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Kendrick Lamar To Pimp A Butterfly Top Dawg / Aftermath / Interscope

In the build up towards To Pimp A Butterfly, critics around the world took a deep breath and prepared to join a race to get their verdict up first – such is the relentless climate of an online economy, where fast-tracked reactions generate traffic and ad revenue is driven by clicks. This looked like a complicated one, the album’s title (a play onTo Kill A Mockingbird, surely?) and the cover art (depicting a group of black males waving wads of cash besides a dead caucasian judge on the White House lawn) were a lot to process to already. But, it turns out, while To Pimp A Butterfly is densely layered, Kendrick Lamar’s core message is loud and clear.

With a cast of musicians that includes George Clinton, alto sax player Terrace Martin, pianist Robert Glasper, Flying Lotus and his affiliated bass virtuoso Thundercat and many more, the sunkissed West Coast hip-hop beats here sporadically burst into noodly jazz. The album’s most instantly-gratifying, upbeat bangers such as These Walls and King Kunta are loaded with layers of meaning, with the former first presenting itself as a sex jam before unfolding into a multi-faceted psychological metaphor, while the latter is named in reference to Kunta Kinte – the legendary enslaved man who chose to have his foot amputated rather than be castrated after trying to escape a Virginia plantation. The 2014 single i initially raised a few eyebrows due to its cheesy chorus and Carlos Santana-esque guitar licks, but here a rawer version appears as the empowered, optimistic counterpart to u – a devastating track where Kendrick breaks down and literally cries as he raps – and therefore plays a vital role.

While Lamar’s ambition is to be admired, there are moments whenTo Pimp A Butterfly gets slightly tangled up in its own structural complexity. The songs are punctuated with excerpts from a spoken word poem which, although powerfully-worded, begins to feel a little intrusive after repeated listens, and with so many tracks broken up by instrumental transitions and skits, some of the more lyrically dense verses here could’ve done with more space. 

But these aren’t major criticisms when the album’s mission is this exhilarating. In recent years, there’s been increased media attention towards incidents where young black males in America are killed by prejudiced police officers, many of whom escape substantial punishment. For better or worse, a mainstream US rapper has as much influence on the youth as almost any politician – this is a record which was streamed 9.6 million times on the day of its release. And on album finale Mortal Man, Lamar hoists the weight of this responsibility on his shoulders: “The ghost of Mandela, hope my flows propel it … As I lead you this army, make room for mistakes and depression”.  

Throughout the album,To Pimp A Butterfly explores an internalised sense of self-hatred that’s developed during centuries of systematic oppression and institutional racism, and pledges to replace it with self-love. It’s a record that advocates the power of unified communities rather than the destructive individualism of gangster survival tactics. And while the finer details deepen your understanding, To Pimp A Butterfly’s primary message is perhaps most directly summarised during one of its few guest verses, performed by female rapper Rapsody: “Call your brothers magnificent, call all the sisters queens / We all on the same team, blues and Pirus, no colours ain’t a thing.”