Doc Zeus is wearing no makeup.
How do you follow a masterpiece? It’s a question that humans have asked since Homer wallowed in an Athenian bathhouse and drunkenly panicked: “How do you top the fucking Illiad?” What do you do after you’ve stretched each sinewy fiber towards grabbing the brass ring and you actually catch it?
For many artists, the answer is veer left. You change who you are. You change your sound. You change your outfits. OutKast morphed from country fried super pimps to super heroic extraterrestrials on ATLiens. Mos Def went from the b-boy traditionalist on Black On Both Sides to ferocious adversarial member of a neo-Bad Brains cover band (with actual members of Bad Brains) on The New Danger. Hell, Nas flipped the entire script on It Was Written — rejecting the thoughtful, teenage project monk of Illmatic in favor of a proto-jiggy Scarface in pink leisure suits. Going “avant-garde” allows artists to escape expectations by shirking them. If you can’t top your classic, do the opposite, and nobody can say shit when it doesn’t work.
Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city is a modern classic. It’s the rare great album that was instantly hailed by fans, critics and commercial interests. The themes of teenage alienation, peer pressure, love, sex and family had a universal resonance and signaled that Lamar had become his generation’s next big voice. It’s a difficult task for anyone to follow an album as accomplished as good kid, but Kendrick did what many artists have done before him: he’s sought refuge in the willfully difficult. To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick’s sophomore effort, is an album that goes left and aspires towards the avant-garde. Unfortunately, it’s also an album that only intermittently succeeds.
To Pimp A Butterfly is a sprawling meditation on race. At a time when institutional racism is being challenged in the streets of Ferguson, Cleveland, and NYC, with often bloody results, Lamar compiles disparate sounds rooted in the historical black tradition: jazz, neo-soul, scat, spoken word, slam poetry, and G-funk. Narrating personal tales of institutional prejudice, entertainment industry disrespect and defiant black pride, Lamar confronts those internecine problems. For a major modern rap album, Kendrick has few peers who can match the fury of his mission statement. He wants to make a generation-defining piece of art. All the pieces are there down to the album cover — except for the songs.
The tracks are messy and incomplete, half-finished sketches bloated with big ideas but lacking in basic song structure. The jazz sections are purposely chaotic but lack symmetry. The G-funk is gelatinous. Is the beat for “King Kunta” what Suga Free thinks the Donkey Kong soundtrack sounds like? The melodies and hooks are unmemorable and often barely there. “If these walls could talk/I can feel your reign when it cries/gold lives inside of you,” reads like a love letter to the U.S. Treasury. “It’s more to feed your mind. Water, sun and love, the one you love,” sounds like a very rare remix of the Reading Rainbow theme. Butterfly in the sky.
The sequencing kills momentum. This dick might be costly, but the “Cab Calloway goes to the Lyricist Lounge” razzmatazz ramrods the natural pacing. The intro to “For Sale” opens like a college acapella crew who just learned what G-Funk was. Then for no reason at all, Kendrick deploys Nas’ “Who Killed It“ voice. In fact, he seldom uses his normal rapping voice. The Kendrick of “Art of Peer Pressure” is nowhere to be found. Instead, we get the “Squeaky-Voiced Teen“ from The Simpsons, the constipated space alien, his mom, Baby Einstein. At other times, it sounds like he’s been trapped in coach on a Delta flight listening to Eminem. By employing all these thinly-sketched characters, he obscures the most powerful parts of his best work–his own thoughts, his own voice.
Kendrick parrots back all his influences, but there’s no synthesis. He’s excessively complicating sub-genres that worked before — songs that felt vital because of their simplicity and directness. And for an artist who has staked his claim to the throne as the best rapper alive, Kendrick spends a curious amount of time noodling around with half-baked harmonies. For all the genre-liquefying freakouts of Aquemini, Andre and Big Boi’s message was built into searing raps and coherent narratives. The closest thing to a lucid narrative on To Pimp a Butterfly is a conversation with a homeless guy who turns out to be Jesus.
