Some people say that the best music — benchmark, or classic albums — is not just groundbreaking in artistry and invention, but also has behind it a working conscience. The residue of these albums and the themes they convey stick with the listener, congealing to the listener’s outlook with every listen. This becomes not only a part of the individual listener’s conscience, but also a part of society’s collective subconscious.
Hip-Hop, though, offers a somewhat odd binary to this concept: rappers are going out, buying cars and jewelry, or they are reaching out to those who will never be able to. They are either rapping to distract, or to show. The genre is rooted in oppression, and oppression is the theme of many of hip-hop’s most treasured albums. There has not been — in the mainstream, at least — a figurehead to take on this largely open role as the voice to the people who previously had the commanding voices of Tupac and Nas when in need of guidance. If anyone, Kendrick Lamar has gotten closest to claiming this title.
His album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” starts out with “Wesley’s Theory,” a song that sets the album’s tone as being heavily influenced by old school funk and rooted in themes of black pride. We get immediate tastes of this as the song opens up, with Kendrick’s use of Boris Gardener’s “Every [expletive] is a Star” sample, a song that back in 1974 pushed to convert the connotation of the “n” word to one that the black community could embrace. Kendrick throws in features from George Clinton and Thundercat as well, each of which add a unique presence and dimension to the song.
This groovy, old-school vibe is also present in the James Brown-esque “King Kunta,” one of my favorite songs on the album. Here, Kendrick tackles the more personal issues he faces with his new role in the industry. Kendrick recognizes where he came from and acknowledges the lifestyle he had previously. In the chorus, Kendrick still claims his undeniable presence in the industry, regarding himself as somewhat of a Kunta figure. This is an allusion to the 18th century slave whose life inspired the novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.”
The jazz-infused beat behind Kendrick’s demanding, arduous diction compliments the largely historical subjects that this track tackles, heard aggressively in Kendrick’s decisive use of samples. Gut-wrenching and impossible to skip over, the sample of “Get Nekkid” by Mausberg just coats this song in what should be acknowledged as a calling out to Compton street violence. Mausberg was a Compton protégé, much like Kendrick was. However, he was shot and killed at age 21.
Survivor’s guilt is a theme spotted throughout the entire album, in songs such as “Hood Politics,” “Momma,” “Institutionalized” and markedly in “The Blacker The Berry” — Kendrick’s most invasive track on “To Pimp a Butterfly” and perhaps in his entire discography.
Something that Kendrick has always done well — and that made “good kid m.A.A.d city” such a diamond in the rough back in 2012 — is his use of structure, album syntax and transition. Even though this new album is not the telling, personal narrative that was “GKMC,” it has more sophisticated devices that weave the tracks of this album into one seamless package.
At the end of every track on this album, Kendrick adds one line to a poem. Each added line smoothly transitions into the next song and new theme. My favorite example of this pattern is at the end of “These Walls” where Kendrick utters, “I remember you were conflicted. Misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same. Abusing my power, full of resentment. Resentment that turned into a deep depression. Found myself screaming in the hotel room,” only to immediately transition into “u,” a song that begins with Kendrick releasing a nasty, blood-curdling scream. This song acts as the antithesis of the radio single and Grammy winning song “i.” While “i” serves as the positive, feel-good punctuation to the album, “u” is the more cathartic, self-destructive track preceding many of Kendrick’s more frustrated tracks.
The poem that Kendrick weaves throughout the album comes to an end at the album’s final, 12-minute track, “Mortal Man,” a song largely composed of an edited interview between Kendrick and Tupac Shakur himself. Here, we see that the poem that had been fueling the thematic flow and order of the tracks was, all along, Kendrick speaking to Tupac in this interview, and the responses Tupac gives to Kendrick’s questions regarding his success and evolution as an artist. His childhood on the streets has an eerie relevance to current, hot button issues. Tupac predicts that, “there’s going to be bloodshed for real. I don’t think America know that.”
Above all else, this album solidifies what we all expected from Kendrick. This album was not made for the radio. It was not even made for me. “To Pimp a Butterfly” is a compelling lyrical illustration that may just send the queue of rappers dropping albums in the next month of two back to the studio. Well done, Kendrick.