Pop radio and brainy critics alike embraced Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 breakout, good kid, m.A.A.d city. And rightly so, though the album was essentially high-minded pastiche: a fun but scrappy grad thesis on the past two decades of West Coast rhyme. Its long-awaited follow-up, To Pimp a Butterfly, doubles down on density, embracing the entire history of black American music in the process—not just chest-pounding rap but throwback soul, churning jazz, Sly Stone-style riot funk, front-porch blues, and highly politicized spoken word.
With its heated social commentary and shape-shifting song structures, Butterfly has the freedom of a mixtape—samples range from Michael Jackson to cult folkie Sufjan Stevens—but the production values of an Oscar-worthy cinematic event. For every flag-planting fireball like the thumping “King Kunta” or galvanizing “The Blacker the Berry,” there are pauses for affairs of both the heart (the dreamy “Complexion [A Zulu Love]”) and parts located somewhere south of it (see: cheeky sex jam “These Walls”).
Few current MCs could pull off ending an album with an imagined dialogue between themselves and Tupac Shakur, using snippets from a 1994 interview with the late rap icon. But Lamar’s earnestness and charisma never waver; as much as he owes to his predecessor, the clearest antecedent for Butterfly isn’t Pac but rather peak Prince. Lamar operates in the same boldly visionary idiom as the Purple One, expanding the boundaries of the hip-hop empire and daring other aspirants to the throne—yes, even Kanye, even Jay—to play catch-up. A
MORTAL MAN: A reflective statement of purpose
KING KUNTA: A guttural, bombastic blast