I didn't sleep last night. Granted, I've had a history of insomnia, so it is not unheard of for me to stay awake until five or six in the morning. Last night, however, was not that sort of aimless wakefulness. No, it was extravagant and intentional.
Last night, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly leaked on iTunes a week in advance of its planned release (it has since been removed), and I sat up listening. Once. Then twice. Then three times. By the time I noticed the sun sneaking under my blinds, I'd combed the album over seven times, and yet it still felt entirely new, revealing unseen inscrutabilities with each repetition. It's a testament to Lamar's skill as a writer and composer that this never felt tiring or frustrating. Rather, being baffled by Butterfly felt like a sort of gift: The chance to watch something mysterious and masterful unfold itself, taking a series of increasingly vital forms before wiping the slate clean and starting creation all over again. Seven days and then a flood. Seven days and then a flood. Each listen a new and lively world.
After all those replays, I can be certain of only one thing. To Pimp a Butterfly is a masterpiece, fulfilling, defying and exceeding expectations simultaneously.
In many ways, Kendrick's latest record is a study in interruptions: disruptions compounding on one another with increasing tension and fury. There's a sense of the unfulfilled, moments of beauty and anxiety cut short, and then forced to recreate themselves, to adapt. But, like Lamar roared in the untitled track he premiered on The Colbert Report back in December (which does not appear on this record), nothing here dies. It just multiplies. For the clearest example of this, a listener can look to "i," which appeared as a single in the fall, and sits as the fifteenth track on Butterfly. The album version of the track is, however, entirely different, a new beast with new rhythms and intentions. When "i" first premiered it was billed as Lamar's pop-iest song to date -- a paean to self-love riding the buoyant crests of an Isley Brothers sample. It was bouncy without being light and warm without being dishonest. The darkness that thundered out from the cut's fourth verse felt organic, but still out of place. When "The Blacker the Berry" premiered months later, the two tracks were placed in opposition to each other almost immediately.
Now, however, the pair don't seem all that different. "i" has been recast, with Lamar bottling a live performance that deteriorates into shouting, swallowing up the song as it was previously understood. Within the muddle, Kendrick calls out to the crowd, asking, "How many n*ggas we done lost?" Soon, he begins to freestyle, harnessing the seemingly casual confidence of the original song and transforming it into something unabashedly revolutionary: "N-E-G-U-S -- definition, royalty." The collapse and conversion is breathtaking and unexpected. While the track echoes from the very outset, with each passing minute that space between Kendrick and the listener feels vaster. Unlike most live tracks, "i" doesn't seem interested in creating intimacy. It's comfortable holding fans at a distance, asking them to do the work. It breathes air into the room even as it sucks it out. It feels both spacious and claustrophobic. Most of all, it feels alive: The song's two versions conversing vibrantly, asking one another what their writer is trying to say, and how he should say it.
"King Kunta" too- -t he album's third track, which leaked this past Friday -- finds itself a platform for disruption. The song begins with an announcement -- "I've got a bone to pick!" -- before gradually growing and hastening atop thickening orchestrations. In the middle of a chorus, however, the background cuts out. "By the time you hear the next 'pop'" a voice intones, "the funk shall be within you." Then, a pop. Then, Kendrick finishing his thought. Then the bass roaring up once more to swallow the silence. It's a perfect transition, and especially powerful in the context of the song, the chorus of which refers to the slave Kunta Kinte, whose foot was amputated as punishment for his attempting to escape captivity. "Everybody wanna cut the legs off him," Lamar raps. The track, too, for a moment, seems halted. Yet, it quickly pushes forward, speeding up once more in defiance.
This seems to be the central anxiety of Butterfly: What still stands in the way of black Americans, what remains determined to kill them. How do we survive this? The record asks. As such, every interruption is a reminder, a demonstration of the course that so often is imposed upon young black men. It's impossible not to reckon with this in some way in the wake of 2014, which came to be defined by the discussion over the publicized murders of Tamir Rice, Mike Brown and Eric Garner. The former two didn't live to see age twenty. Black life, Lamar then argues, is haunted by the potential for disruption. Always lurking is the notion that a life building momentum may be suddenly and randomly derailed, cut short. His latest album is a distillation of this and a rebellion against it. It is consistently terminated, only to spring to life once more.
This all makes the record's twelve-minute closer "Mortal Man" especially fitting. For the first five minutes the track moves forward as a celebration of community, invoking Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Moses, asking how long anyone can hold on and stay committed to the fight ("When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?") What attempts to silence and destroy will you endure?
But, then, it slowly winds down under the sounds of Lamar describing his own doubts and self-loathing. It's prayerful and searching, seemingly stretching into the void to some unnamed "you." But then the void speaks back, the evermore responds. And it is Tupac Shakur. And the two men joke and jab at one another and talk shop. "How long do you think it'll take before n*ggas be like, I'm fighting a war I can't win and I want to lay it all down?" Lamar inquires. "In this country a black man only have five years when we can exhibit maximum strength," Shakur explains. "'Cause once you turn thirty, it's like they take the heart and soul out of a man."
It's a beautiful mission statement for the record: A fight against death and silence, and a preservation of an energy and a drive to fight. It leads into Kendrick's own lengthy explanation of the metaphor of the album's title, but what struck me most is what happens just after that. Lamar's speech builds over the sounds of fitful jazz, writhing, dancing horns. "What's your perspective on that?" Kendrick asks. Only the sounds of those instruments. "Pac," he calls out, "Pac?" Then one last time, just as the music cuts out, so that that name feels like one last note, a punctuation. The conversation has been disrupted much as Shakur's own life. It is a violent, mournful ending. Yet, when I first heard it, my mind raced back to "King Kunta." "By the time you hear the next 'pop,' the funk shall be within you." Spreading out from the ending of that track is the world that Kendrick fought to capture and describe, in all its glory and rage and tragedy, and "funk." The interruption suggests death, but here it seems to leave room for rebirth. So, when the album started up again, I felt myself at ease. From a jumble of eerie static, the first words of "Wesley's Theory" materialized: a joyous, tuneful affirmation. "Every n*gga is a star."
To Pimp a Butterfly is a maximalist record in the purest sense. It is bursting at the seams, every song stuffed with emotion, contradiction, longing and debate. It is furious and celebratory and mournful and funny. It explodes and rebels, creates and destroys, grows and flowers and stretches out in all directions. Knowing how little of it I feel I have understood feels like a wonderful promise. It feels like an honor. The chance to re-listen, to hear the world made new again, is one of the many immutable beauties of art. It is one that Kendrick has captured perfectly. To Pimp a Butterfly may be interrupted but it will not be stopped.
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