kendrick1. Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp a Butterfly
[Interscope/Aftermath/Top Dawg]

In our increasingly splintered musical, political and popular culture, it’s rare that we can all agree on something. But here there seems to be almost universal consensus – To Pimp a Butterfly is a towering musical accomplishment, and more importantly, one of the most significant works of protest literature of our generation—an audio accompaniment to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. This may all sound like hyperbolic praise, but for Kendrick Lamar, every bit of it is truly deserved.

To Pimp a Butterfly is a messy mélange of contradictions—defiantly confrontational (“King Kunta”) and then tenderly introspective (“These Walls”), often within the four-minute span of the same song (“The Blacker the Berry”). In a year that witnessed the deepening of America’s racial divide, an explosion of violence both abroad and at home and an absurdly contentious political cycle, no album channeled the frustration, hope and anger of 2015 better than Butterfly. What’s more, in the nine months since its release, the record has proven not only reflective but prophetic as well, becoming a rallying point for civil rights activists and birthing a genuinely moving protest anthem in a generation bereft of them (“Alright”).

king-lkuntaIt’s not just a polemic, though—Butterfly’s complex politics are matched equally by its disorienting, occasionally inscrutable sonic landscape. Beats break from their syncopation, punctuated by explosions of vintage jazz horns and weak-kneed wobbling bass (see the righteous convocation of “For Free? (Interlude)”). Kamasi Washington’s saxophone and Thundercat’s bass offer invaluable contributions, giving Butterfly its unshakeable rhythm. There aren’t too many genuine hooks, certainly not on par with Kendrick’s own Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, but give it a half-dozen listens, and one will gain a rapturous appreciation for its meandering, free-flowing bebop structure.

Lamar’s lyrical dexterity has never been finer, his verbal imagery rich with metaphor, humor and insight—sex, drug addiction, capitalist consumption, survivor’s guilt; he covers it all. The record not only channels his forefathers—Miles Davis, the Roots, Gil Scott-Heron—but it gains their approval as well, as George Clinton, Dr. Dre and Ronald Isley show up for torch-passing cameos.

In the middle of all of it, the man born Kendrick Lamar Duckworth stands tall, a disillusioned yet still aspirational warrior-poet trying to heal his city, his nation and most importantly, himself. He’s the hip-hop star that we need so desperately right now, and To Pimp a Butterfly serves as the validation of any and all faith we ever placed in him. Let’s face it—in many ways, 2015 let us down. But Kendrick Lamar did not—and who knows, maybe we will indeed be “alright.” – Zachary Bernstein

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