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'To Pimp A Butterfly' Aspires To Be Music's Great American Novel

<em>To Pimp a Butterfly</em> follows two and a half years of anticipation stoked by Kendrick Lamar's breakthrough LP, <em><em>good kid</em>, <em>m.A.A.d. city</em></em>.
Christian San Jose
Courtesy of the artist
To Pimp a Butterfly follows two and a half years of anticipation stoked by Kendrick Lamar's breakthrough LP, good kid, m.A.A.d. city.

When Kendrick Lamar released his major label debut in 2012, he vaulted onto pop's leaderboard as one of the best rappers of his generation. He wasn't just a skilled lyricist, but a vivid storyteller able to create scenes with vivid detail and intrigue.

Lamar took nearly two and half years to make his new record, an eternity in pop time. But once To Pimp a Butterflyarrived on Sunday night — nine days ahead of the announced release date — it's easy to see where he put all that time. He doesn't just live up to outsized expectations, he upends them with an ambitious effort to craft the musical equivalent to the Great American Novel.

Like Lamar's native Los Angeles, To Pimp a Butterflyfeels both dense and sprawling with its panoply of ideas, styles and sounds. Backing the rapper is a young cohort of L.A.'s best beat makers and musicians, including Digi+Phonics, Terrace Martin and Thundercat. Their collaboration creates songs-within-songs that hold multitudes, from updated P-Funk romps ("King Kunta") to coffee-shop poetry slams ("For Free?") to tete-a-tetes with ghosts ("Mortal Man").

To Pimp a Butterfly doesn't remind me of other contemporary hip-hop albums so much as the musicals of Melvin Van Peebles. Both that playwright and this rapper invite us into noisy conversations between eclectic characters debating personal triumphs and social failures, black love and white hate, all under the looming shadow of America.

It's telling that two of the album's songs are simply titled "u" and " i," but don't confuse that for a universal "we." Lamar wades into our moment of peril around race, inequality and brutality, but he's not speaking to the rest of the nation as much as penning both an admonishment of, and love letter to, Black America. That's the "we" he sets himself both above and below, and yet always within.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Oliver Wang
Oliver Wang is an culture writer, scholar, and DJ based in Los Angeles. He's the author of Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews of the San Francisco Bay Areaand a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach. He's the creator of the audioblog soul-sides.com and co-host of the album appreciation podcast, Heat Rocks.