“Hip-hop is dead.” Nas, the genre’s east coast father, made this laconic declaration in late 2006. Despite prophesying doomsday, he didn’t bring anything overtly controversial to light: a decade of steadily declining rap sales, a widening, whitening fan-base that worshiped Eminem and Soulja Boy at the ousting of their sonic forefathers, and a mass-marketed sound that had lost the magic first drummed up on the streets of Chicago, LA, Brooklyn and Miami.
Nas’s challenge shook every branch of the hip-hop family tree, even its most nascent bud, then-nineteen-year-old Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, a precocious wordsmith out of Southern California who has since set the industry ablaze. Even the great Nastradamus could not have predicted his edict would be rebuked in six short years.
Lamar’s platinum-certified “good kid, m.A.A.d city” was ranked among the best albums of 2012 by the BBC, New York Times and Rolling Stone. His major-label debut secured a spot in the pantheon of all-time greats, alongside Eric B. & Rakim’s 1987 standard-bearer “Paid in Full” and Nas’s seminal 1994 record “Illmatic.” To critics, fans and even king Kanye West, with whom Lamar performed on The Yeezus Tour, Kendrick Lamar sits alone atop the MC throne.
In his widely-anticipated follow-up album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” released on March 15, Lamar answers the question: Was the premiere a fluke, or is the craftsman himself worthy of the praise?
In its magnitude, “To Pimp a Butterfly” is canonical, as ambitious as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” with the fullness of Radiohead’s “OK Computer” and the poignancy of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” It’s a grand opus with a compelling narrative, like Biggie’s “Life After Death,” layered with the same industry-topping production that launched Kanye West and his hungry protégé.
In 16 tracks, influenced by jazz, funk, soul, psychedelia, spoken word and a novel fusion of genres, K.Dot spits on every inch of the concrete urban playground: racial politics, family, crime, homelessness, hypocrisy, poverty, religion and rap itself.
“To Pimp” is an acutely political album aimed at the heart of hip-hop, its timeless themes and preoccupations. But it’s also shrewdly conscious of current events and life in 21st-century America. Listeners will encounter familiar stories on the record, including unapologetic deptions of young black men like Trayvon Martin who die before they’re 30.
Lamar puts a modern frame on the eternal problems facing those who “picked cotton that made [America] rich.” “To Pimp” succeeds “just letting our dead homies tell stories for us,” through Lamar and the vanguard of contemporary rap. In this record, the artist departs from the less polemical “good kid,” which topped mainstream music charts and enjoyed broad crossover appeal to hip-hop and pop listeners alike.
“To Pimp” is not for the fair-weather fans of gangster rap, but for the bloody marchers rioting in the streets. Still, the same clubs that cycled “Poetic Justice” will also spin “Wesley’s Theory” and “These Walls.” But Lamar’s latest record demands thought before lighthearted entertainment. In fact, the lead single, “i,” a funky R&B-inspired ballad that promotes black self-assurance, is wholly different on the album than it was on its original radio release in September. On the record, the interrupted song devolves into a lecture by Lamar, sermon-like in its tone and content, on the need for unity and lasting peace. Lamar often reminds his congregation of the brotherhood connecting those calling the shots and those shot wrongfully dead.
Over the next months and years, critics and fans will debate the record’s legacy. Lamar himself has hinted at its future: being “taught in college courses someday.”
This isn’t a baseless prophecy. “To Pimp A Butterfly” — a titular nod to Harper Lee’s 1960 classic of American literature — is a work that engages deeply with Western thought. Tracks like “How Much A Dollar Cost” take hip-hop to the Sermon on the Mount, the foundation for charity as a restorative force against poverty. “Institutionalized” borrows from Thoreau and the ethics of individual responsibility before collective action — “shit don’t change until you get up and wash your ass.” The entire collection pays homage to W.E.B. Du Bois and the still-relevant conviction, over one hundred years later, that the complex African-American past still steers the course of the complex African-American present.
Yet it’s Nietzsche who gets the final word, on “Mortal Man,” the album’s epic 12-minute denouement featuring a faux-dialogue between Lamar and Tupac Shakur. Talking with the divine king of west coast rap, Lamar reveals his vision to unify a moribund race dying in a war perpetuated in a divided, racially motivated society. Here he’s the prophet from Compton, using rhyme to reap the harvest first sown by MLK Jr., Nelson Mandela, Michael Jackson and 2Pac, the God of hip-hop.
But the ever-sagacious Lamar hasn’t abandoned his sense of time. It’s 2015. God is dead. In His absence, all that’s left is “the mortal man”: Kendrick, you and me.
Through the “talent, the thoughtfulness and the / beauty within” every black man and woman, through “the only hope that we kinda have left, / music and vibrations,” we, Nietzsche’s “murderers of all murderers,” can repair the damaged soul of a people grasping for greatness. And though the Almighty has vanished from this temporal jungle of urban blight and bigotry, his prophets endure. Maybe their great medium, that butterfly of sound, hip-hop, will triumph.