The Kendrick from good kid, m.A.A.d. city wasn’t actually the Kendrick of 2012; it was the 15-year-0ld Kendrick Duckworth who was dodging stray bullets when he should have been studying for finals. Now, without that mad city as a backdrop, he’s left to moralize in the vacuum. On “u,” he flails at the tortured-famous-person appeal that Drake has made a goldmine. There’s also a troubling amount of rap conservatism–bars upon #bars about the real, the fakers, and the tension between the two. He’s never been funny, but his words were lean, evocative, and grounded in specificity. On TPAB, he’s bogged down in tedious abstractions and hieroglyphics ripe for Rap Genius. It’s propped up by the amateur symbolism. Lucy is “The Woman With the Tattooed Hands,” if Slug’s mantra had been #ListentoMoreJillScott.
The songs are strangled. Kendrick’s seemingly forgotten how to let his music breathe. It’s why his G-Funk tracks don’t quite work; G-Funk wasn’t really about rappity ass rapping, which Kendrick seems to think is a fault in the sub-genre that needed to be fixed. On “King Kunta,” Kendrick turns Parliament, James Brown, DJ Quik and Michael Jackson into something that somehow loses the grit and funk that made those artists essential. Meanwhile, several of the ballads on the record (“These Walls,” “You Ain’t Gotta Lie”) start strong, but don’t coalesce into anything substantial. “How Much A Dollar Cost” and “Mortal Man” are corny concept tracks, the latter featuring a naked brand integration seance of 2Pac’s ghost. When you’re doing an interview with a dead rapper to conclude your album, it’s just a bad idea. There are no exceptions.
[Dre Interlude (headphones on, please): “Do you remember the first time you heard Kendrick? Do you remember the first time he told you not to wear concealer? Do you remember the first time he came to my house? It was lit.]
Despite the album’s aspirations towards the avant-garde, To Pimp A Butterfly isn’t even particularly innovative. The blending of jazz, funk, and neo-soul has been a cliché of progressive-leaning hip-hop since the late 1990s. Basically, anything the Soulquarian clique ever released. Common’s Electric Circus, Q-Tip’s Kamaal the Abstract, The Roots’ Phrenology all moved towards sonic eclecticism that Kendrick is dabbling in. Like Kendrick’s latest, the musicianship on each of its predecessors was virtuosic. However, each fell victim to the same plague of prizing atmosphere and abstraction over tight songwriting.
The only song that truly works is the most traditionally hip-hop, the blistering “The Blacker The Berry.” Over hard drums and a bruising dancehall beat, Kendrick delivers a serrated lyrical performance that slashes at institutionalized disregard for black life, self-hatred and his own personal hypocrisy.
“You hate me don’t you?/You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture/You’re fuckin’ evil, I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey/You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me,” Kendrick raps on the song with uncommon fervor.
“Blacker the Berry” is the most overtly radical track on the entire project and the only one that succeeds. Kendrick raps nearly as well as he ever has, but the lyrics are cluttered with watery production and song structures that do his lyricism few favors. There’s an arid humorlessness that doesn’t really work when you’re delivering painfully earnest bars about self- love over Isley Brother’s samples.
Filling an album with timely ideas and righteous fury isn’t enough when the songwriting is weak. Kendrick’s shielded himself from criticism under the cover of “experimentation” and ambition. If you don’t “get it,” there’s an easy refuge in saying the album is avant-garde even if that’s not entirely true. Ultimately, it has more in common with the meandering songwriting of Nas’ Untitled or Lupe after he turned into Whoopi Goldberg, than a socially conscious masterpiece like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On. Big ideas don’t excuse flawed songwriting. Kendrick went bigger, but he didn’t go deeper. Complexity doesn’t absolve you from providing answers.
P.S. Did you know that Lucy is a metaphor?