A Review of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, By Haider Shahbaz

Hip-hopgave birth to an aesthetic that combined the concepts of
disruption and flow. Pioneering artists of the Bronx created rhythms that
flowed with ease while at the same time interrupted and broke open songs to add
layers and counterpoint to the ongoing emulsion of sound. DJs paused their cassette
players and rewound the beat multiple times to make breakbeats and record the
perfect breakdown. Early rappers had a stop-go technique—with sharp falls
between the bars/verses—that’s testament to the ubiquity of these breakbeats. Hip-hop
eschewed the values of harmony, synthesis, and climax—characteristics that provide
the basis for most forms of Western music, instead using loops, repetition, and
breaks to create a unique and contradictory style.

Kendrick Lamar’s new album, To Pimp A Butterfly, is a fitting tribute to hip-hop’s commitment to
disruption and flow and with the split makes for a layered interrogation of
society. Even on the cover art, the album’s disruptive intent is clear: a group
of jubilant black men and boys, including Lamar himself, stand on the lawn,
interrupting the view of the White House. The album seems to be taunting the
monolithic, homogeneous global order that works so hard to civilize, surveil,
and assimilate all dissent and difference.

The opening track, “Wesley’s Theory,” is a compendium
of clashing elements from the archives of Black diaspora culture. The title is
a reference to Wesley Snipes’ unsuccessful attempts at employing tax protestor
theories to save himself from imprisonment. The song begins with the crack and
hiss of vinyl, the beginning to a sample of the Jamaican Boris Gardiner singing
the heavy-funk anthem “Every Nigger Is a Star,” from the 1970s Blaxploitation movie
of the same name. Before the listener has a chance to settle into the sample, the
legendary Parliament singer George Clinton, interjects with an emphatic “Hit
me!” and the beat swiftly breaks into producer Flying Lotus’s psychedelic-jazz
arrangement, backed by horns and alto sax from Terrace Martin. And as if it
wasn’t enough to squeeze the vastly different Snipes, Gardiner, Clinton, and
FlyLo into the same song, Kendrick cuts the song midway through with a recorded
voicemail from Dr. Dre over a splat of cosmic chords that sound something like
Sun Ra’s lost tapes. After an upbeat outro, “Wesley’s Theory” gives way to a
sax cry reminiscent of Miles Davis’s flirtations with free jazz which opens to
the “For Free? Interlude,” a rap that sounds like a sped-up version of Ginsberg
or The Last Poets, accompanied by sparse and textured piano keys.

The spirit of disruption, the same break-and-flow
methods that define “Wesley’s Theory” and “For Free? Interlude” are spread
throughout the album. Despite the rare guest verses (Rapsody being the only
traditional one), Kendrick’s narrative flow is interrupted repeatedly,
sometimes cut off in the middle or drowned out to make space for interviews,
background vocals, guest choruses, voicemails, audience fights at mock live
performances, recurring poetry readings, and funk/soul samples that heighten
the album’s open-ended and improvised feeling. The result is an
introspective and meditated chaos, a brave and honest desire to introduce
differing voices in order to disrupt the flow of Kendrick’s own voice.

The various instruments and improvisations interrupt
and cut each other to create polyrhythmic beats that flow across the terrains
of different musical genres. In fact, the sheer ambition of the album—in terms
of the musical elements and genres it employs—is rarely found in contemporary hip-hop,
or even in contemporary soul and jazz, arguably the closest offering in recent
memory being D’Angelo’s Black Messiah.
Still, the musical excellence of the album doesn’t come as a surprise. Few rap
artists have the resources (and the reputation) to acquire the team that
Kendrick has assembled. The album includes older legends like Ronald Isley and
George Clinton, hip-hop heavyweights like Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, newer voices
like Flying Lotus and Robert Glasper, even lesser-known artists like the
neo-soul prodigy Bilal, the Stones Throw signee Knx, and Thundercat. Furthermore,
Kendrick partly recorded the album with a live band (he
has also been performing with one)—a highly uncommon practice in mainstream
rap, but one that clearly contributes much of the characteristic jazz to the

The musical interruptions reinforce the fragmented
narrative structures of the songs. “Wesley’s Theory” is broken into two verses,
each spoken from a different perspective, adding to the polyphony of voices
already present. On the first verse, Kendrick voices the juxtaposition of the
cover-art from the perspective of the stereotyped black artist: “I’mma put the
Compton swap meet by the White House/Republican, run up, get socked out/Hit the
Press with a Cuban link on my neck/Uneducated but I got a million-dollar check.”

