KENDRICK LAMAR’S MAJOR label debut instantly placed him in a rarefied position. The Compton boy wonder’s good kid, m.A.A.d city was a jittery, head-turning epic that took the observational skills of Illmatic-era Nas and applied them to the stresses and strains of his neighbourhood – the cradle of gangsta rap. Marrying autobiographical intensity with dazzling lyrical virtuosity and elastic double-time flows, he proved himself one of the most vocally creative and thoughtful rappers of his generation. If much of that album dealt with familiar west coast bread and circuses, its hotly anticipated sequel is timely, haunted by the recent police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown (in Staten Island and Ferguson respectively) and ratcheting social unease.
“Lamar continues to bend complicated lyrical cadences with rare grace.”
From its title’s arch play on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, to its vivid cover concept – Lamar and friends in a swaggering victory tableau across the White House lawn – To Pimp A Butterfly attempts to the tackle the issues of the day without recourse to blunt, shallow sloganeering. And just as Lamar continues to bend complicated lyrical cadences with rare grace, the accompany music, chiefly supplied by his loyal Digi+Phonics crew, is urgent, free-wheeling and manically off-map, oscillating wildly between loose free-form jazz, Parliament-indebted funk and languid soul.
His intention to blow minds from the outset is signalled by Wesley’s Theory, a sampled snatch of Boris Gardener crooning “Every nigger is a star” peeling into a mind-bending Flying Lotus jam. Other collaborations see a pitch-perfect power play with Snoop Dogg (Institutionalized), a dreamy encounter with Ron Isley (How Much A Dollar Cost), Pharrell bringing some horn-driven, head-nodding positivity to the table (Alright), and an intricate rap from North Carolina’s under-sung Rapsody (Complexion) that idly imagines Idris Elba as the next James Bond.
Yet Lamar is ultimately stronger when he sails solo. His power and incision is unmatched on the taut Mausberg-sampling funk of King Kunta, where he assumes the role of an 18th Century slave, and on the gruff, dramatic The Blacker The Berry where he firmly nails his colours to the mast: “The plot is bigger than me/It’s generational hatred/It’s genocism/It’s grimy, little justification/I’m African-American, I’m African/Black as the heart of a f**kin’ Aryan/I’m black as the name Tyrone and Darius…” The full lyrical avalanche is unleashed on 12-minute denouement Mortal Man, Lamar name-checking Moses, Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Michael Jackson over a chunky Fela Kuti lift before seguing into a patched-together, beyond-the-grave conversation with his slain hero, doe-eyed ballet dancer turned thug-lifer 2Pac, that just tips the teetering scales into self-indulgence.
Rich in sonic detail à la ’90s Outkast, ’00s Roots and present day Flying Lotus (whose fluid bassist Thundercat performs another star turn), Lamar undercuts his densely layered messages with acerbic ruminations on his newfound celebrity status that may prove polarising, but are never less than enthralling.
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