On Sunday night, Kendrick Lamar surprised music fans by releasing To Pimp a Butterfly, his highly anticipated follow-up to 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. A dense, sprawling, deeply creative work, To Pimp a Butterfly is certainly hard to wrap your head around, even after 48 hours of nonstop listening. But that didn’t stop the Grantland staff from trying. Check out our crackpot theories, early observations, pressing concerns, and blind adulation below.
I and I
Sean Fennessey: Rap is one of the loneliest arts. Huddled in a booth, in a wood-paneled mausoleum, in a nondescript office building — that’s where most rap is made. Not where it’s conceived, or where it’s informed. But when it comes to making the thing, it’s happening in secret, solitudinous, under house arrest. Sometimes that fosters a kind of manic rebellion or a bacchanalia. But sometimes it forms a bubble.
In Kendrick Lamar’s case, the bubble is meant to reflect everything that surrounds it. But bubbles aren’t reflective; they distort what surrounds them. It’s not that Kendrick doesn’t see the world clearly or can’t measure the inseam of his life. But he rarely pushes beyond the cocoon — of his cohorts, his friends, beyond the dreaded follow-up album into something transcendent. He wants to speak for those who can’t, speak to the pain others won’t. He does this only through the self. There are dozens of collaborators on To Pimp a Butterfly, but there is only one author. The single is called “i.” Its counterpoint is called “u” — it’s second-person self-immolation. Round and round he goes, a continuous loop of alone.
Isolation can make a man go crazy. All work and no play makes Kendrick a dull boy, so the cracks start to show. To keep his voice fresh, he changes it. New personas, new pursuits. Halfway through “u,” his urgent voice — like a scratched cast-iron pot — transforms into something exasperated, tearful, frustrated, drunk, confused. “I know your secrets, n---- / Mood swings is frequent, n----,” he raps. This is a different rapper, but the same. He shatters his persona over and over again, transmitting the change with a new voice. On “For Sale? (Interlude),” he affects a satanic Jimmy Cagney–esque carnival barker. On “Institutionalized,” he applies the double-tracked Marvin the Martian alien purr we first heard on Drake’s “Buried Alive (Interlude).” On “Hood Politics,” that voice goes up a key, a squeaking Chihuahua — “boo-boo!” — yapping into the maw. On “King Kunta,” he is a rasping colossus. On “The Blacker the Berry,” he is a fire-parched dragon.
Rappers change their voices all the time. Think Biggie on “Gimme the Loot,” as both ends of a two-man stickup. Think DMX in a bargain with the devil on “Damien.” Nicki Minaj exacts “Roman’s Revenge.” Eminem loses his mind over and over again. It’s not that Kendrick Lamar is schizophrenic, it’s that he needs to make his own reflection. He even tries to resurrect the dead, conjuring Tupac on “Mortal Man,” just to have a chat. This is lonely work, and sometimes you need a friend — even if he’s yourself.
The Disappearing Release Day
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Steven Hyden: The parts of this record I’m drawn to the most right now (referring specifically to “These Walls” and “Hood Politics”) sound like P-Funk’s Gaucho or Pink Floyd’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On — which is to say, more or less like Thundercat’s 2013 LP, Apocalypse.1 That’s an overload of references, but this is an overloaded record. It swings for the fences, but it’s in no particular hurry. It’s a slo-mo grand slam, or I presume it will feel like a grand slam in about two weeks. For now, I’m mesmerized by how it’s suspended in midair and rising slowly.
Apocalypse should be packaged with To Pimp a Butterfly like a DVD extra.
To Pimp a Butterfly is the kind of record that people admonish you for registering an opinion on too quickly. I hate when people police other people’s feelings about art, but in this case I appreciate the impulse that we should let the music simmer a bit.
If I can get a little meta for a second: I’m officially tired of the Beyoncé-ing of blockbuster album releases and the accompanying rush to submit an insta-take. There’s a lot of bullshit inherent to the traditional album cycle — the sycophantic record reviews that feed prerelease hype with more hype that subsequently registers as empty calories once the record comes out. But this dumping of albums that actually justify the fanfare in the middle of the night, like a body in a Dumpster, just seems cheap to me. The gimmick has become tired. We’re treating four-course meals like To Pimp a Butterfly as if they’re Happy Meals. How hard is it to set a release date, and then honor that release date, with absolutely no leaks beforehand? Is this really so impossible?
I want to look forward to savoring albums like To Pimp a Butterfly again. I want to mark a calendar and cross off the days in anticipation. I want to imagine what the music will sound like and get excited by the possibilities, even if I risk being disappointed. I want to enjoy the ritual, rather than treating a big album like it’s another item I have to get through on my content consumption list. Why can’t we have Christmas on December 25 instead of at 1 a.m. on December 19?
