There Is A Rich World In Kendrick Lamar's 'To Pimp A Butterfly'

Apr 9, 2015

Kendrick Lamar made a big impact for his storytelling skills on his 2012 major-label debut Good Kid, M.a.a.d City, and won two Grammys in February for the song "i." That song appears in Lamar's latest album, To Pimp A Butterfly, which Fresh Air music critic Ken Tucker says has an excitingly adventurous sound.

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This is FRESH AIR. Kendrick Lamar made a big impact with his story-telling skills on his 2012 major label debut, "Good Kid, M.A.A.D City," and he won two Grammys recently for the single "i." Lamar's new album, "To Pimp A Butterfly," is eclectic, influenced by jazz as much as funk or pop. His subjects touch on current events, such as the deaths of young black men, but he's also one of the few young rappers who is honest about personal struggles with depression and doubt. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.


KENDRICK LAMAR: (Singing) Alls my life, I has to fight. Alls my life, I - hard times, like, God, bad trips, like, God. Nazareth - alls God got us then we're going to be all right.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Still in his 20s, Kendrick Lamar has attracted a large audience for his intricate wordplay and the diverse styles he strives for in a variety of songs. At this early point in his career, Lamar is intriguingly impossible to identify with a signature sound. The song that began this review, "Alright," has a stark, airless production style. Contrast this with the dense, funky style of this song, something.


LAMAR: (Singing) I can dig rapping, but a rapper with a ghost writer - what the [expletive] happened? I swore I wouldn't tell, but most of y'all share bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two-man cell. Something's in the water. And if I got to brown nose for some gold, then I'd rather be a bum than a [expletive] baller.

(Singing) Where you when I was walking? Now I run the game, got the whole world talking - King Kunta. Everybody want to cut the legs off him - King Kunta - black man taking no losses. Where you when I was when I was walking? Now I run the game, got the whole world talking - King Kunta. Everybody want to cut the legs off him. When you got the yams...

TUCKER: Lamar raps and sings most frequently in a pleasantly hoarse voice that works as the sound of earnest urgency. "King Kunta" takes its organizing image from one of the central figures of Alex Haley's book and TV movie "Roots," the 18th century slave, Kunta Kinte. The music surrounding that story draws equally from 1970s and '80s funk as perfected by James Brown, George Clinton and Michael Jackson. For a different distinctive example of Lamar's sonic range, listen to a bit of "i," his Grammy-winning single.


LAMAR: (Singing) One, two, one, two - what's happening? I done been through a whole lot trials and tribulations, but I know God. The devil want to put me in a bow tie - pray that the holy water don't go dry, yeah. As I look around me, they want to down me. But no, you could never drown me. In front of a dirty double mirror they found me.

(Singing) And I love myself. And when you're looking at me, tell me, what do you see? I put a bullet in the back of the head of the police. Illuminated by the hand of God, boy don't seem shy. One day at a time.

(Singing) They want to say it's a war outside, bomb in the street, gun in the hood, mob of police, rock on the corner with a line full of fiend and bottle full of lean and a model on a scheme. These days of frustration keep - come to the front, yeah. I duck these cold faces, post up fi-fie-fo-fum basis. Dreams are reality's peace, blow steam in the face of the beast. Sky could fall down, wind could cry now. Look at me, [expletive], I smile, and I love myself.

TUCKER: Using a sample from The Isley Brothers to propel the rhythm, Kendrick Lamar offers a mostly upbeat vision of life that nevertheless makes room to acknowledge that he's suffered from depression and doubt. Those more bleak subjects come to the fore in what might be considered the answer song to "i," a harrowing, contrasting composition called "u."


LAMAR: (Singing) I place blame on you, still, place shame on you, still, feel like you ain't [expletive], feel like you don't feel, confidence in yourself breaking on marble floors, watching anonymous strangers telling me that I'm yours. But you ain't [expletive]. I'm convinced your tolerance nothing special. What can I blame you for, [expletive]? I can name several. Situation had stopped with your little sister baking a baby inside - just a teenager. Where your patience? What was your intentions, what was the influence you speak of? You preached in front of 100,000 but never reached her. I [expletive] tell you, you [expletive] failure, you ain't no leader. I never liked you, forever despised you. I don't need you. The world don't need you. Don't let them deceive you. Numbers lie, too. [Expletive] your pride, too. That's for dedication. Thought money would change you, made you more complacent. I [expletive] hate you. I hope you embrace it. I swear, loving you is complicated.

TUCKER: Kendrick Lamar mixes the personal with the political in thoughtful ways. At the end of the song "Alright," in a spoken-word coda, Lamar speaks of being, quote, "full of resentment, a resentment that turned into a deep depression - found myself screaming in the hotel room. I didn't want to self-destruct." He talks over the course of the entire album about growing up amidst gang violence in Compton, Calif., and makes connections to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers. He also discusses a different kind of struggle, the anxiety a young person feels growing up poor and fearful of violence as well as the pressure that the success of becoming a pop star can yield.


LAMAR: (Singing) I'm the biggest hypocrite of 2015. Once I finish this, witnesses will convey just what I mean. Been feeling this way since I was 16 - came to my senses. You never liked us anyway. [Expletive] your friendship. You never liked us anyway. [Expletive] your friendship. I meant it. I'm African-American. I'm African. I'm black as the moon, heritage of a small village. Pardon my residence - came from the bottom of mankind. My hair is nappy. My [expletive] is big. My nose is round and wide. You hate me, don't you? You hate my people. Your plan is to terminate my culture. You're [expletive] evil. I want you to recognize that I'm a proud monkey. You vandalize my perception but can't take style from me. And this is more than confession. I mean, I might press the button just so you know my discretion. I'm guarding my feelings. I know that you feel it. You sabotage my community, making a killing. You made me a killer - emancipation of a real [expletive].

TUCKER: "To Pimp A Butterfly" is an album to spend time with to revel in its imaginatively combined array of influences. Kendrick Lamar works here with a number of notable musicians, including the jazz pianist Robert Glasper, and producers, most crucially, Thundercat. Lamar conveys the pleasures and difficulties of his life and many other lives, creating, in the process, a rich world of roiling emotions and sharp-witted ideas.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Kendrick Lamar's latest album, "To Pimp A Butterfly." And remember, anytime you want to hear FRESH AIR, if your schedule doesn't coincide with our broadcast schedule, try our podcast. You can listen to that whenever you want. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.