If you are confused by the album title, listening to the record is unlikely to change that. On album closer ‘Mortal Man’ Kendrick Lamar explains what ‘pimping a butterfly’ means, but whether he does a thorough job of that is open to debate. TPAB is a hugely ambitious record and more often than not it reaches and exceeds those ambitions but when it doesn’t it becomes lost inside its own thoughts.
It all begins with ‘Wesley’s Theory’, the only Flying Lotus produced effort, while the following 80 minutes feel as if they have Steven Ellison’s genre-warping fingerprints all over them. And that perhaps is the album’s most realised achievement, TPAB has brought the ever present but largely underground Los Angeles jazz scene into the eyes of the mainstream with a complete disregard for radio-friendly USA and that is to be admired. Contributors like FlyLo’s Brainfeeder signing ‘Thundercat’ and keys player Robert Glasper make this record what it is. Frequent collaborator Sounwave steps in to round off the edges and stop the whole journey from being too free-form.
That’s not to say TPAB is watered down, very few of the songs finish where they started out, the apprehensively received single ‘i’ (single version below) has undergone an entire re-working for the record including live vocals, spoken word and the track is now, yep, you guessed it, much less radio friendly. Sonically the only conventional rap effort on the album is the Boi-1da produced monstrous ‘The Blacker The Berry’. But in line with much of the material it is so racially charged “You hate me don’t you?” Kendrick shouts, that it feels right at home.
There isn’t a song on the record that is lacking ideas, but it does fall victim of becoming caught up and conflicted with in itself as so many ideas bounce about. He covers everything from his own personal demons of not seeing his family enough to the plethora of issues that are tearing through America right now in the light of the police killings of African-American men in Ferguson and New York. For 75 of the 80 minutes Kendrick deals with these subjects single-handedly as the record is decidedly light on guest features that could have relived some of the weight off of the Compton native’s shoulders.
Kendrick may not have all the answers but there is no-one searching and fighting to find them harder than he is right now.
To Pimp a Butterfly is out now