Dave Schilling: When we get a new Kendrick, we expect something. I don’t know why, but there’s so much riding on a new track, a new album, or a new anything. It’s not fair that young black men and women expect such great things from one person, that there is one artist who has to speak for all of us at once. That has always been President Obama’s greatest struggle: He can’t just be the president of the United States; he has to uplift a nation within a nation. Who would take on that expectation, knowing the magnitude of the responsibility? Only the most exceptional among us could shoulder that burden.
Barack Obama’s job is to accept the psychic violence of being the first black president. His success or failure is almost beside the point. When I am elderly, immovable, and eating food from a straw, I will not think about drone strikes or health care; I will think, Barack Obama was our first black president. In a way, that should be enough.
As a black man, I struggle with my expectations of what politics can accomplish. 2008 was meant to be a new day, but it ended up being a reminder of the unbearable reality of cultural stagnation. “Hood Politics” is Kendrick doing his best to make sense of a world in which a black man in the White House is not a fresh start, but merely a new normal. “Ain’t nothin’ new but a flow of new DemoCrips and ReBloodlicans. / Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’?” That’s a harsh truth about the immutability of our system. The face may change, the skin color might differ, but we’re all trapped in the cycle. We expect so much from the great black men, but they are as beholden to the social structure as the rest of us. If there’s one thing to take from To Pimp a Butterfly, it’s that the only thing that will save us is love. The political divisions we hold so dear are no more legitimate than gang colors. Kendrick (or President Obama) may not live up to our expectations, but at least he’s trying to show us a way forward. That might be the best we can hope for.
The “I Gave You Power” Test
Chris Ryan: Any rapper can be corny. Great rappers transcend corniness. Let’s call this the “I Gave You Power” test, named after the song from Nas’s It Was Written. On that 1996 track, Nas raps from the perspective of a gun. This is not my reading. Nas actually says so in the beginning of the song. He talks about being bought, sold, and used “like I’m a motherfucking gun … I can’t believe this shit.” Neither could I. I still remember the first time I heard it: My favorite rapper had gone from the barbecue to the freshman creative writing seminar in the blink of an eye.2 Then Nas actually started rapping. It was like watching Larry Bird play left-handed — like he was intentionally handicapping himself with a cumbersome metaphor, just to see if he could overcome it. By the middle of the first verse, around the time Nas/the gun is getting passed from Ohio to Little Rock to Brooklyn, I realized something: In 1996, not even Nas could fuck up a Nas song.
I know where of I speak. I spent most of 1996 in creative writing seminars.
There is so much to digest on To Pimp a Butterfly, but I find myself increasingly drawn to its second half, specifically “How Much a Dollar Cost.” This motherfucker raps about meeting a homeless man who is actually God. A girl in my freshman seminar wrote a story with literally the same plot. It did not involve Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song,” but that’s only because “Pyramid Song” hadn’t been recorded yet.
I can pay no higher compliment to Kendrick’s rapping than to say I am prepared to change the “I Gave You Power” Test to the “How Much a Dollar Cost” Test. In 2015, not even Kendrick can stop Kendrick.
The Rule of Three
Rafe Bartholomew: A rapper should make three normal hip-hop albums before he or she goes weird. I know: The word “normal” is subjective, and the word “weird” is too negative to describe Kendrick’s new album, which is serious and not strange. Most of all, it’s a preference, not a rule — it’s Kendrick’s right to express himself and his artistic vision however he pleases.
But you know what I mean: One more straightforward Kendrick album full of non-avant-garde beats and rhymes would have been nice. To Pimp a Butterfly feels weighed down by his desire to live up to his genius, but that brilliance came through effortlessly on Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and his other music that felt less like homework. Making rap music that is self-consciously poetic, progressive, and intellectual without coming off as heavy-handed is extremely difficult. In my mind, the only MC to ever pull it off was Aceyalone during the 1990s, from Freestyle Fellowship’s Innercity Griots through his borderline pedantic (but still breathtaking) A Book of Human Language. This new Kendrick album is more successful than most, but while listening to it, I still found myself thinking often enough, And this is the point in the video when the old guy with the walking stick from Arrested Development shows up.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Rembert Browne: I thought the scene I’d set was perfect. I thought I was ready.
I had my coffee, I had my water, my phone was facedown, I was sitting on the couch, and I didn’t have anything to do for two hours. After more than 15 hours of holding off listening to Kendrick’s new album, I finally had time to sit back and focus on what I was about to hear. So I pushed play. A few seconds in, the phrase “every n---- is a star” appears, almost like a sunrise, from Boris Gardiner’s sweet, blaxploitation-era voice. And then again, “every n---- is a star,” but a little louder. It keeps happening. Thirty seconds in, it’s still happening. At that point, the thought crossed my mind that this chant might be the entire album.
