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Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp A Butterfly


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From Noisey:
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“If you go to the Wikipedia page for Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On, you’ll learn that it is a nine-song concept album, “told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing nothing but injustice, suffering and hatred.” That summary might offer some sense of why the album is special, but, ultimately, it could also be a description of Sylvester Stallone’s character Rambo. What’s Going On is one of the greatest albums of all time not because Wikipedia says so but because it is suffused with emotion. It is an album that you become immersed in, that you feel deeply, that you experience in ways that are far more tied to your life than the Vietnam War ever will be. The real world political backdrop is almost incidental; the ingrained political feeling is timeless.
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Kendrick Lamar‘s third long-player To Pimp A Butterfly is an album full of funk and soul that is rooted in emotion, and, like all emotion and all funk and all soul, it’s best approached by simply giving in to it. The inevitable Genius diatribes and Reddit conspiracy theories and Wikipedia summaries will be, to a large extent, missing the point. The point isn’t trying to figure out what Kendrick means on his gradually unfolding monologue about screaming in a hotel room. The point is that Kendrick Lamar is screaming in a hotel room.
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Let’s backtrack: Tying the album together is a monologue that Kendrick Lamar repeats at the end of many of the songs, adding lines on each successive repetition. Contextually, it’s delivered to Tupac. To me, the key phrase is Kendrick’s concern about “misusing your influence.” The obvious pressure on Kendrick Lamar — compounded by the chatter about Good Kid M.A.A.D. City as a classic album and his verse on “Control” as a game-changing hip-hop event and the backlash within the hip-hop community against high-profile rappers as public figures in the wake of events like Ferguson — was to not only deliver another “classic” album but to speak to the broader condition of being black in America and, if there was time, to maybe save hip-hop from the creeping spectre of songs about turning up in the process. Anyone, with those kinds of expectations placed upon them, would probably lose it. That Kendrick managed to make an album that not only lives up to those expectations but discusses the pressure of fulfilling them — while also finding a way to sidestep dealing with them directly — is a miracle.
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To Pimp A Butterfly, whether you believe it’s premature to say so or not, pulls the same trick as What’s Going On, in that it sublimates all its complex themes into a direct emotional appeal. It invites you, before anything else, to get lost in its sonic world. Its lessons are meant to be as easily appreciated with a joint in your hand on your couch as they are in the classroom. You’re supposed to let them grow with you and sink into your life. Just look, already, at how much more sense the snippets that had previously emerged make in the context of the album, at how much cooler they feel.
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If GKMC was an album about Compton, To Pimp A Butterfly is an album about America. That’s clear when Kendrick addresses being black in America on songs like “The Blacker the Berry” with lyrics like “I know you hate me, don’t you?/ You hate my people, I can tell cause it’s threats when I see you.” It’s clear given the album cover showing a range of black faces in front of the White House. But it’s also buried in the album’s DNA, the same way that D’Angelo’s Black Messiah or Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead presented themselves as political even when the lyrics were not: It assumes funk, soul, and jazz as a sonic default, and it explicitly places hip-hop within that lineage of canonical American music, which is also inextricably black music.
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It is full of vibes. It is funky. It is not, like GKMC, a depiction of a place as it is (Compton) but an imagining of one (America) as it could be. Kendrick Lamar’s dick, once as big as the Eiffel Tower, engorged with hip-hop bravado, is back in simple, human, base, sexual terms, measuring in on “For Free? (Interlude)” at nine inches. This album’s scale is similarly more approachable, even if it might ultimately be harder to wrap your head around. The key to understanding it is to stop trying so hard to understand it. Stop worrying that there are too many layers or too many threads to follow or too much to decode. To Pimp A Butterfly is immediate. Its sound is instantly timeless. Everything here is straightforwardly human, self-evidently black, implicitly American, transparently important, inevitably imperfect, and reassuringly, critically, meant to be felt.”
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To Pimp A Butterfly is out now via Aftermath/ Interscope/ Top Dawg Entertainment; check out “i” and “The Blacker The Berry” below.
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About foamhands

My name is Michael Dix; I'm a decade or so past being down with the kids, but to me new music never gets old. Apparently I like music that sounds like faulty kitchen appliances and ritual slaughter; really I just like what I like, whether that happens to be indie, pop, punk, hip hop, metal, electronica, Afrobeat or jazz. Follow me on Twitter @FoamHandsBlog to receive notifications of new posts and the occasional random brain-fart, and please share links wherever you can. Enjoy!

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