'To Pimp A Butterfly' Aspires To Be Music's Great American Novel

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To Pimp a Butterfly follows two and a half years of anticipation stoked by Kendrick Lamar's breakthrough LP, good kid, m.A.A.d. city. (Courtesy of the artist)
To Pimp a Butterfly follows two and a half years of anticipation stoked by Kendrick Lamar's breakthrough LP, good kid, m.A.A.d. city. (Courtesy of the artist)

When Kendrick Lamar released his major label debut in 2012, he vaulted onto pop's leaderboard as one of the best rappers of his generation. He wasn't just a skilled lyricist, but a vivid storyteller able to create scenes with vivid detail and intrigue.

Lamar took nearly two and half years to make his new record, an eternity in pop time. But once To Pimp a Butterfly arrived on Sunday night — nine days ahead of the announced release date — it's easy to see where he put all that time. He doesn't just live up to outsized expectations, he upends them with an ambitious effort to craft the musical equivalent to the Great American Novel.

Like Lamar's native Los Angeles, To Pimp a Butterfly feels both dense and sprawling with its panoply of ideas, styles and sounds. Backing the rapper is a young cohort of L.A.'s best beat makers and musicians, including Digi+Phonics, Terrace Martin and Thundercat. Their collaboration creates songs-within-songs that hold multitudes, from updated P-Funk romps ("King Kunta") to coffee-shop poetry slams ("For Free?") to tete-a-tetes with ghosts ("Mortal Man").

To Pimp a Butterfly doesn't remind me of other contemporary hip-hop albums so much as the musicals of Melvin Van Peebles. Both that playwright and this rapper invite us into noisy conversations between eclectic characters debating personal triumphs and social failures, black love and white hate, all under the looming shadow of America.

It's telling that two of the album's songs are simply titled "u" and "i," but don't confuse that for a universal "we." Lamar wades into our moment of peril around race, inequality and brutality, but he's not speaking to the rest of the nation as much as penning both an admonishment of, and love letter to, Black America. That's the "we" he sets himself both above and below, and yet always within.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Los Angeles rapper Kendrick Lamar surprised fans this past Sunday night by releasing his new album, "To Pimp A Butterfly," nine days ahead of schedule. Reviewer Oliver Wang says that early drop will give listeners extra time to unpack Lamar's latest masterpiece.

OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: When a 25-year-old Kendrick Lamar released his major-label debut in 2012, he vaulted onto pop's leader boards as one of the best rappers of his generation. He wasn't just a skilled lyricist, but also a gifted storyteller able to create scenes with vivid detail and intrigue.

( SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWIMMING POOLS")

KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) Now I done grew up 'round some people living their life in bottles. Granddaddy had the golden flask. Back stroke every day in Chicago. Some people like the way it feels. Some people want to kill their sorrows. Some people want to fit in with the popular. That was my problem. I was in the dark room, loud tunes, looking to make a vow soon...

WANG: Lamar took nearly two and a half years to make this new record - an eternity in pop years. But once "To Pimp A Butterfly" arrived, it's easy to see where he put all that time. He doesn't just live up to outsized expectations. He upends them with an ambitious effort to craft the musical equivalent to the great American novel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LAMAR: (Rapping) What you want, a house or a car 40 acres and a mule, a piano a guitar? Anything, see my name is Lucy, I'm your dog. [Bleep] you can live at the mall. I can see the evil. I can tell it. I know when it's illegal. I don't think about it. I deposit every other zero thinking of my partner put the candy, paint it on the regal digging in my pocket ain't a profit, big enough to feed you. Everyday my logic, get another dollar just to keep you in the presence of your chico - ah.

WANG: Like Lamar's hometown, Los Angeles, "To Pimp A Butterfly" feels both dense and sprawling with its cacophony of sounds, styles and ideas. Backing the rapper is a young cohort of LA's best beat-makers and musicians, and their collaboration creates songs within songs that hold multitudes, including updated P. Funk romps...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KING KUNTA")

LAMAR: (Rapping) The year must have powered that beat.

WANG: ...Coffeeshop poetry slams...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR FREE?")

LAMAR: (Rapping) I mean baby, you really think we can make a baby named Mercedes without a Mercedes-Benz and 24-inch rims, five percent tints and air conditioning vents?

WANG: ...And tete-a-tetes with ghosts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORTAL MAN")

LAMAR: (Rapping) 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. I didn’t want to self destruct. The evils of Lucy was all around me, so I went running for answers until I came home.

WANG: "To Pimp A Butterfly" doesn't remind me of other contemporary hip-hop albums so much of the musicals of Melvin Van Peebles. Both that playwright and this MC invite us into noisy conversations between eccentric characters debating personal triumphs and social failures, black love and white hate, all under the looming shadow of America.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACKER THE BERRY")

LAMAR: (Rapping) And it's evident that I'm irrelevant to society. That's what you're telling me. Penitentiary would only hire me. Curse me 'til I'm dead. Church me with you fake prophesy that I'm a be just another slave in my head, institutionalize, manipulation and lies. Reciprocation of freedom, only live in your eyes. You hate me, don't you?

WANG: It's telling that two of the album's songs are simply titled "u" and "i," but don't confuse that for a universal we. Lamar wades into our moment of peril around race, inequality and brutality, but he's not speaking to the rest of the nation as much as penning both and admonishment of and a love letter to black America. That's the we he sets himself both above and below, but always within.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMPLEXION")

LAMAR: (Rapping) Beauty is what you make it. I used to be so mistaken by different shades of faces. Then wit told me, a woman is woman. Love the creation.

BLOCK: Oliver Wang reviewed "To Pimp A Butterfly" from Kendrick Lamar. Oliver is an associate professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach and writes the audioblog, Soul-Sides. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.