After 45 seconds, it ends, as the song switches tempo. Right then, I turned it off. I couldn’t believe that Kendrick started his album like that. I couldn’t believe that was Kendrick’s “nice to see you again, it’s been a while” handshake. I didn’t know what it all meant, because I hadn’t made it more than 45 seconds into the album.
Those 45 seconds ruined the perfect scene I’d set. I wasn’t ready for that. How can you be? Which may explain rewinding those 45 seconds nearly 45 times before realizing I was still only 45 seconds into the album.
Danny Chau: My favorite song from Kendrick Lamar in 2012, “His Pain,” didn’t come off Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City.
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It’s a track he copiloted on an independently released BJ the Chicago Kid album called Pineapple Now-Laters. It surfaced nine months before Kendrick’s major-label debut, before the consensus had deemed him an archangel among MCs, and Good Kid a modern classic. This was before the scope had widened; three years ago, Kendrick’s world was still very small.
He weaved a tale of two planes of circumstance: one of good fortune, the other full of suffering. His friend’s life is in shambles — his brother is dead, his mother has cancer, and he’s lost custody of his daughter. Kendrick, on the other hand, finds $100 on the sidewalk and narrowly misses being shot and killed in a drive-by. A boy is killed instead, his friend’s son. He tells the story in a pained, mournful voice, dipping out and yelping without recourse, choking back tears — the affect like a thousand tiny knives piercing the belly. “I don’t know why / He keep blessing me” is the refrain, and whatever amount of gratefulness is behind it is bludgeoned by the overwhelming survivor’s guilt.
He resolves the conflict in his heart by connecting the dots. He tosses his pistol and gives the $100 he found to his friend. It’s a small concession, but again, it was a small world he lived in. Three years later, the world has opened up. A hundred dollars doesn’t mean shit, but neither does $100,000. Halfway into “u,” the sixth track on Butterfly, Kendrick locks himself into his hotel room and drunkenly chastises himself in the mirror for all the “insecurities and selfishness and letdowns” that have manifested in his rise to stardom. The subtleties in Kendrick’s delivery on “His Pain” give way to a sobbing stupor in telenovela levels of histrionics. His connection to that old world is slipping. His world is too big now.
Kendrick’s voice has always been the main draw for me, the way he overcompensates for his nontraditional tone by warping it into something vital and provocative. “u” isn’t my favorite track on the new album, and I’m not even sure the affectations land as well for me as they did in 2012, but it’s a song I can’t stop thinking about. It draws a line from past to present. It expands in scale. Jay Z wouldn’t bring himself to do it nearly 15 years ago, but this is a new age — Kendrick’s songs cry, and so does Kendrick. And they cry not in a show of tenderness, but a fit of inconsolable rage.
Andrew Sharp: Remember “Control”?
Imagine if Vince Carter won the 2000 dunk contest, and then quietly made a decision to take a year off from dunking. That’s what this Kendrick album feels like.
I wanted this:
… and instead we got something like this:
When I mention the dunk contest, obviously I’m talking about the cyphers that made you start shadowboxing without realizing it … I’m talking about the “Control” verse … I’m talking about the rapper in a white T, in an anonymous red Corvette, ready to let hip-hop know what time it is. After all of that, the most interesting part of this album is that there’s not much of the rapper left. There will be plenty of people who call this album great, but it’s not all that gratifying.
I respect what Kendrick’s trying to do. He doesn’t see competition from any peers, and now he wants his identity to be bigger than freestyles and punch lines. Maybe that’s more noble than doing 360s on Drake’s head.
Some of the best artists take you in directions you never expected to go, and they make the trip worth it. That’s what Kendrick wants to be. That’s fine. I just wish it were more fun to actually listen to.
Last year, he was the rapper who stopped caring what anyone thinks. This year, he’s the rapper who might care a little too much.
Maybe I’ll like this album more in a month or two. He’s put enough energy and depth into these songs that I’m sure some of them will grow on me. But I also may stop listening to this album in a week or two. Kanye’s album is dropping soon, and it will be better than this — more interesting, more intricate, and more fun.
Listening to Butterfly feels like a chore, which is ironic coming from an artist who makes rapping sound so easy. Next to Kanye and family, Kendrick isn’t inferior by any means. He’s the rapper who really did break the Internet. But that rapper’s not here. Instead of a warning sign before an all-out assault on the rest of hip-hop, “Control” now looks like one long pump fake.
Dunks will always be more fun than pump fakes.
Shea Serrano: In August 2013, Killer Mike and El-P were doing an interview with a not-very-popular regional hip-hop blog called NEHip-Hop. This was the day after Kendrick Lamar had fired a mega-bazooka missile into a box full of machine-gun rounds on Big Sean’s “Control,” calling out 11 rappers by name, saying he was hoping to punt each of their heads right TF off of their shoulders.
