Albums of 2015 (#3): Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

With savage creativity, Kendrick Lamar’s hi-def close-ups examine the warts on us all

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 01 Dec 2015

Offering a retrospective on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is a terrifying prospect. For lyrical analysis, Genius has us beat. In terms of cultural impact, you’ll have to look outside. In the last few weeks, think-pieces have ranged from 'I Feel Sorry For Kendrick Lamar' to 'Kendrick Lamar Imbues a Root Vegetable With Literary Meaning' – and by the time this December issue rolls around, it’s guaranteed there’ll have been at least ten hot new takes.

It’s far more important to note that in 2015, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth has won two Grammys, shared a #1 single with Taylor Swift, received the California State Senate’s Generational Icon award, and seen his powerful, complicated third studio album To Pimp a Butterfly debut right on top of the US Billboard chart. Plus, according to Twitter at least, he’s been enthusiastically incorporated into school syllabuses across America. By any account, that’s a hell of a year.

"Kendrick’s hi-def close-ups carve sharp incisions into hip-hop history"

But the list continues. To Pimp a Butterfly has been called ‘The’ Great American Hip-Hop Album, credited with the popular return of lyrical rap (wildly debatable, as even Lamar recognises – ‘cause “then Killer Mike’d be platinum”), and the “we gon’ be alright” of chart-bothering single Alright publically soundtracked Cleveland students’ Black Lives Matter protest against racist police brutality.

Moreover, Lamar’s follow-up to the runaway success of 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city is far from a safe bet. An agitated, agitating record, the jazz inflections, cinematic interludes, unexpected samples (Sufjan, anyone?) and the staggering power of Lamar’s complex narratives make for a record that no-one can quite get on top of – and not for want of trying.

With singular, savage creativity, Kendrick’s hi-def close-ups examine the warts on us all, whilst carving sharp incisions into hip-hop history. From King Kunta to How Much A Dollar Cost?, Lamar meditates the true price of wealth (cultural and financial) within an uneven landscape of selfish, soulless “I need all of mines” – showering warnings “from Compton to Congress” of the real-world value of violence and corruption. 

To Pimp a Butterfly started life as a caterpillar – with the original title to be abbreviated as TuPAC. It’s hard to misunderstand the tribute to Tupac Shakur. Mortal Man, the record’s closer, flows through “the ghost of Mandela,” name-checking leaders from Martin Luther King to JFK. Finishing with a cut-and-paste conversation with the man himself; Kendrick 'interviews' 2Pac through excerpts from a 1994 interview: “I wanted to ask you what you think is the future for me and my generation?” Pac 'replies', “We ain’t even really rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us.”

And it’s with this sense of cyclical history, vital heritage and uncertain future that TuPAB wraps up – Lamar calling “Pac...? Pac?” unanswered, into the nether. Once Kendrick Lamar had a bone to pick, but now he’s more than proved his point.