In the three years since his critically acclaimed sophomore effort, good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar has become more mature, more aware of his goals as a role model and more focused on his mission to spread knowledge — all of which he accomplishes through the concoction of abrasive and cheerful sounds on his latest album, To Pimp a Butterfly. The alternation between more uplifting songs and more emotional songs reflects Lamar’s interior conflict and confusion about how the black community fares — especially in the music industry.
While “Wesley’s Theory” starts off with a jaunty sample of Jamaican soul singer Boris Gardner, the next track, “For Free?,” jumps into a heavy rap that touches on the perils of the black man, filling the fast rap flow with pure, bold passion.
“Oh America, you bad bitch, I picked cotton that made you rich. Now my dick ain’t free,” Lamar screams in “For Free?.”
Lamar continued his message on the next track, stepping away from hard fast, rap and into a funkier atmosphere in “King Kunta”. Using Kunta Kinte as a point of inspiration, Lamar once again connects race and fame. His messages come together through the synergy between Lamar’s lyrical delivery and his accompanying beats.
He takes you from the battleground of “For Free?” to a nice, long drive through the city with Snoop Dogg in “Institutionalized,” then to a pit of anguish with “u”. In “u,” his palpable despair is almost terrifying, a polar opposite from the mood of “i.” Though the slow jazz and SZA’s voice are meant to soothe and distract from Lamar’s pain, the lyrical power overshadows the musical value, making it difficult to listen to casually.
The next track thankfully takes its listeners out of the manic depression in “u” and places them in an optimistic world with “Alright.” The lighter, jazzy hip-hop does not distract from the theme of race that Lamar shares through his line “Alls my life I had to fight,” referencing Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Color Purple.” Lamar briefly puts his anguish to rest with this track by acknowledging that with God’s help, everything will, in fact, be “Alright”.
Yet the pain returns with a brutal force in “The Blacker the Berry.” Lamar screams about the hypocrisy and lack of respect the black community faces. With lyrics such as “You sabotage my community, makin’ a killin’ / You made me a killer, emancipation of a real nigga,” the artist’s frustration puts us all in the ring. He screams about real problems that have plagued the nation, and he concludes that everyone either end ups fighting or pointing fingers.
The artist’s mission to uplift and change society becomes apparent in his penultimate track, “i,” one of the most pop-esque songs Lamar could possibly be responsible for. “i” cherishes self-worth and unity — messages also revealed in the most jaw-dropping track on the album, “Mortal Man,” which Lamar uses to bring the album to a close: a perfect 12-minute conclusion dissecting each theme found in the album.
The rapper asks, “When the shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?” as he references leaders such as Moses, Michael Jackson, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., who all suffered abandonment throughout their journeys.
Lamar highlights the issues society is forced to face, and he provides insight into how we can make it better. But just like everyone else, he still has his fair share of unanswered questions, which he ponders with the help of his idol Tupac Shakur. Lamar reaches through the heavens to seamlessly mix audio clips of Shakur’s interviews, emphasizing the importance of spreading positivity — a message for which Tupac is notorious.
After spending years concretizing his opinions on the black community in the music industry, Lamar has finally graced his anxious audience with a 16-track album of passion, movement and inspiration. The release date may have come as a surprise, but the talent that went into the album most certainly wasn’t.
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