The Run the Jewels interview took place the the day after that. And the guy who was interviewing them asked if they’d heard the verse. El-P smiled and sighed, because he knew they were going to be asked about it, but it was a playful sigh and not a frustrated sigh. He said, “It’s so funny to me to see people freak out — all these born-again hip-hop purists and shit.” Killer Mike clapped his hands once and then raised them in mock worship as El-P shouted, “I’m born again! Lyrics! Lyrics are important! No shit.”
As I transcribe his response, I’m realizing it kind of reads like he was being sarcastic toward Kendrick or defensive of the idea, but that’s not what was happening.
“Some of us been going for the throat our whole careers,” El-P said, glancing toward Mike. “Me and Mike, we listened to that shit and we laughed like, ‘Yes!’ Other motherfuckers are sitting there sweating. Not us. We’re just like, ‘Cool.’ We got another one on our team.”
Now seems like as good a time as any to remind you that Killer Mike and El-P had one of the four best rap albums of that year, and the very best rap album of 2014. It also seems like an appropriate time to mention that Kendrick didn’t say El-P or Killer Mike’s name on “Control,” so maybe it was easier for them to appreciate because they weren’t all of a sudden pulled into a war with a demigod. At any rate, Kendrick didn’t say either of their names then. But he did now.
On “Hood Politics,” one of the new songs from Kendrick’s sneak-attack new album, he raps: “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip-hop was rappin’ / Motherfucker, if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum.”
I like Kendrick because of all his little, personal thoughts that he hides in the weeds of his music, while all of his big ideas are things that he shoots up like fireworks into the dark, empty sky.
Did you know that Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj, and Macklemore are the only new rappers to go platinum since 2006? Did you know that Run the Jewels 2 sold fewer than 13,000 copies in its first week last year? Did you know that is stupid dumb because RTJ2 was perfect? Did you know I hate all of you for that?
The Tupac Tapes
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Amos Barshad: What a pleasant, strange surprise, at the tail end of a tense, dense, and righteously confrontational piece of music — one projected, by its own mysteriously oblique delivery and the thirst of legions of adoring, ultra-demanding rap fans, as quite possibly its generation’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back — to see that Kendrick Lamar just wants to get his William Miller on. This being rap’s possible savior and all, he gets to skip all the crap intern duties — the transcribing and book closet rearranging — and the bullshit early assignments (Kendrick, do you know how many times I’ve had to interview Big Sean? Do you have any idea how many times I’ve had to interview Big Sean?!) to get right to the juicy stuff: a posthumous sit-down with Pac.
The original audio, it turns out, comes to us from an interview conducted by the Swedish journalist Mats Nileskär, who caught Tupac two weeks before the shooting at Quad Studios in New York. That’s the day that changed the trajectory of Tupac’s life, for obvious reasons. It triggered the rivalry with Biggie; eventually, it would rob us not only of decades of creative output, but it would also rob Tupac of the authorship of his own career.
If “Hit ’Em Up” is the first thing you think of here, that’s not surprising: “Hit ’Em Up” is goddamn incredible. But there’s room for a reappraisal of Tupac as not just a hardheaded and brash young man — the person transformed, and ultimately destroyed, by his association with Suge Knight — but also as the multifaceted, brilliant, even younger man who attended Baltimore School for the Arts and palled around with poets and communists. And if that comes from someone like Kendrick — integral to the new wave of “mawkishly insular” rap music (word to Sean Fennessey’s email game) — then that only makes sense.
When the voice first comes in, it’s preposterous. That’s, first, due to the haughty tone — why, yes, of course Pac is gonna zone out (and, I guess, ascend back to heaven???) when you start reciting him a poem in the middle of an interview! It’s also the mechanics — editing yourself into an interview is like two ticks away from splicing yourself onto Jabba’s sail barge and throwing Han Solo the blaster as you all dangle over the Sarlacc pit.
And then again — it’s Kendrick Lamar, and he is in his prime. He hasn’t shied away from the grand statements, seeming, at least on the surface, completely unconcerned as to whether they might come off wrong-footed or empty; he is firm when he speaks. “I’m the closest thing to a preacher that they have,” he just told the New York Times. “I know that from being on tour — kids are living by my music.” And he hasn’t shied away from the preposterous. “It’s a crazy true story, actually,” he said in a radio interview in 2011. “You know one of them things when you really delirious in your sleep? It’s a real situation where I was sleeping one night and [Tupac’s] silhouette [came] and he said, ‘Keep doing what you doing, don’t let my music die.’”
Big rappers make big moves. Big moves like revealing anguish and aspiring to saintliness and editing old Scandinavian radio footage so it sounds like you and the ghost of Tupac Shakur are having a chat. And who would want it any other way? It’s Kendrick Lamar, and he is enjoying his prime.