’s ever-trickier racial divides are coming to a head. It reminds that all actions, good and evil, involve using someone else. But at its basest, beyond its incredibly complicated racial politics, it’s an appeal to love, thought, and conversation.
We’ll be loving, thinking about, and talking about this one for a long time.