Album Review: Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly

March 18, 2015 4:27 PM

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Album Review: Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly

It was a misunderstanding — almost a clerical error — the way the gifted Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar got to be famous in the first place: He made a very incisive song about inner-city alcoholism that a lot of people mistook for a party anthem. It was called “Swimming Pools (Drank),” and I saw him play it the first time I was sent to cover his live show, at an absurdly lavish party thrown in the lobby of a planetarium to celebrate the cosmically named new scent of a popular-selling body spray. Lamar’s set was short and, presumably, generously compensated. While he played, people in rented astronaut suits traversed the floor with trays of Champagne; a rumor circulated that the company was raffling off a trip to space. These are the kinds of scenes some aspiring rappers dream of inhabiting, but Kendrick Lamar has never been that kind of rapper. He doesn’t even consider himself a rapper, really; he told Stephen Colbert in an interview late last year that he prefers the term writer. And like many who claim that particular mantle, Lamar often wears a spacey, inwardly focused expression and oscillates between a vibe of jumpy anxiety and near-monastic calm. That was definitely what he projected that night at the planetarium; as people lifted their glasses to the repeated word “DRANK,” Lamar seemed a little puzzled and radiated this sense that he did not really know what to do with himself now that he was a superstar. “Like Barack Obama,” a Billboard writer remarked a little while later, in a recent cover story, “Lamar is an introvert with an extrovert’s job.”

But judging by his staggering and incendiary sophomore album, To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar is done conforming to anybody else’s job description. It is a work of focused intensity — one of the most incisive and imperatively timed records about race in recent musical memory. You can tell that Lamar does...

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