A weird moment occurs at the end of Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore album, To Pimp A Butterfly. Following the conclusion of “Mortal Man,” a spoken word poem that is unveiled piece-meal throughout the album, the TDE-emcee asks Tupac Shakur a question. “How would you say you managed to keep a level of sanity?” Kendrick says. “By my faith in God, by my faith in the game,” Pac replies before continuing, “and by my faith that all good things come to those that stay true…” Clearly it was all a dream, which Kendrick actually referenced in a 2011 interview with Home Grown Radio. Nevertheless, the unexpected exchange is easily the eeriest album closer since Ready To Die’s “Suicidal Thoughts.”
It is uncomfortable hearing artists incite comparisons to deceased legends. It was uncomfortable hearing Jay Z insinuate that he was better than Biggie on The Blueprint, just as it was uncomfortable hearing Kanye West compare himself to Michael Jackson on Yeezus. Some sentiments will forever feel premature. Here, the Compton native brazenly injects himself into a previously recorded conversation with Tupac Shakur, who passed away 19 years ago. It’s one of several potentially polarizing wrinkles on an extremely referential album.
Thematically, TPAB finds Kendrick Lamar struggling with the trappings of mega-stardom. The Good Kid is now immersed in a madd industry and desperately gripping onto saneness. He’s in a dark place, surrounded by temptation. Everyone expects everything from him, expectedly. Everyone’s in his ear. The sublime “Institutionalized,” (featuring Snoop Dogg) finds Lamar lamenting a homie who got “charged” after a trek to the BET Awards. “Somebody told me you thinkin’ about snatchin’ jewelry,” he raps in the first verse, before retorting from his homie’s perspective in the second: “Remember steal from the rich and givin’ it back to the poor? / Well that’s me at these awards.”
On the soulful “Momma,” Kendrick describes a conversation with a poor kid from a similar upbringing who tells him, “Your life is full of turmoil… I feel bad for you.” On the jazzy “For Free? (Interlude),” a female voice goes full THOT, snapping, “My other nigga on. You off,” and “I’m gonna get my Uncle Sam to fuck you up. You ain’t no king!” A drunken Kendrick screams at himself for Facetiming—rather than visiting—a friend on his deathbed (“u”). Then a drunken homeless man who (spoiler alert) turns out to be God chastises him for not giving him some pocket change when he clearly has plenty to spare (“How Much Does A Dollar Cost”). Thot aside, K.Dot assumes every character, shifting seamlessly from first to third person, changing octaves with each personality. Juxtaposition is littered throughout the project. Whether attacking sociopolitical inequities (“Hood Politics”) or emcees with ghostwriters (“King Kunta“), every narrative is lavishly nuanced and loaded with emotion.
Sonically, TPAB is exemplary. If Kendrick was a singer instead of an emcee, placing the project in one specific genre would be headache-inducing. Where the Flying Lotus-produced “Wesley’s Theory” (featuring George Clinton) is funk inspired, “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” with scratches courtesy of Pete Rock (and an ill guest-appearance from Jamla’s Rapsody) screams quintessential boom-bap. There are soulful moments like “These Walls” fondued with “The Blacker The Berry’s” bombastic reggae musings. Angelic choirs are scattered everywhere. Structurally, from a production standpoint, Big Boi and Andre might as well have arranged TPAB.
The most powerful moment on the album arrives during the second half of “i.” After a fight breaks out while in the middle of a live rendition of the album’s lead-single, Kendrick diffuses the ruckus by dropping a poem written for Oprah Winfrey, who’s been critical of people defending the N-word as a term of endearment. What ensues is a reminder of history lesson often lost in the fodder:
“So I’ma dedicate this one verse to Oprah / On how the infamous, sensitive N-word control us / So many artist gave her an explanation to hold us / Well this is my explanation straight from Ethiopia / N-E-G-U-S / Definition: royalty King royalty / N-E-G-U-S / Description: Black emperor, King, ruler… The history books overlooked the word and hide it / America tried to make it a house divided / The homies don’t recognize we be using it wrong… Take it from Oprah Winfrey / Tell her she right on time / Kendrick Lamar by far the realest Negus alive.”
Here’s the second point of polarization, though: TPAB leans heavily on a handful of the Golden Era’s most distinctive depictions. From a birds-eye-view, Biggie’s mo’ money mo’ (tax) problems aesthetic over Outkastic stylings, ingrained with Let’s Get Free’s clenched-fist mentality look like a series of artistic statements already stated. Repeated conversations with Lucifer—which Kendrick refers to as Lucy on the infectious “Alright” and “For Sale (Interlude)”—harken to the internal struggle with the devil DMX described on “Damien.” The formula is visible, yes, but fortunately, never formulaic.
Culture moves in 20 year cycles. In that sense, TPAB’s referential nature is bold and intentional. Kendrick lyrically invites weighty comparisons to all-time greats and does so on an album lathered in undeniable rhythms and universal themes: Equality, classism, spirituality, justice for all. Timing, perspective and execution separate borrower and biter, the general and the genius. For an an hour and 19 minutes, Kendrick Lamar revels in his inspirations while simultaneously pushing artistic margins through his visceral dramatization of the age in which we live. To Pimp A Butterfly is ambitious in its attempt to inspire a generation to change the world for the better and poignant enough to actually do so.