I’ve been rummaging in my skull the past few days for the skeleton key that might spring open the interlocking chambers of rap phenomenon Kendrick Lamar’s intricate, imbricated, and self-implicating new album. To Pimp a Butterfly, an immediate contender for best of the year, alighted unseasonably on Sunday night, its wings’ beating fit to trigger a typhoon, and the last thing I want is to pin down and dissect its dazzle.
For illumination I’ve found myself holding it up less to music, at least initially, than to poetry. I’m normally sour on such moves, the give-Dylan-a-Nobel routine: Lyrics for performance and verse for the page are different species. The parallel is only elevating if you curtsey to academic authority, and songwriters need no such boost. Here, however, it may fit, given that the through line on which Lamar has strung his 16 tunes is a poem of his own.
It unfolds fragment by fragment in between tracks, directing and animating a dialogue among the songs, their characters, their many Lamars. In the 12-minute track at the record’s end, “Mortal Man” (after he shrugs, “it ain’t really a poem”), it morphs into a “conversation” with the wraith of Tupac Shakur, using taped snippets from a rare 1994 interview.
All of which is signature heart-on-sleeve stuff from this onetime straight-A student who was turned on to verse and metaphor by a seventh-grade teacher and for whom hip-hop became a compass through (and out of) the enticements and dangers of the Compton streets. That double-hinged backstory was the core of his previous landmark record, 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City.
It’s too soon to say whether To Pimp a Butterfly is a more satisfying album, but it does advance the narrative: It traces the course of that internal division to Lamar’s current age of 27, as it forks and frays again and again under pressure systems of fame and wealth, “survivor’s guilt” and nostalgia, and temptation versus faith.
To the disappointment of some listeners, Lamar seems to feel he’s already proven himself peerless as a technical rapper, especially via his 2013 murder-all-comers verse on Big Sean’s “Control.” (On “Hood Politics,” Lamar quotes Jay Z, bragging, “It’s funny how one verse could fuck up the game.”) So he powers those skills up and down as needed while also using spoken word, singing, dramatic recitation, found sound, and whatever else suits his aims.
Prime among those priorities is sorting exploitation from expression under white supremacy—that is, to pimp or not to pimp the “butterfly” of one’s gifts to the outside world, whether for love or profit? In that frame, the record interrogates how to sound a singular black voice when the black-American body politic bears wounds centuries deep yet fresh as the morning news, in the skins of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice, not to mention Lamar’s own fallen friends and relatives back in Compton.
It’s a suite for many voices (mostly but far from solely Lamar’s) that dips into a much bigger pool of public and private ruckus around race. And in that it calls to mind two recent acts in American poetry, literary division.
The first is Claudia Rankine’s National Book Award finalist Citizen: An American Lyric, which portrays “micro-aggressions” between the races, generally in the more rarefied social ranks. These stories about the enforcement of second-class citizenship are set in the second person, their (mostly) black protagonists represented as “you.” Your white neighbor calls the cops on the black friend who’s babysitting at your house. Your white boss complains about being required to hire minorities instead of the “great” candidates (so which are you?). Your new doctor screams at you to get away from her door before she realizes you have an appointment.
As Jonathan Farmer said in Slate’s review, whether the “you” is Rankine herself or someone else, the device insinuates the reader’s vulnerability and/or complicity while it stages displacement within its own language: “The opening, between you and you, occupied,/ zoned for an encounter,” Rankine writes, “given the histories of you and you—/ And always, who is this you?” The book also purposefully puts white readers such as Farmer and me in an uncomfortable position: With whom do you let (or make) yourself identify, and why?
In its rougher, ruder manner, Lamar’s album is also constantly spinning the camera around, or the mirror, as it conducts its own investigations into the psychic toll of social violence. You have to hold on tight to parse the shifting perspectives and personae. On opener “Wesley’s Theory,” Lamar is his younger self lusting for cash and notoriety, then his current self jaded by that desire (through a metaphor pickpocketed from Common’s 1994 classic “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” hip-hop becomes an ex-lover), and then he is “Uncle Sam on your dollar” seducing with promises but plotting to double-cross (ostensibly through taxation, à la Wesley Snipes, though what’s being extracted here feels more existential).
Late in “Institutionalized,” with a storytelling assist from Snoop Dogg, Lamar becomes a friend from the hood whom he’s brought to an awards show, who gets tempted to play Robin Hood and snatch away the opulence around them. Likewise in the last verse of “Momma,” Lamar slips into the voice of a skeptical little boy he meets back home. Then on “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said),” he channels his own mother, passing along her (and some of Tupac’s) harsh but sage advice. And on both “Alright” and “For Sale? (Interlude)” he plays “Lucy,” aka Lucifer, a temptress who speaks in high-pitched nasal tongues and who bargains with him at the classic Robert Johnson crossroad and sends him “runnin’ … home.”
