The first time I heard the grammy-winning single ‘I’, the song’s positive message immediately clicked with me, but my alt-loving hipster side was apprehensive. Was Kendrick about to go all radio-friendly? Was he going to sell out?
Thankfully, no. In fact, To Pimp A Butterfly couldn’t be less radio-friendly if it tried. Set to a backdrop of complex and jazzy Thundercat-and-Flylo-produced beats, Kendrick mindfucks the listener (mindfuck is now a verb), spinning an intricate web of lyrical metaphors and clever contradictions, rapping in flows that vary from loose spoken word (‘For Free’) to verses so tight and bouncy they rival Big KRIT (‘Alright’).
The Compton artist’s last record, Good Kid M.A.A.D City, saw him showing off his storytelling skills, delivering the tale of a young man trying to make his way in the world whilst dealing with girl problems, peer pressure from his homies and an impatient dad who really wanted his Dominoes pizza. This time K-dot puts on his mortarboard and exchanges the storytelling for poetry. Running through the entire album is a single poem that Kendrick slowly reveals between tracks. This poem centres around the exchange of ignorant arrogance and insecurity for positive self-love and confidence – a theme that runs through the entire record.
Alas, Kendrick also proves himself to be a philosopher. The first tracks all deal with ignorant arrogance and insecurity. There are tracks like ‘Wesley’s Theory’ about using women for sex and tracks like ‘U’, a bitter and uncomfortable serving of self-loathing. Later, we get tracks which represent finding oneself and reaching enlightenment – ‘I’ being the most prominent one. Race also plays a key theme throughout the record – Kendrick giving us the beautiful hook ‘complexion don’t mean a thing’, the angry attack on racial violence and black hypocrisy ‘The Blacker the Berry’ and an eye-opening description of why it’s acceptable for the black community to use the word ‘n***a’ as it derives from the old Ethipian word ‘negus’ meaning king.
This all ties in with the main theme of self-love – as well as promoting that we all take pride in ourselves, Kendrick is also promoting black pride throughout this record. Not the ignorant white-hating kind that we sadly have all come to associate black pride with either, but a more positive cultural embrace.
Clearly, there’s a lot of seriousness and depth on this record. However, unlike some rappers who can sometimes take things to preachy extremes, Kendrick knows how to keep his music philosophical but still fun. One of his party-tricks used on this album is his talent for method acting. Instead of preaching his messages from the perspective of himself, he often uses characters to portray his viewpoints. ‘U’ sees him playing a drunken depressive, whilst ‘The Blacker the Berry’ sees him portraying a frustrated hypocritical black militant.
In each case, Kendrick goes the extra mile adopting not just the persona but the tone of voice of that particular character. ‘The Blacker The Berry’ sees him spitting his bars out more angrily than Ice Cube, whilst ‘U’ sees him sobbing into the mic like a broken man. This makes his music both more emotive and entertaining than your usual monotone emcee. In fact, Kendrick barely ever uses the same voice twice on this record, constantly shifting his pitch and intonation from one song to the next in a schizophrenic fashion.
On my first listen, some the whacky voices did strike me as slightly over-theatrical/annoying particularly the ‘This dick ain’t freeee’ part in ‘For Free’ and the ‘boo boo’ parts in ‘Hood Politics’. Repeat listens have made me loosen up and appreciate the humour in these parts, a humour that’s needed to counterbalance the profound solemnity of other parts of the album. The creativity of these multiple voices is also impressive.
This is after all a very creative album and Kendrick takes every chance to throw a new idea out there that hasn’t been done before. The slowly-revealed poem running through the record is one of the most ingenious of these ideas, but the real piece de resistance comes in the form of the twist at the end of the record. The listener realises the whole time that Kendrick has been reciting this poem to surprise guest star, Tupac Shakur. Adding to his talents as rapper, storyteller, poet, philosopher and method actor, Kendrick proves at this point that he is also a psychic medium, inviting the listener into an interview between him and the deceased rap legend.
Clearly, Kendrick is aware that he is an influential figure, but by featuring this interview he is also showing us that he too has people who inspire him. It ties in with the idea of positive self-love – as much as it is important to respect oneself, it’s also important to respect other people, no matter how successful you are. Unlike the Madonnas and Kanyes of this world that see themselves as the second coming of Christ, Kendrick realises his influence on the world but still sees himself as a human being and this is what makes him and this album all the more likable.
‘If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us. But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man, maybe I’m just another n***a.’