1000 Albums Project

ALBUM 33

To Pimp a Butterfly, by Kendrick Lamar
Suggested by Alfie Bennet

I often question the veracity of Wikipedia. It’s undoubtedly a force for good in the world, but without understanding the motives of the people who update it then you can easily be hoodwinked by hyperbole and beguiled by personal bias.

As an example, let’s take the following sentence, from Paragraph One of The Wiki of Kendrick Lamar…

“Lamar has frequently been regarded as one of the most influential artists of his generation, as well as one of the greatest rappers and lyricists of all time.”

I realise that the rap game is built on the super-egos of its participants, but steady on there, Kendrick.

Looking further, it appears that To Pimp a Butterfly is widely idolised. It has a laundry list of accolades and plaudits, and is heralded as the soundtrack to a disenfranchised generation of African Americans. So how does an old, white, British bloke rate this seminal offering?

I’ve got a lot of time for rap, historically. As metal took a downswing in the Nineties under the unrelenting fuzziness of the Grunge Explosion, it felt as though Gangster Rap took up the abandoned mantle of angry discontent. NWA, Public Enemy, and the Ices (both T and Cube, but not Vanilla) offered up a fresh and powerful voice against The Man. Who cared that the new version of The Man was a different design to the old version of The Man? Down with the pair of them!

To Pimp a Butterfly is a very angry album. Lyrically, it’s incendiary. It touches upon themes and issues that I’d be arrogant to weigh in upon here, but there’s no denying the raw emotion behind each barked bar. Kendrick has a very distinct delivery, and he’s unafraid of playing with verse length and metre. It sounds new, almost experimental, with themes looping and returning throughout to create art.

Overall, though, it’s this desire to impress, to create something that seems greater than the sum of its parts, that undermines the finished product to my uncultured ears. While Kendrick does play with the form, he packs so much into each phrase and pares down the meaning to its most taut that it can almost feel as though he’s communicating in code. There’s also a sense of the theatrical in his delivery, as if he’s improvising new characters and voices with which to declare his truths.

As it leans to art, it leans away from structured songwriting. A great many tracks feel as though Kendrick is free-rapping over someone improvising on a keyboard, which is a great shame. When the music blends more seamlessly with the lyrics, which it does so effortlessly in tracks like King Kunta and Alright, the album is elevated to inhabit those Wiki-penned boasts I highlighted above. My personal favourite is The Blacker The Berry, an acerbic diatribe on the issues of race over a pulsating backing throb.

Overall, I’d give this album 5/10, as while a great many tracks feel improvised and ad-hoc, musically at least, the standout tracks do stand proud and tall. But I must also conclude that if this album is representative of modern rap, the genre has sprinted by me, as I wheeze and splutter, bent double, nursing a stitch in my side.

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