Ghettos to the left of us. Flowers to the right.
To Pimp a Butterfly is not a hip-hop album. This is electrifying free-form jazz, it’s soul and funk. It’s the beating heart of rock n’ roll. It’s a protest album, setting the record straight on centuries of injustice.
It’s not radio friendly. It’s dense and it’s complex, so very angry, but you get a sense that Lamar is channelling that rage and fury to drive the album on. There is so much going on here. It’s like Miles Davis and John Coltrane have got together with James Brown, Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield. It’s like Prince decided to remake Sign o’ the Times in 2015. It’s just as diverse, just as random and eclectic. Just as unexpected in the twists and turns it takes.
It has a cast of collaborators that any other artist in the world today would die to work with. Kamasi Washington brings otherworldly sax; bass monster Thundercat lends a bottom end that sounds like it goes deeper than the earth’s core. and jazz piano virtuoso Robert Glasper brings his best chops.
It’s made up of sixteen tracks and when you are creating something so bold, so daring, it’s inevitable that they won’t all work. Personally, I’m not that taken by the closing track, Mortal Man, where Lemar chats to Tupac. On the other hand, The Blacker the Berry is astonishing. It oozes rage, there’s a pain that hits you right between the eyes when he raps “You hate me don’t you?/ You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture.”
Equally u is musically stunning, with Lamar singing that “loving u is complicated‘ against a backdrop of freeform jazz that seems to be going in seventy directions all at once. Closer analysis of the lyrics reveals that his tirade, on this occasion, is against himself for not playing a more positive role in his teenage sister’s life. Throughout, he deals with some complicated topics.
I doubt that there is a braver album this decade. Or one that carries more anger. But just as Sign o’ the Times was one of the albums of the 80’s, To Pimp a Butterfly deserves equal status in the decade about to close. It’s astonishing. It’s a work of art.