As an example of music providing a city’s A-Z, few could match Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 homage to Compton, ‘Good Kid, m.A.A.d city’. Three years on, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ has been mooted as a record that would speak openly about social injustice, speaking for a whole country rather than personal experiences closer to home.
The influence of a new producer hits with the opening flurry of ‘Wesley’s Theory’, Kendrick’s dense odyssey coming into its own once it begins to settle. Bass-heavy beats are dropped in favour of Seventies afro-Futurism, conceptually transporting George Clinton into the 21st Century, while sonically setting a seal on Flying Lotus’ free-jazz guidance. It sounds like the passing of a musical baton from past pioneers: ‘King Kunta’ jumps on James Brown’s ‘The Payback’, baiting other rappers to take his crown, while ‘These Walls’’ feel-good groove is a musical cousin of lead single ‘i’.
From then on, poetic a capellas seize the tracks, delineating the structure towards a polemical message. The sense of disillusionment portrayed is communicated by Kendrick’s desire to be emancipated - the past always lingers via images of suffocation (‘Institutionalized’), slavery (‘King Kunta’) and violence (‘The Blacker The Berry’) - and the alienation from the modern world sees him turn to prominent black history figures, such as Mandela, for future guidance.
“We ain’t even rapping, we’re just letting our dead homies tell our stories for us,” says Tupac, whose vocal sample appears on ‘Mortal Man’, prophesying “next time there’s a riot, there’s gonna be bloodshed… I don’t think America knows that.” On the evidence of ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, Lamar’s work continues to place itself among the best.