Kendrick Lamar’s New Album Is Critic-Proof, And That’s A Good Thing

To Pimp a Butterfly matters because it isn’t speaking for everyone.

March 18, 2015

Just read a magazine that fucked up my day/ How you rate music that thugs with nothing relate to it/ I help them see they way through it, not you/ Can't step in my pants, can't walk in my shoes— Jay Z, "Renegade"

God knows how long it will be before any of us fully grasp the stacked meanings, extended metaphors, and shrouded complexities of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly. Definitely weeks, probably months. I imagine that, years from now—maybe in a different apartment and through a more exacting pair of speakers, with more knowledge gained and new perspectives formed—I'll still be picking meaning from this, K.Dot's second album. Just weeks ago, I heard something new in good kid, m.A.A.d city, an album I've had in regular rotation since its release in 2012.

What is immediately clear about A Butterfly is that it's dense and emotionally demanding. The first time I listened to it in its entirety, I cried. The second time, I fell into a nap, exhausted. Now, playing it after a couple of days, I feel both spoken to and spoken for; that I feel implicated by it at all is a testament to Kendrick's brilliance and generosity, and to the fact that he gathered together his crew of producers and musicians and vocalists and made a black-ass album. A collection of songs that say, to borrow a phrase from fellow L.A. rapper Nipsey Hu$le, I don't hate y'all/ I just only love us. A record so intense that its opening few seconds, a sample of Boris Gardiner singing "Every Nigga Is A Star," are worthy of being permanently etched onto black skin.

The album is stuffed to bursting with themes spanning love and hate and life and blackness, and fame and paranoia and self-doubt and pride, but its messaging is perhaps best understood in light of a few quotes he shared in Joe Coscarelli's New York Times profile:

"I'm not talking to people from the suburbs. I'm talking as somebody who's been snatched out of cars and had rifles pointed at me."

"You can't change where I come from or who I care about."

"I'm the closest thing to a preacher that they have...My word will never be as strong as God's word. All I am is just a vessel, doing his work."

Kendrick may be a shapeshifter—morphing from song to song and verse to verse—but he will never not be a black man from Los Angeles who has loved both family and friends for their blackness, and lost them to racist, violent America. He'll never not have grown up a lil' nappy-headed nigga with the world behind him, the one whose internal monologue he mimics on "Hood Politics" when he raps, I don't give a fuck about no politics in rap, my nigga / My lil' homie Stunna Deuce ain't never comin' back, my nigga / So you better go hard every time you jump on wax, my nigga.

It's album by a man so dedicated to his truth, an indisputably black truth, that its mere existence is valuable.

In the Oprah interview in which Dave Chappelle finally explained the circumstances that led him to abandon his TV show and abscond to South Africa, the American comedian told Winfrey, "The hardest thing to do is be true to yourself—especially when everyone's watching." A Butterfly is an album by a man so dedicated to his truth, an indisputably black truth, that its mere existence is valuable. Even if I never play it again, it will have accomplished its job—to center the realities of the black, the poor, and the otherwise marginalized, compromising neither in music nor in heart.

The day after it came out, friend and FADER associate editor Matthew Trammell suggested to me that the audience for the album could end up being smaller than GKMC's, that Kendrick might lose fans on the journey from "Swimming Pools" to A Butterfly. The rapper probably knows this; when he released "i" as a single last year, he identified it as a song for his homies who were locked up, literally and spiritually—"it's not for radio," Kendrick said in a Breakfast Club interview. It's telling that the thing that sent Chappelle running—a struggle to find balance between being true to himself and interacting with the white world outside him—is something Kendrick has handled so resolutely on A Butterfly.

Thundercat's funk basslines, Terrace Martin's jazzy textures, and Kendrick's vocal tics recall ancestral memories, like the unspoken feeling of fictive kinship that often manifests as black people acknowledging other black people in public with tiny, mighty headnods. Where GKMC mined Kendrick's personal experiences, taking the micro of his quotidian teenaged life and exploding it outwards, A Butterfly addresses those broader macro themes head-on. Oh America, you bad bitch / I picked cotton and made you rich / Now my dick ain't free, he bites in the closing seconds of "For Free? (Interlude)."

Making an album that speaks so specifically to a sliver of audience, even though portions of it will make most people uncomfortable to their core, is a beautiful ambition. It also makes the record almost commentary-proof. How, for instance, do you divorce A Butterfly from its cotton-picking context? How do you write about the hollows of someone's very existence? How do you assess something that is not addressed to you? Last week, Queens rapper Heems took issue with a white writer's review of his album, which is, among other things, an exercise in identity politics. The particulars of that disagreement aside, Heems' response on Twitter feels especially relevant now: "the record isn't made for you so all good."

Kendrick Lamar’s New Album Is Critic-Proof, And That’s A Good Thing