A young rapper stirs in his urban, impoverished hometown. People begin to take notice of him at an early age: despite his humble beginnings and depressed surroundings, he makes his mark at local talent showcases and with amateurish but promising mixtapes, recorded with the help of those who believe in him.
That number of supporters grows astronomically in the subsequent fifteen years, and star producers like Dr. Dre and Lil Wayne take the fledgling under their wing, encouraging his ambitions and eventually signing him to a major-label contract.
But notoriety can’t squash the performer’s vitality, even as he fulfills a sometimes scrutinized ‘hood-to-stardom narrative and struggles with his inner demons, as well as the broader issues that seem to dog his reputation: race, class ascension, controversy surrounding religion and politics.
No, even when, eight albums in, fatigue and artistic complacency threatens, at the very least there’s still the hyper energy and impossible speed of delivery, the sheer skill, he had from the beginning. This rapper’s name is Marshall Mathers. This rapper’s name is Kendrick Lamar.
Obviously, we don’t know what Kendrick’s eighth record will sound like, but it isn’t a stretch to say it would be about as self-reflexive and (perhaps a bit more genuinely) angry as Eminem’s 2013 release “The Marshall Mathers LP 2.” The former’s latest, third album, entitled “To Pimp a Butterfly,” finds him, despite being younger and thus halfway as far along in his career as current-day Em, situating himself nicely in reference to that rapper’s best era right between 2000’s original “Marshall Mathers LP” and 2002’s excellent “The Eminem Show.”
While their personal trajectories have indeed been very similar, Eminem’s influence on “Butterfly” is first and foremost a stylistic and thematic one. Kendrick has stated before that Mathers ranks in his top five favorite rappers, which makes sense as soon as the third song on the album, “King Kunta” kicks into gear.
The beats couldn’t be more reminiscent of a Dr. Dre and Eminem cut with the hook’s minor-key guitar inflections and liquified percussion that slips and slides with Kendrick’s rhymes in a playful but still tight and elastic manner.
It’s an homage that nonetheless repurposes a major influence of the album’s author for his own very personal and highly political ends; the track is based on an 18th century slave narrative about Kunta Kinte, a man whose foot was dismembered in response to his attempted escape.
Indeed, from the titles of the two interludes alone—which fall at exactly the 1/8 and 1/2 points in the album’s track listing—“For Free?” (“This…dick…ain’t…free” Lamar intones) and “For Sale?,” it’s clear “To Pimp a Butterfly” is concerned with the cost of living in the modern world and the price global citizens pay, to themselves and one another, in the new millennium.
It’s an explicitly racial album, one very much rooted and wrestling with Kendrick’s place in his old community in Compton, California, from whose departure he’s been much publicized as feeling guilty about leaving, a feeling that manifests in many of his new record’s lyrics.
But as much as Kendrick roots “Butterfly”’s racial content in his own personal experiences (which were the subject of the more clearly narrativized predecessor, 2012’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city”), the new work’s scope is broader, emboldened, like D’Angelo’s similar and superior early-December statement “Black Messiah,” by the dubiously justified slaughter of black adults that reached a national awareness with the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner last year.
These feelings of persecution and senselessness come through in Kendrick’s fury and delivery, as well as directly confronting the poison of violence in the lyrical content of songs like the second single, “The Blacker the Berry,” “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” and the devastating “Alright,” whose chorus is punctuated by an insistent use of the n-word that invests a communal, fierce yet wounded meaning in the word’s usage. The rapper’s verbal abilities remains as honed and impressive as the skill-set of any contemporary, rivaling, yes, Eminem, whose breathless spitting reached an apex of almost self-parody on 2013’s “Rap God.”
Admittedly, it would seem strange that the closest likeness drawn to an album this forcibly, powerfully about race and what it means to be black is to the most popular white hip-hop artist, and Lamar and Mathers diverge, certainly, in a number of ways.
“Butterfly”’s roots in free-form and more abstract genres like jazz bear no proximity to the Detroit-based 8-miler, and Lamar is a far less crass and absurdly, in some ways self-critically jingoistic in his content than Em. But lest not forget “White America” or “Square Dance,” boldly political songs that grappled with racial and pressingly contemporary issues with a forthrightness badly needed in the Bush era.
Ultimately, these are two uncomfortably intimate rappers who, even if it can be embarrassing or when prodigiousness verges on the precocious, amaze in their insight and in the colorful, broken, deeply human displays of their most vulnerable selves.