I tweeted this three days after the release of To Pimp A Butterfly and, looking back, I’m not sure if this was really a compliment to Kendrick. My favorite thing from the album is the production. Beautifully poignant, this album is a true marriage of funk, soul, jazz and hip-hop. It equally matches the veracity and musing of K.Dot’s sharp lyrics. But, like the lyrics, the jazziness created a lane for a free flowing stream of thought, which allowed Kendrick to wonder a bit too loosely at times. For a rapper that considers himself the best in the game, and many are now considering him in the conversation of being one of the GOATS, the production should not outshine you. In 2015, no other rap album sounded like this nor was anywhere in the same stratosphere as far as the production is concerned. In fact, no other rapper during 2015 ever pushed themselves outside of their comfort zone with their musicality; Kendrick was the only one not playing it safe. Even with that leap of faith, however, the overall album missed the mark.
Throughout the album, Kendrick is in constant struggle on multiple fronts. He seems to be unsure of the world and himself while having difficulty internalizing what it all means. He’s upset at the government (“Wesley’s Theory”), he’s upset at people in his hood (“Blacker The Berry”, the last verse of “These Walls”) and he’s upset at himself (“u”), but he also loves his people (“Alright”) and loves himself (“i”). While it is perfectly fine to have emotions that are malleable, within this album, they seem to be too much to contain. Throughout the album, K.Dot narrates that he’s battling the demons of Lucy (aka Lucifer) that’s all around him, but what if he’s really battling the demons within himself and he just doesn’t fully understand it? By the end of the album, I was questioning where the album was suppose to lead.
The biggest misstep of TPAB comes on what should’ve been the album’s best song. Right up until the last four or so bars, “The Blacker The Berry” felt like it was gonna be the greatest rap song of all time and that’s no hyperbole. The amazing production from Boi-1da and Koz, the energized chorus from dancehall artist Assassin and the explosiveness from Cornrow Kenny had the stars perfectly aligned. Then, Kendrick shit the bed with respectability politics. His last verse was the greatest rendition of “what about black on black crime?” that I’ve ever experienced and it left me feeling vexed. It was akin to his controversial Billboard Magazine interview when he said:
“What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting — it starts from within.”
In the song “The Blacker The Berry”, Kendrick makes the point that he can’t truly have a pro-black stance nor feel sympathy for the murder of Trayvon Martin because “gang-bangin’ made me kill a nigga blacker than me”. Now, a lot of people say that he was just rapping from the perspective of a gang member and not from himself, but that feels disingenuous. Couple the fact that Kendrick constantly raps about growing up around gang violence in Compton and with what he said in the Billboard interview, it’s hard to dismiss that he wasn’t speaking from the stance of “what about black on black crime?” Conflating gang violence, which is a problem, with Trayvon stalking and subsequent murder misses Martin’s significance. One has absolutely nothing to do with the other. George Zimmerman racial profiled Travyon, stalked, attacked, murdered him and was freed by a criminal justice system that is designed not to give a shit about black life. The same happened with Mike Brown. Darren Wilson became a millionaire after murdering Brown and faded into obscurity. With “The Blacker The Berry” and the Billboard interview, it came off that Lamar was either ill-advised, uninformed or just flat out wrong about these important issues he was rapping about.
Now, believe it or not, critiquing a body work and liking said work can still take place. Even with the problems of TPAB, I think it was one of the best rap albums of 2015 just for the sheer ballsiness of it. The level of vulnerability Lamar displayed was commendable, even if it was overwhelming at times. My views on the album are of the minority; many people thought the album was a masterpiece. For me though, everything that I think Kendrick wanted to accomplish with TPAB he did with his latest album DAMN. While the entire album is great and gets better with each listen, I want to focus on a single track, “XXX.”, and look at how in one song, Kendrick impressed me more than he did with his previous album.
When the tracklisting for DAMN. released and fucking U2 was shown to be one of the guest features, I thought it the jig was up for this dude; it would either be painfully mediocre or the worst song of Kendrick’s career. (I still get pissed when that funky-ass U2 album invaded my iPhone, but that’s neither here nor there.) I was totally fucking wrong and am happy about it.
A song like “XXX.” can work because it doesn’t overtly play into respectability politics in the same way that “The Blacker The Berry” does while spelling out the moral conundrum of being a victim of gang violence in a way that “The Blacker The Berry” couldn’t. The first third of the song follows a metaphorical kid, Johnny, into his dissent into violence. He’s enticed into violence and is comfortable with that. Kendrick lax, deadpan delivery and lyrics about how committing murder for the young kid is easy sends chills. The second third of the song shifts and is about a father’s son getting killed and K.Dot murderous, revengeful reaction. What’s most important about this section of the song is that Kendrick is able to question racial unity without having respectability tied to it; he’s able to question how can one feel true unity to it’s race if they are direct victims of continual violence within said race. Now, while difficult, this question can be addressed but it’s a fairer question posed than the one in “The Blacker The Berry”. The last third of the song is where Kendrick relates the violence of the hood back to the country. Where the reflection of this violent life only mirrors what the country allowed it to be. In the beginning of the song, Kendrick is describing a menace with no remorse of his crimes. By the end of the song, we can see that it’s America that is a menace with no remorse and the people within the hood are set up for failure.
Within this one song, Kendrick smoothly covers motifs that have appeared through the spectrum of his career: gang activity, death, hate, politics, America and weird voices. The production of the song is able to spike Lamar’s rapid fire flow during the second third of the song but slow enough to create a sobering space to close it out. The DJ scratches from Kid Capri makes it feel like this song could’ve been on the Menace II Society soundtrack. And Bono isn’t so bad either. (Just don’t do anything stupid like give me free music I didn’t ask for again.) Overall, I think Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. is better than To Pimp A Butterfly, not just for this one song but because he was able to create a project that seems clearly focused. Kung Fu Kenny is able now to channel that anger from TPAB into making a case for being one of the best rappers ever. Not saying he’s there yet; we’ve got to wait to see what André 3000 says.