Very few artists can capture the turmoil of society, Curtis did it, Marvin did it, Gil Scott did it and now Kendrick Lamar does it. His new album To Pimp A Butterfly is an album that captures a fracture, one that was opened when a nation was born. That fracture has never healed, at moments in history it has opened up only to be temporarily healed albeit fleetingly. The last twelve months that fracture, one that splits a nation has once again grown, Marvin addressed it on What's Going On, Curtis sang about the desperation on Superfly and Gil Scott stated the revolution will be televised. Now it's Kendrick's turn to express the disillusionment and anger, but he takes it a step further this album isn't just about a fractured society it's about a fractured human being. The individual as a conflicted, damaged soul, lost and looking for answers, looking to our broken communities for some sort of positive recognition.
To Pimp A Butterfly may have it genesis in the the legacy of West Coast hip hop but it blazes a new trail, from the tripped out Funkadelic sound of Wesley's Theory that details the pitfalls that may lie ahead with the trappings of success to the free jazz of For Free which offers the refrain "this dick ain't free". In it's twisting cascade For Free captures a sense of how the past still shapes the present, "Oh America you bad bitch, I picked the cotton that made you rich, now my dick ain't free. Institutionalised adds a more personal dimension that permeates the rest of the album beginning with I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence. It also resonates with the notion that things haven't changed and may never change,
What money got to do with it
When I don't know the full definition of a rap image
I'm trapped inside the ghetto and I ain't proud to admit it
Institutionalised, I keep running back for a visit
Hol up, get it back
I said I'm trapped inside the ghetto, and I ain't proud to admit it
U is a brutal self assessment, building on the intro from Institutionalised Kendrick delves further into his damaged psyche,
I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence
Sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power, full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression
Found myself screaming in the hotel room
Success breeds contempt and in turn leads you away from your community from where you started, the internal struggle to stay true to who you are, to you values and the community that shaped. As an artist Kendrick stares at those demons, full of loathing and self hate as he tears at himself for turning inot the very thing he so vehemently despises. Alright produced by Pharell Williams & and Sounwave introduces us to Lucy, devil incarnate who offers Kendrick anything he wants, 40 acres a house and a car. Where U encountered despair at its most destructive Alright has a glimpse of hope in the face of something that feels insurmountable.
When you know
We been hurt, been down before
When my pride was low
Lookin at the world, like where do we go
And we hate po-po
Wanna kill us dead in the street for sure
I'm at the Preacher's door
My knees getting weak and my gun might blow
But we gon be alright
For Sale adds more to the interlude, this time Kendrick is confronted by the evils of Lucy and goes back home looking for answers, as a slow jazzy funk descends Kendrick depicts the inner turmoil he his faced with,
Lucy gone fill your pockets
Lucy gone move your mama out of Compton
Inside the gigantic mansion like I promised
Lucy just want your trust and loyalty
It's not so easy I'm at these functions accordingly
Kendrick, Lucy don't slack a minute
Lucy work harder
Lucy gone call you even when Lucy know you love your Father.
The imagery of the devil and that struggle of the black artist makes me think of the great Robert Johnson, where Kendrick fights the devil wanting to express his torment and soul on his own terms, Robert embraced the devil and used him for his own purposes. How Much A Dollar Costs sees Kendrick questioning how society treats those with less, the idea that we have become selfish and self absorbed, "have you ever opened up Exodus 14? A humble man is all that we ever need. Tell me how much does a dollar cost. Mortal Man in closing the album offers a sense of the struggle facing black communities, Kendrick does an amazing interview with Tupac using the answers from a little heard Swedish radio interview conducted in 1994. In going home back to Compton Kendrick finds the person who can supply him with some knowledge, Kendrick asks how do you manage to keep a level of sanity, Tupac responds "By my faith in God, by my faith in the game and by my faith that all good things come to those that stay true". To Kendrick there is your answer in how to defeat the perils of Lucy.
To Pimp A Butterfly covers amazing ground, from it's narrative of loss to a sense of pride and resilience, musically this album is bold and brave. Elements of 70's funk and interspersed with freaked out jazz meanderings, shaped by a range of producers from Flying Lotus, to bassist extraordinaire Thundercat. This is simply one of the best albums I've heard in a long time, challenging and timeless.