There is a veritable cast of cultural references on show throughout To Pimp A Butterfly. Some are subtle, like his reference to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man smelling the “yams” on King Kunta. Others are more explicit like the rise and fall of Wesley Snipes being brought in as an exemplar of the timeline of black success. By referencing so many figures and texts from far and wide, Kendrick ran the risk of being lost in the conversation. Too many footnotes for a generation looking for pull-quotes and hashtags. Like all great sociopolitical commentary, To Pimp A Butterfly is saved by storytelling. While he might incorporate a wealth of citations, Kendrick has put together a brand new story. It’s a narrative that runs cohesively from the dreamy naivety of Boris Gariner’s Every Nigger Is A Star to the moment Kendrick’s half-conscious exchange with Tupac ends.
The first chapter of Kendrick’s story covers the cursed honeymoon period that comes with newfound fame. On Wesley’s Theory Kendrick exercises a kind of dystopian victory lap against Flying Lotus’ G-Funk synths. George Clinton summarises the pitfalls of asylum via luxury (“Looking good when you’re on top / Looking down it’s quite a drop”). One of the central threads on To Pimp A Butterfly is Kendrick’s internal battle; the desire to use one’s platform being crippled by “Survivor’s guilt”. On the first half of u he reminds himself he “ain’t no leader” on top of a manic freeform instrumental before he reaches for one of his vices and the dialogue continues through a debauched soliloquy. You can hear his lips smacking the bottle, you can hear him sniff and gasp for breath as he weighs up all the failures that have come with his fortune. Kendrick’s struggle with his new surroundings leads to a trip back home. What was once a mad city now sounds like a sanctuary of clarity. The breezy instrumental of Momma, the back-to-basics sidewalk sparring of Hood Politics, Rapsody’s youthful flow on Complexion. It’s the trip home that inspires the revelation.
To Pimp A Butterfly is a story of redefinition coming from isolation. Kendrick’s joyride through capitalist America makes him feel like some kind of Judas of Compton when he wants to be a messenger. He always wanted and desired more than he had and - after getting a taste of it - the realities of that promised land helped him to redefine his own platform and rewrite his course. The Blacker The Berry, i and Mortal Man are all manifestations of that reawakening. Whether it’s Assassin’s formidable dancehall flow (“I said they treat me like a slave, cah' me black / Woi, we feel a whole heap of pain, cah' we black”) or Kendrick’s mid-set peacemaking on i- the message is clear. Half desperate preacher man half unshackled rap star, the emancipation of the good kid is a story Kendrick wants to share. He’s still got the mascots of capitalism (Lucy and Uncle Sam) resting on his shoulder but he’s trying to shout even louder. After his seance with Tupac he recites a poem that links explicitly to the LP’s title. “Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations that the caterpillar never considered, ending the internal struggle. Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same." To Pimp A Butterfly slots in effortlessly to the historical movement of black existentialism. The idea that the margins of oppression can only be overcome when someone displaces themselves from their home environment.
In the landscape of Kendrick’s discography, the record is a brave but career-defining move. The dense intertextuality, the sprawling cosmic jazz instrumentals and the 80 minute running time show a shift from the slightly more radio-ready chapters of good kid, m.A.A.d city - but the change pays off. Kendrick Lamar successfully transcends the rap-star narrative by explicitly playing out every moment of it. The insecurity, the flashes of vacuous euphoria, the firm hand of the capitalist overlords and the distance from home. Rather than just reporting on these episodes, they become the catalyst for Kendrick’s brand new tale. A remarkable achievement as both rapper and storyteller.
Words: Duncan Harrison