A fabricated conversation between Kendrick Lamar and the late Tupac Shakur takes place during “Mortal Man”, the final track on To Pimp a Butterfly. Less a song than philosophical reflection, they ‘discuss’ topics such as success and inequality. The back-and-forth, created using quotes from a little-known Tupac interview, can be seen as a microcosm of the album as a whole. While Lamar’s coming-of-age sophomore effort, good kid, m.A.A.d city, was introspective and focused on his experiences growing up in Compton, he widens his scope here, tackling broader social issues such as racism. While that may inescapably result in a less personal album, To Pimp a Butterfly is arguably Lamar’s most rewarding record yet.
Not only in subject matter has the rapper expanded with this release, but also in style. Elements of funk, jazz and blues are scattered throughout. He is more sonically ambitious here than he has been before, and it pays off. “King Kunta”, one of the more energetic tracks on the album, finds Lamar channelling James Brown over a 70s funk beat, whereas the jazz influence is prominent all over, particularly on tracks such as “For Free?” and sombre standout “How Much a Dollar Cost”.
Darker than his previous work, the album might put off casual listeners. It requires persistent attention, and rewards it. Even “i”, a single that sounded disappointingly radio-friendly upon its release last year, has been substituted with a new, live version. Halfway though, the song is interrupted by a fight in the crowd, to which Lamar responds with a speech on the importance of respect. It fits in much better with the weighty narrative of the album, though its central theme of self-love remains, contrasting greatly to its dark, hostile counterpart, “u”.
It would have been simple to recreate good kid, m.A.A.d city, but Lamar isn’t one for taking the easy route. By design, this album is meant to be listened to in one sitting, with its lack of noticeable singles, and predominant narrative on heavy issues such as racism. While this means To Pimp a Butterfly is not instantly catchy, Lamar is after something much bigger anyway.