“Anybody can get it – the hard part is keeping it, motherfucker.”
Those words, imparted to Kendrick Lamar by Dr. Dre on his third album’s opening track, Wesley’s Theory, suggest that fame is a double-edged sword, something Lamar would know about. He achieved it four years ago with the release of ‘good kid, m.A.A.d. city’, his second album, before attaining notable infamy with his verse on Big Sean’s Control, with a host of notable West Coast rappers in his sights – you could say the fame had started to go to his head a little by then, but Lamar makes big moves as well as big statements.
Take ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, a multi-layered, 80-minute behemoth of an album – he doesn’t just top his previous material with it, he makes a case for being considered one of the most important voices in the world of socially conscious hip-hop. Its predecessor was a concept album through and through, but Butterfly is a thematically rich statement that is not shackled by an overarching concept. Some tracks tackle Lamar’s struggle with fame; King Kunta finds him boastful and taking pride in his abilities (“Now I run the game, got the whole world talkin'”), while Momma, recounting a run-in with a boy in his home city of Compton reveals some home truths (“I mean, your life is full of turmoil / Spoiled by fantasies of who you are – I feel bad for you“).
It’s a conflicted album, and Lamar is on record as saying it deals with heavy themes: “You take a black kid out of Compton and put him in the limelight, and you find answers about yourself you never knew you were searching for.” For such a sprawling record, it’s remarkably cohesive in its approach, incorporating such things as beat poetry (put to thrilling use on For Free?), free jazz, and funk. It’s not readily accessible – the racially-charged polemic of The Blacker The Berry is much more indicative of the album’s intensity than lead single i, a searing live take of which appears on the LP as the penultimate track, usurping the single version with far greater emotional heft.
On ‘Butterfly’, that ode to self-acceptance is re-contextualised as the light at the end of a long and dark tunnel; by far the most uplifting moment on an intensely personal record. Its counterpart is u, a track on which Lamar’s fame threatens to ruin him; drunk, on the verge of suicide, “screaming in a hotel room” and utterly unable to cope with the pressures of fame. It’s possibly the most unsettling thing he’s put his name to, documenting depths of self-hatred from which some people could never recover; so when he says, “I love myself” on i, it’s clearly a victory for him, but he breaks off into an impassioned speech (and a capella verse) mid-way through to remind his crowd that they should celebrate themselves too.
More specifically, he states that “it shouldn’t be shit for us to come out here and appreciate the little bit of life we got left“. These are dangerous times for the black population in America, when one can be murdered in the street by the very people supposed to protect them, and the album is unapologetic in its blackness. The racial divide is addressed on tracks like Institutionalized and Hood Politics (“Ain’t nothin’ new but a flu of new DemoCrips and ReBloodlicans / Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’? / They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs / Make it they promise to fuck with you”), as well as being scattered throughout the rest of the record.
Lamar’s latest offering concerns itself with many things. Coming from a deeply personal place, above everything else it examines how he relates to them: black America, his home city, wealth, health, life, death and everything in between. It’s a complex album that shows how far he has come in the four years since he found fame; sure, he nearly self-destructed in the process, but as Dre said, the hard part is keeping it. He’s made his masterpiece, and the amount of time everyone will spend poring over its many nuances and complexities should give him ample time to figure out where he goes from here.