We can finally take Black Messiah off repeat; masterpiece two has arrived. To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar’s thematically and musically layered 16-track sophomore album, amazes for any number of reasons. For one, the 27-year-old MC said he’d been listening to plenty of Miles Davis and Parliament while recording, and though those influences might’ve raised cynical eyebrows, jazz inflections and funk haven’t sounded so good on a hiphop album in forever. For another, this record is easily equal if not superior to 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, which means Kendrick’s done what even his idol Snoop Dogg failed to do—besting his own major label debut. (In over two decades, did Snoop ever top Doggystyle?)
“For Free? (Interlude)” could be a comic outtake from Max Roach’s We Insist! or some 1970s Gil Scott-Heron album. After some initial cliché hoodrat ranting (“I need that Brazilian wavy 28-inch”) over sax and jazz pianist Robert Glasper’s kinetic keys, Kendrick comes in with “this dick ain’t freeee” and starts scat emceeing for 60 seconds of hilarity. But the modulations of his voice and the intricacies of his rhyme—over jazz!!—are pure bananas, elevating “For Free?” way above the throwaway it could’ve been.
On the jazz side, Lalah Hathaway guests on “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” where Kendrick and 9th Wonder protégé Rapsody rhapsodize about skin tone (ironic, given the controversy over K. Dot’s Rolling Stone cover with a possibly/probably White woman braiding his hair). Father of funk George Clinton helps open the entire album on the opener, “Wesley’s Theory” (which, it should be noted, begins with the sound of needle on vinyl, not unlike the virtual side two of D’Angelo’s recent Black Messiah).
The jazz-soul-funk bona fides don’t stop there: Bilal sings on “Institutionalized,” Ron Isley appears on “How Much a Dollar Cost.” Quietly, producer Flying Lotus is the cousin of Ravi Coltrane, the grand nephew of Alice Coltrane. Snoop shows up too (on “Institutionalized”), as does Pharrell (singing the hook to “Alright”), Pete Rock (scratching on “Complexion [A Zulu Love]”) and Dr. Dre (via voicemail on “Wesley’s Theory”). The eclectic musical bed and pedigree of To Pimp a Butterfly suits the lyrical content, which is an equally beautiful mess of ideas ranging from self-loathing (“u”) to self-love (the Grammy-winning “i”), Black power (“The Blacker the Berry”) to sex (“These Walls”) to spirituality (“Momma”).
The concept album can be dangerous territory when what you’re shooting for outweighs what you can actually pull off, but in a repeat of good kid, m.A.A.d city, K. Dot manages to do it again. The record is laced with a recurring poem (“I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence,” “Resentment… turned into a deep depression”) that finally unfurls in full at the closer, “Mortal Man.” At that point, having pretty much just concluded the best hiphop album since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, dear listeners learn he’s been sharing the poem all along in an imaginary dialogue with (SPOILER ALERT, but you’ll really wanna know this) Tupac Shakur. Who answers back (!) in a five-minute conversation, courtesy of cutting and splicing from a 1994 interview with Swedish journalist Mats Nileskär.
Of course there are hiphop quotables: “Critics want to mention that they miss when hiphop was rappin’/Motherfu*ker, if you did, then Killer Mike would be platinum”; “How many leaders you said you needed then left ’em for dead?” “Life ain’t sh*t but a fat vagina.” Cast as the central character of Roots on the ’70s funk-styled “King Kunta,” Kendrick makes direct allusions to James Brown’s classic “The Payback” with his “I could dig rapping” and “I’m mad,” complete with female background voices egging him on.
With the voice of an embattled Black man, K. Dot embodies the zone of African-American youth in the Ferguson era all over To Pimp a Butterfly. If it’s an instant classic, it’s because it’s entirely of the moment. If excellence comes in threes, my money says Frank Ocean got next.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.