None of this is unique—the theatricality of rap as an abstract spoken art invites such role-playing, even as the gospel of realness serves to keep it in check. But the intensity with which Lamar does it here is defiant, recalling (as does the jazz-funk sound of much of the record) a Daisy Age, early-1990s approach to rap narrative, albeit with encyclopedic knowingness rather than wide-eyed novelty. Even when he’s speaking for himself, you never quite know when he’s parodying his own ego and the standard rap tropes, and when he’s playing it straight.
Then there are metamorphoses not of character but of signification: On “These Walls,” the vaginal walls teased about in a sex jam disturbingly become prison walls in a critique of the prison-industrial complex until Lamar connects the dots by revealing he’s been “abusing [his] power” by sleeping with a convict’s girl for revenge.
Finally, the next song, “u,” is a stream of suicidal invective Lamar howls at himself in a hotel room, dispirited by his own hypocrisies and the horrors he is unable to alleviate despite all his supposed influence—an even queasier, more toxic version of Rankine’s “blackness as the second person.”
“U” is the prequel to “i,” which came out as a single in September, and in this context the self-affirming buoyancy of that song (over a sample of the Isley Brothers’ “That Lady” riff) seems much more earned and much less corny, which was a common slam against it then. If one of the complaints about this album is that there don’t seem to be more potential singles (the other advance release was the miles-from-corny, but also controversial, “The Blacker the Berry”), the misinterpretation in isolation of “i” may be a reason why.
Isn’t radio the most prolific butterfly pimp, mangling music’s wings as often as it gives them flight? On an album, the artist can be programmer, DJ, announcer, and advertiser, too; he makes his own weather and directs all the traffic. But that option is commercially viable only because of the resurgence of the Event Album as a force in pop, through the surprise-drop strategy that’s become dominant since Beyoncé’s palace coup in late 2013. In fact several commentators have taken the week-early arrival of To Pimp a Butterfly (intentional or not) as an obituary for the release date as a convention, period. The trend seems to have reawakened an appetite for the concept album, in a way I never would have predicted five years ago.
Back then, mixtapes were the stream-of-consciousness zone, the official album more a mere display case of products meant for airplay. It seemed probable that full-length recordings would be a casualty of contracted digital attention spans, supplanted by more frequent singles and EPs. Yet now, with the album returned to its role as top-of-the-card spectacle, it’s encouraging artists to make more audacious bets.
Just as in the prog-rock-double-album period, however, too often the conceptual apparatus of many of today’s big rap and R&B albums—by Kanye West or Drake, for instance—becomes an elaborate form of whining about success. As I wrote about Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, it brings to mind Roger Waters/“Pink” in his hotel room in 1979, going all-too-comfortably numb. Why should anyone else cry for these poor little rich boys?
West and Drake get over by force of personality, but their centripetal narcissism can make hip-hop seem like it’s been sucked into a decadent phase. Lamar, on the other hand, makes the genre spring up rejuvenated. Like Rankine in Citizen, Lamar avoids insularity and class claustrophobia by attending to micro-details of occasion and encounter (excoriating himself in “u”, for instance, for FaceTiming instead of visiting a Compton friend in the hospital), and of historical violations rehearsed and repeated on a daily, molecular level. His is not just the rock-star problem that stratospheric status drives a person crazy, but more fundamentally that the system that’s rewarded him was already warped, the same white hierarchy that instilled black self-hatred to begin with.
This brings me to the other recent incident from the poetry world that seems relevant to To Pimp a Butterfly: the brouhaha right now around New York conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s choice last weekend to read Ferguson, Missouri, shooting victim Michael Brown’s autopsy report as a piece of found poetry, for a full 30 minutes at an event at Brown University. Goldsmith is white, and his critics (primarily on social media) accused him of appropriating black suffering for his own pretenses.
Now, I can equally imagine Goldsmith meant to call out his complicity with the white institutions that deployed Brown’s autopsy, that reduced a life to organs measured and weighed. But the effect of the performance, because pain is embodied and because experience can’t be divorced from our bodies’ histories, inevitably sounds more like an additional act of exploitation.
There’s a similar problem of standing for a white listener discussing—or indeed simply listening—to To Pimp a Butterfly. The album begins with the sound of a needle touching vinyl on the Blaxploitation-era song “Every N---er Is a Star,” and it ends with a simulation of Shakur and Lamar discussing a future in which black rioters don’t just loot stores but kill (and, they joke, eat) whites. It’s what Clover Hope described this week in Jezebel as an “overwhelming blackness,” with its reference points including Zulus, Nelson Mandela, Kunta Kinte’s amputated foot, and, as Hope writes, “Gators, cotton picking, Richard Pryor. Master, chains, jigaboos, queens, Africa, naps, and that Brazilian wavy 28-inch.”
Musically, its main touchstones are 1960s free jazz—often called liberation music in its time—as well as 1970s funk and 1990s West Coast rap grooves and Dirty South neo-soul, all some of the blackest music in history. But it mostly doesn’t get there the easy way, by sampling. Instead, Lamar has assembled a tight posse of heavy-duty L.A.-centric jazz and funk musicians and up-and-coming producers to create most of these beats, textures, and backup vocals in the studio.
