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Disc review: Kendrick Lamar, ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’


Kendrick Lamar

"To Pimp a Butterfly" [Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope]

4 stars

Name a hip-hop masterpiece, an album of stunning creativity and game-changing vision, from the past ten years.

Having trouble? That’s because, in the main, hip-hop’s greatest influence over the past decade hasn’t really been heard in hip-hop itself, but rather, in other forms that have by this point fully assimilated the genre as one of myriad available influences.(Check out works from younger jazz and neo-soul artists like the Robert Glasper Experiment, Hiatus Kaiyote, Snarky Puppy, Flying Lotus, Thundercat and Tigran Hamasyan for examples of how hip-hop’s tenets are being worked into bold new fusions.)

The one exception to this general observation would have to be “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” the 2012 debut from Compton’s Kendrick Lamar, throughout which the virtuosic young wordsmith and rhythmist stood in stark contrast to the guileless braggadocio that has largely become rap’s stock in trade, instead offering an intelligent camera’s eye view of a city in turmoil, and the emotional havoc that turmoil wreaks on said city’s inhabitants. Lamar arrived as a ray of light in a dismal, seedy and heavily curtained room.

Turns out “good kid” was pretty much just a practice run, though, as good as it was. With “To Pimp A Butterfly,” Lamar has made an artistic leap not unlike the one perpetrated by Radiohead between “OK Computer” and “Kid A” – he has redefined his own working methods, and in the process, expanded an entire idiom’s horizon of possibilities.

He didn’t do it alone, of course.

Lamar is a frantically inventive rapper, a man who rhymes as if he’s trying desperately to keep pace with the speed of his own imagination, and that rare writer able to see nuance and subtlety within a culture that values neither. Hefty tomes could be penned regarding issues of contemporary blackness, survivor’s guilt, the need for vigilance in the battle against the temptation to sell out, the abundance of sharks in the music business cesspool, and the dichotomy between white liberal notions of acceptable rebellion and African-American reality, all of which form part of “Butterfly’s” mosaic. Dense, fascinating material viewed through the prism of dizzying ingenuity, all of it.

But it’s the music that hits the hardest here, and the manner in which Lamar both oversees and steers that music through his textual concerns. The list of musical collaborators includes producer Flying Lotus, neo-soul/fusion bassist Thundercat, pianist Glasper, saxophonist Kamasi Washington, singers Lalah Hathaway and Bilal, Geroge Clinton, and a dozen more. Together, they help to mold an album that incorporates the influence of ‘70s funk, soul, R&B, acid jazz, the Last Poets, Afrika Bambaataa, Fela Kuti and Radiohead, to name only a few. The biggest influence of all, however, seems to be Flying Lotus, who appears as producer on only one track, but who hangs over all 80 minutes of “To Pimp a Butterfly” like some sort of twisted-but-benevolent patriarch. Ultimately, it’s the way that Lamar has assimilated the hyper-virtuosic influence of Lotus into his own vision that makes this album such a gravity-defying intellectual and visceral face-melter.

It’s an overwhelming album. But then, these are overwhelming times.

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