Thanks to the element of surprise that trumped even President Putin coming back from the dead, this morning Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly arrived online.
The follow-up to good kid, m.A.A.d city, sets the bar for the entire year in hip-hop - as Kanye tinkers endlessly with So Help Me God, the standard has been raised yet again. Kendrick Lamar’s third studio record is a thrilling, defiant statement of intent - an album so enormous that, as fellow MC Pharoahe Monch pointed out on Twitter, it nearly broke iTunes.
What’s so exciting about Lamar’s work is the fact that musically he can go anywhere - something he illustrated by the first three tracks that emerged from the album. In turn, he can do: introspective uplifting soul (‘i’), politically charged rap ('The Blacker The Berry’) and power funk that recalls Parliament and references Michael Jackson (‘King Kunta’).
Kendrick is also capable of taking huge artistic risks thanks to a combination of immense self belief and a healthy disregard for industry conventions. As southern rap spokesperson Bun B put it best: “Kendrick wins because there's no fear. Of man or the machine. This is how you truly strive for greatness.”
To Pimp A Butterfly is built around some of the oldest concepts of hip-hop but revisited in a bold new fashion. The classics are all here: an MC’s own status as number one in their field, the dangers of fame, the trouble with police corruption, the struggles of race in America, the evils of conspicuous consumption. Even the more precise details are familiar: an answer machine message from a famous friend, the allure of the Benjamins, the joys of a bottle of Crown Royal, the delights and perils of falling for the the wrong woman. All of these topics will be tackled in various forms by hundreds of hip-hop albums and mixtapes this year: but one suspects no-one will manage it with such style.
The album is built around a central device that is revisited six times throughout the 16 tracks. It sees Lamar experience his own dark night of the soul, concerned about being "conflicted" and "misusing" his influence. Kendrick places this scene precisely, where he "found myself screaming in the hotel room" on the brink of self-destruction. It is as uncomfortably personal as it needs to be. The fact that Lamar throws in the sound of a Spanish maid tapping on his door brings it home - he wants you inside that rented room with him, defeating his demons, acknowledging the self-doubt he has experienced.
Having given us an insight into his emotionally vulnerable moments, Lamar then proceeds to demonstrate why he is arguably the finest MC working today. Unbelievably he has the audactiy to shut down not only comparison with other rappers but also the idea of dissecting hip-hop at alll. "Everybody want to talk about who this and who that / Who the realest and who wack, who white or who black" he raps on 'Hood Politics', before taking aim at nostalic reviewers. "Critics want to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin’ / Motherfucker if you did, then Killer Mike'd be platinum.”
Tracks like 'Insitutionalised' also show quite how much ground Lamar can cover with such ease. He can talk about the problems facing incarcerated black men and then, without missing a beat, call time on bottle service and Instagram boasting a few lines later. It's the sort of track that Q-Tip has been threatening to make for the last decade or so - which is no bad thing. It's a real delight to see Lamar outclass his competiton with such ease: to keep things simple he keeps most of the self aggrandisement to one track ‘Momma’ (that even references his own 'Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe'). Expect to see Taylor Swift lip-syncing along to it in the near future.
There are elaborate lyrical concepts: at one point Kendrick answers the conundrum first posed by Joan Osborne over 20 years ago when God appears to him as a homeless man at a gas station (rather than a stranger on a bus trying to make his way home). Kendrick manages to address both problems with the industry ('Wesley's Theory') and give hope for a post-Ferguson future ('Alright'). 'u', a song Lamar admits is "as depressing as a motherfucker" is a dark, troubling listen - the kind of track Eminem used to make before he put a bodyguard on stage and a steel vault around his emotions.
Sonically To Pimp A Butterfly is also far stranger and more intriguing than 99% of major label rap. Kendrick can rhyme over a strange burbling Flying Lotus beat like it’s standard boom-bap and when, paired with the jitttery jazz beats of Rahki & Tommy Black, Lamar really comes into his own. It's an agreeably strange state of affairs that that the biggest record in the hip-hop right sounds like the sort of thing Gilles Peterson would play on his 6 Music show.
Criticisms? Well according to Genius 'For Free' recalls Carla Thomas classic 'Tramp' but to these ears it’s going to get real old, real quick (the only thing that could save it would be if if Titus Andromedon from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt could tackle Kendrick's “You really think we could make a baby named Mercedes..." verse). Your appreciation of 'These walls', a decidedly gynecological bedroom jam, will depend upon a strong stomach. And the 2Pac interview that finishes the record, like one of Vanity Fair's Impossible Interviews? The album doesn't need it.
But these are minor complaints. Super smart, super funky, To Pimp A Butterfly is the perfect showcase of Kendrick wit and wisdom. Even if his future doesn't lie with Interscope (as his manager's Twitter suggests), this third LP confirms him in a class of his own. This is truly one of truly great hip-hop albums of recent times. Now let's only hope that New Look Wireless Festival take note and put him above Avicii on the bill come July...
To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar (TDE/Interscope) is out now digitally and will be released on CD and vinyl later this week. Kendrick Lamar plays Wireless on 4 July. For tickets click below.