Avant-fusion electronics whiz Flying Lotus sets the tone as producer of the first track, yet there’s also a cameo there by Parliament-Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton, establishing a place in this tapestry for old masters and their heirs—whether that’s Ron Isley on “How Much a Dollar Cost” (adding a gorgeous coda to what’s otherwise one of the LP’s weaker links), or Lalah Hathaway (daughter of Donny) on “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” and “Momma,” or Soulquarians veteran Bilal singing on nearly half the album.
If Clover Hope herself considers all this “an unfathomable complexity” whose “blackness is way too vast,” then where do I place myself within it, without trying to either tame or exoticize, without making it a text I can recite aloud and imagine I’ve made some act of solidarity?
Lamar does a lot of direct address to his fans here, those who see him as a preacher or a leader, and questions their loyalty but also their wisdom in following someone with such flaws, but I can’t identify myself with the young fans he means. Some have heralded To Pimp a Butterfly as a 2015 It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and I’m often the kind of earnest, Run the Jewels–praising white hip-hop dork who likes having an activist hook to hold onto. But while Lamar fantasizes about relocating the Compton Swap Meet to the White House (the kind of reversal pictured on the album cover), he also imagines himself messing up as president because he flunked economics in school. Even at his most political, he won’t shut out his abundant, omnidirectional doubt.
Kenneth Goldsmith himself was invited by President Obama to the White House a couple of years ago, for a day of poetry appreciation. And while the other radical poets tied themselves in knots over whether that made Goldsmith a political sellout, the real action was over on Fox News, where they were raising hell because Common was also on the bill. Because, the subtext clearly went, only a black president would debase poetry (which Fox News of course holds so sacred) by including rap in it.
Yet when Obama does invite Common to the White House, or perhaps when I label Kendrick Lamar as a poet, that is also an act of containment, of domestication, of pimping the butterfly. And those who are upset that Lamar won’t stay in his lane as a great technical rapper are in a sense doing the same thing. That refusal may be part of the politic here. I wonder if it’s among the reasons that he didn’t include the blistering untitled rap he performed on one of the final episodes of The Colbert Report in December.
On the other hand it might be that Lamar had hesitations about the complex racial imagining in that song, after he underwent his own social-media trials, over his ambivalent comments about the Ferguson protests and over the controversial climactic moment in “The Blacker the Berry” when he calls himself a hypocrite for critiquing racism when he has participated in violence against other black people back in Compton. (He refers to a murder, which I imagine is symbolic shorthand, though I can’t be sure.)
As a result he was accused of equating structural, institutional racism (white domination) to its symptoms and consequences (“black-on-black” violence), and in that way blaming the victims. He seems to be wrestling with that debate through much of this album—are his interpretations of his own experiences deluded, the products of self-hatred? The prolix motility of the record seems partly an outcome of his artistic predilection to say both can be true, to answer polemic with paradox, to gather all possible realities into the frame. That’s an attitude often unwelcome in today’s polarized economy of outrage, and perhaps it’s part of why he makes himself such a chameleonic target, ventriloquizing such a range of alter egos, slipping (as Goldsmith seemed to try and fail to do) into other skins. That’s part of hip-hop’s essence, of course—founded on sampling, it’s also appropriation art, which is to say salvage art, which is to say survival art.
But there is too much to process on To Pimp a Butterfly to come to settled conclusions. From my listening so far, I am inclined to say the album loses momentum in the first few songs of its second half—between “For Sale? (Interlude)” and “How Much a Dollar Cost.” That’s also the section in which Lamar’s Christianity comes to the fore, particularly in the latter tale of a run-in with a homeless beggar who turns out to be God himself. Talk about cornball. It’s like a groovy adaptation of a Jack Chick gospel tract. Similarly, I could object to the personification of the devil as Lucy, and in general of women (if they’re not your momma) as vectors of corruption. But a week from now those songs might somersault for me into entirely other registers of significance. So why take easy shots, when there is so much else to grapple with?
Poetry aside, in its sprawl, its engagement, its tough tenderness, its “overwhelming blackness,” its spirituality, its specific musical reconnection of hip-hop to jazz and the neo-soul movement, and its general too-much-ness, the work of art to which To Pimp a Butterfly most begs comparison is—of course—D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s recent likeminded monsterpiece, Black Messiah.
Together these achievements dare us to speculate that something’s going on in black popular music that wasn’t a year or two ago, even a decade—or at least then it wasn’t so obvious. That some kind of spirit is rising, like a bright cloud of monarchs finally migrating back after an extended stay at Michoacán. As if the climate were changing, for once for the better. I don’t know, and it’s not for me to say. Let’s not take up any nets now, but lean back, listen to the susurrus, keep tuning our antennae, and watch out for the next golden wave.