More than any other modern genre, critical coverage of hip hop suffers from a need to instantly anoint something as a “classic” without allowing an appropriate amount of time for reflection. This tic was in evidence upon the release of Compton native Kendrick Lamar’s debut album, Good Kid: M.A.A.D. City (an album that left me pretty cold in truth), which seemed to have been accepted into the hip-hop canon within days of its release. It has once again been in evidence with that album’s follow-up, To Pimp A Butterfly, for which there has been a mad rush of acclaim since its surprise digital release last week.

It isn’t necessarily helpful with an album like this one. Like D’Angelo’s thematically similar Black Messiah, this is a dense album that requires a lot of time to digest. Even now, after multiple listens, I’m struggling to get my head ’round its sonic sprawl and vaulting ambition. This is nearly 80 minutes of hip hop that wears influences like Prince, Outkast, Sly and the Family Stone, and Funkadelic (George Clinton makes a brief appearance here) while taking detours into jazz, spoken word poetry, and mid-song changes of direction that prevent the listener from ever getting a comfortable foothold. But then this isn’t supposed to be easy listening.


It certainly is a statement of intent. To Pimp A Butterfly feels like it’s not necessarily for the fans that swarmed to Lamar’s debut or for the critics that anointed it. This one is a forensic examination both of himself and of black culture in general. That examination takes forms both contemplative and aggressive, switching between a level of self-loathing and a celebratory tone. If Kendrick’s collaboration with Flying Lotus last year suggested a willingness to step well outside his comfort zone, To Pimp A Butterfly is the realization of that left-field potential (and indeed FlyLo is the producer of the funky opening “Wesley’s Theory” here). Snoop Dogg makes an inevitable appearance, but so does Thundercat. It’s that kind of album.

It doesn’t quite gel at times. In truth, To Pimp A Butterfly is a little overlong, and there’s no doubt it would have lost nothing if it had dropped the long faux-interview with Tupac at its climax. The five-minute interlude of “For Sale” and the grating second half of “u” might also have been better off left in the editing room. Yet, at the same time, those kinds of criticisms feel like nitpicking on an album where the excess and indulgence is half of the point. Its messy sprawl is half of its appeal, especially when its highlights are plentiful.

There’s the sterling opening run for one, which flies from the scatty delivery of “For Free?” through the gripping funk of “King Kunta” before eventually landing on the Prince-recalling “These Walls.” On tracks such as “Momma” and “How Much A Dollar Cost,” Kendrick turns the harsh spotlight back on himself with songs that grow with every listen. “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” and especially “i” arrive as timely moments of positive relief on an album that constantly resists locking into a groove or a hook for too long, instead spinning itself into a maelstrom.

When it all comes together — the bitterness and anger at the plight of black America, the self-recrimination, the fine musical judgement, and the almost frightening focus — you end up with “The Blacker The Berry,” which is utterly stunning. The Trayvon Martin-inspired diatribe is a knockout punch after the jabs that have preceded it, finding Kendrick in top form and sounding every bit the phenomenon he has always been hyped as, fire blazing in his belly. It is the towering mini-masterpiece on an album flush with high points.

While on initial listens, it outshone all around it, To Pimp A Butterfly has gradually worked its way into my consciousness. I keep coming back to it, to listen to the sheer force of will and personality inherent in its creation. And someday in the near future, once I’ve had months to digest its intricacies and curveballs and the sheer weight of what is on offer here, it might just sound like a classic.

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