The second verse has Lamar impersonating Uncle Sam, responding
to the desires of the artist: “But remember, you ain’t pass economics in
school/And everything you buy, taxes will deny/I’ll Wesley Snipe your ass
before thirty-five.” The juxtaposition of the two narratives, along with the interruptions
in the beat, disrupt the establishment of a central moral truth to the song, and
leave the question of consumerism and racial stereotypes strung between the two
verses. The structure allows the critical edge of the questions being posed to
go deeper instead of being hastily resolved in cliché.

The main narrative conflict in the album is the friction
between life
and death,
a thematic juxtaposition that can be interpreted as the flow and disruption of
life itself. “King Kunta,” the most dedicatedly funk offering on the album,
finds Lamar comparing himself to Kunta Kinte: “Everybody wanna cut the legs off
him.” On “Institutionalized,” he mentions again the elements conspiring toward
his death: “If I was the President/I’d pay my mama’s rent/Free my homies and
them/Bulletproof my Chevy doors.” On “u,” Kendrick bares suicidal thoughts,
interrupting the verses to take swigs of alcohol: “And if this bottle could
talk *gulp* I cry myself to sleep/Bitch everything is your fault.” And later:
“I think your heart made of bullet proof/Shoulda killed you ass a long time
ago/You shoulda feeled that black revolver blast a long time ago.” But the album’s
morbid and uncertain verses are matched by an equally assertive counterpart.

The first single, “i”, sees Lamar celebrating the
potentiality of life: “Everybody lack confidence, everybody lack confidence/How
many times my potential was anonymous?/How many times the city making me
promises?/So I promise this, nigga/I love myself.” Similarly, Kendrick exhibits
passionate self-ownership on “The Blacker the Berry”: “You hate me don’t
you?/You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture/ You’re fuckin’
evil I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey/You vandalize my
perception but can’t take style from me.”

The flows are further split by Lamar’s tendency to
perform as other characters on the album. He dramatizes a conversation between
himself and a homeless man on “How Much a Dollar Cost,” on “Momma” he adopts
the perspective of a kid he’s run into on the streets of Compton, and on “These
Walls” he speaks from the viewpoint of the woman he is having sex with as well
as the father of her child who is now in prison. The alternative narratives are
presented in conversation with each other, often as two irresolvable poles of
the same argument. For example, Kendrick praises the virtues of hard work in
the face of racism on the first verse of “Institutionalized”: “Me,
scholarship? No, streets put me through colleges/Be all you can be, true, but
the problem is/Dream only a dream if work don’t follow it.” But on the second
verse he gives voice to a different side of the argument, this time speaking
from the viewpoint of a friend accompanying him to the BET Awards: “Now I can
watch his watch on the TV and be okay/ But see I’m on the clock once that watch
landin’ in L.A./Remember steal from the rich and givin it back to the poor/Well
that’s me at these awards.”

The choice to simultaneously disrupt and flow, and the
choice to treat hip-hop as a limitless genre, open to any number of sounds is
more than an aesthetic choice. It is also an ethical choice. It’s a choice that
welcomes contradiction rather than shuns it, silences, or absorbs it.

In To Pimp a
, the disruptions are not simply an aesthetic choice, but form the
basis of the album’s primary narrative concern: a constant, probing
interrogation of one’s own position through the relative positions of others.
The other voices on the album—those of other people and those embodied by
Kendrick—are not resolved or silenced. They continue to linger inside the music
and question its convictions.

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