Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Share on Reddit Share on Pinterest Share on Linkedin Share on Tumblr Loving Kendrick Lamar isn’t complicated. In fact, it might be the least controversial bandwagon hop in music. He was the underdog finally making it big with enough bangers to dominate parties while splicing his tracks with brilliant political and social musings to have Black Star fans salivating. Good Kid M.A.A.D City gave him the crossover success that’s usually confined to myth. Sometime after the release of Good Kid (maybe after the Grammy awards decided that Macklemore was the best rapper of 2012) a small, but growing cry began. Whether he liked it or not, the label of “best rapper alive” was being thrown around and hip-hop heads were quick to place him as a savior of sorts. “Kendrick forgive me for my sins! I’ve been listening to too much Rick Ross!” Funny thing about saviors though, they don’t last long. People prefer their saints to be buried in the ground where they can’t defile their legacy. Either you die a hero, or live long enough to release Magna Carta, Holy Grail. Lamar was deftly aware he upped the ante. He rapped “I’m the King of New York/ King of the Coast, one hand, I juggle them both,” and had people nodding in agreement. No, loving Kendrick ain’t complicated. Loving To Pimp a Butterfly, however, is complicated. This isn’t the swaggering Lamar of “Control,” nor the keen-eyed filmmaker of Good Kid. This is Lamar unable to see if his 15 minutes are up or if he’s getting a full half hour—and unable to decide which is more terrifying. Butterfly swirls and rages with a million insecurities digging into Lamar’s flesh and crawling into his flow. Every piece of Black American music finds its way into the musical DNA, with uncomfortable questions about race, sex, economics and politics all howling along to the mutant music. It’s an uncomfortable album because its creator is uncomfortable, a glorious ramshackle mess of an album that’s titanic in length, scope and ambition. With releases from Death Grips, Earl Sweatshirt and Butterfly all coming within weeks of each other, 2015 is shaping up to be a deeply sobering year for rap. But even alongside the suicidal thoughts of his peers, Lamar is dangerously wrapped in his own neurosis. The album opens by serving up Boris Gardiner’s dreamy pop cut “Every Nigger is a Star” and Lamar doesn’t buy Gardiner’s philosophy. Just as Gardiner’s final notes fade, in rush the jitters of Thundercat’s morphing bass and a crazed monologue from George Clinton. This is “Wesley’s Theory,” a crash course on what sort of beast Butterfly is. Squealing synths and screams accent Lamar’s visions of the end times. Considering Good Kid was told by Lamar looking back on the trials of growing up in Compton, it’s no surprise that Butterfly has plenty of fragile moments. What is surprising is how few songs brim with self-esteem. Lamar shifts his voice constantly, seemingly afraid of the flow that landed him on the throne. On most of Butterfly, he’s scared and running, avoiding his problems and only finding solace in his family. Even then, it’s only a momentary break from the outside world. The wonderfully sweet “Momma” has Lamar returning to his home in Compton and chanting “I know everything, know myself/ I know morality, spirituality, good and bad health.”The peace only lasts a second, as an unsightly interruption drags Lamar back into the spotlight. “This is a woooorld premiere” smirks an unseen presence as Lamar goes off into a triple-time rhyme about how he wants to “jump” and not in House of Pain’s style. The only time Lamar finds his swagger is on “King Kunta,” perfectly placed after the mad free-jazz of “For Free? (Interlude)” where Lamar is drowned under a torrent of complaints from his girl before she threatens him by calling her “Uncle Sam” “King Kunta”’s menacing funk finds Lamar giving the finger to the girl and Sam, but it’s the only time Lamar puffs out his chest. Even on Good Kid we had the false bravado of “Backseat Freestyle,” all Butterfly can offer is “Alright” where Lamar proclaims “We gonna be alright” with sarcastic, terminal humor. In the wake of his fame, it looks like Lamar might have been horrified by what he saw in the mirror. “How Much a Dollar Cost” turned heads thanks its main piano line that seemed to be lifted from Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song,” but it evokes two other songs to reflect Lamar’s fractured mind. Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown” is conjured up on the closing hook and Mingus’ “Freedom” looms over every note of “How Much a Dollar Cost.” The deep jazz wail of “Freedom” was what inspired “Pyramid Song” in the first place and the dark chords plead for a different type of salvation in each song; redemption in the face of oppression for Mingus, peace in the afterlife for Radiohead and forgiveness for all consuming greed in “How Much a Dollar Cost.” Lamar is approached by a homeless man asking for a single dollar only to have Lamar unleash a 1% rant against him (“My selfishness is what got me here!”). Too bad for Lamar, it turns out that the panhandler is God, shaking his heavenly head and muttering “your potential is bittersweet” before disappearing. Props to Lamar for not making the homeless-man-as-God reveal feel completely bonkers until the song ends, but, if there’s any one theme to arise from Lamar’s lyrics on Butterfly, it’s that he’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer. “These Walls,” one of the few songs that could pass for a radio hit, starts with longtime cohort Anna Wise moaning over undulating piano chords before whispering “sex” as the beat hits. “u,” the dark twin of earlier single “i,” closes with Lamar sliding into a broken and childish voice that cracks every other beat as he discusses the short, painful road to alcoholism. Moments like this seem uncharacteristic of Lamar, considering he crafted the anti-booze ode “Swimming Pools (Drank)” so meticulously well that thousands of frat bros mistook it for a new anthem. Perhaps that’s why Lamar laid everything on thick here. “Please don’t let me be misunderstood” could be Butterfly’s tagline and Lamar is usually ferocious enough to make it all work. In a similar fashion to the holy hobo, the central figure of “Lucy” somehow manages to make sense in Lamar’s world. Lucy is a classic succubus, introduced in the Game Boy fever dream of “For Sale? (Interlude)” (seriously, shit sounds like it’s from Pokémon Gold). Lamar’s done with music critics, rappers screaming for cosigns and all the Lucys in the world. As the album closes, Lamar closes himself off, only allowing his family and friends to enter his realm. Butterfly’s version of “i” differs greatly from the single release, taking place at a block party, where Lamar breaks out into a political rant as his mic shorts out, and he pulls out an acapella verse. “N-E-G-U-S definition: royalty/ King royalty,” he spits. “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” comes as a lovely piece of maternal advice as Lamar retreats farther and farther and “Mortal Man” seeks to speak one-on-one with the fans. “When shit hits the fan is you still a fan?” Lamar asks. He poses it like an honest question without a hint of accusation, as he seems close to giving up on himself. There’s a good reason why Lamar starts hiding; he sees threats and enemies everywhere. The lost promises of “40 acres and a mule” are brought up throughout Butterfly and “Wesley’s Theory” ends with the screams of “taxman comin’!” like the gestapo are burning down Lamar’s house. In the full, sprawling context of Butterfly, Lamar’s ferocious yell of “you hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture” is directly aimed at America itself. The brutal “The Blacker the Berry” seemed problematic to some for the line “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?/ When gang-banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?/ Hypocrite!” It was too close to the classic right wing shield “why don’t we talk about black-on-black crime?” whenever a tragedy like Eric Garner rushed to the forefront of the American consciousness. But, as pointed out by Dead End Hip Hop’s Myke C Town, Lamar is turning that phrase against Fox News types. Yes, let’s talk about black-on-black crime and how systemic white supremacy causes both black-on-black crime and police-made horrors. Yes, let’s talk about that. Butterfly is a deeply paranoid album, reflecting the rapper who crafted it. Lamar was always an introspective sort, but this is a race through his troubled mind. Much has been made about Butterfly being a black album, a political album and American album (even as troubled as it is with its home). But, above all that, it’s Kendrick. If a piece of art is a reflection of its creator, then To Pimp a Butterfly proudly shows every complexity, flaw and insecurity right next to the boasts, the talent and the brief moments of optimism. Somewhere in the chaos, Lamar hasn’t lost his humanity.