The opening track to Kendrick Lamar’s newest album To Pimp a Butterfly has multiple hallmarks of a classic West Coast hip-hop production. A cameo appearance by Doctor Dre, backing vocals by George Clinton, that signature P-funk inspired vintage L.A. ganster-rap instrumentation. “Wesley’s Theory” is an unabashedly, wonderfully Los Angeles sounding track. One of the things I love about Kendrick Lamar’s music is that in the current mainstream hip-hop landscape, where Brooklynites, Canadians, Detroit natives and even Australians are all aping the same generic, pseudo-Southern aesthetic and affectations, Kendrick hasn’t shied away from his roots. Which isn’t to say he hasn’t explored new sonic terrain beyond the SoCal influence. In fact, his vocals and cadence often–though hardly always–bring to my mind an ideal blend of Big Boi and Andre 3000.
The similarity to Outkast doesn’t stop with Kendrick’s highly malleable and versatile voice and flow, however. And I apologize in advance for the reductiveness of this comparison–to Kendrick and to his fellow fans. Kendrick gives us a blend of qualities we havent seen from any major hip-hop artist since the Atlanta duo moved on from making new music together. Not even Kanye–one of the handful of other major artists on the scene today who clearly has a signature sound–gives us such an amazing combination: social consciousness; accessibility / commercial viability; brilliant, vivid and intricate lyricism and wordsmithing; more than a touch of weirdness; earnest honesty; storytelling prowess; shameless, fun, yet self-aware “ignorant shit.”
With Outkast, this unique cocktail of hip-hop took roots with the Southernplayalistic… album, though ATLiens is often credited with being the album where they started venturing into the realm of the different, while Aquemini and Stankonia are seen as the albums where they perfected their concoction (not duplicable enough to be called a formula) . Truly from the beginning, however, when they released a disguised Christmas song as a debut single, Outkast was blazing through an uncleared path. In due time they wouldn’t change the game so much as expand it, to a degree that their absence has left an abhorrent vacuum in the hip-hop universe. Not only did they make it known that songs as infectious and ambitious as “Rosa Parks” or as magnetically manic as “Bombs Over Bagdhad” could exist, they needed to exist. We need songs that could make you clap your hands–“make the club get crunk”–and also “stimulate then activate the left and right brain” at the same damn time. Not only does the genre need such songs to exist, it needs them to succeed. It needs them to live and thrive on the airwaves, needs them to be embraced by the masses as a reminder that the Venn Diagram of Different, Outstanding and Popular does have an intersection where all three sets overlap.
Kendrick actually stepped into that space already with good kid m.a.a.d. city. The duality of “Swimming Pools” alone is evidence of this: outside of outlaw country songs, there aren’t many tracks you’ll hear that can blatantly and sincerely bemoan alcoholism but make you want to pick a drink up and have a good ol’ inebriated time anyway. The production is moody–bordering on grim–for most of the track, but it still kept partiers and clubgoers cheerful and dancing. But as excellent and lauded as his previous album was, I imagine To Pimp a Butterfly will be long be seen as the more complex and ambitious of the two, even after the initial wave of first-love gushing over this album (deserved, by the way), fades into more thoughtful analysis and appreciation with time.
Thinking of another album with similar creative, unconventional credentials to weigh this against, I’m immediately reminded of Common’s Electric Circus, and how Kendrick excels where Common, alas, merely experimented. Common is my favorite rapper of all time, and I actually like the Electric Circus album (though I had to come around on it; seeing it performed live helped with that). Electric Circus nonetheless feels to me like a leap, not a transition. It’s diverse, thoughtful, dense, colorful. All adjectives befitting To Pimp a Butterfly. But Kendrick’s effort feels, wel, less like an effort. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t sound like he put a ton of work into it; quite the contrary. It just doesn’t sound like he had to force it. Electric Circus, like many musical experiments, comes across as a phase, especially with the benefit of hindsight. Some songs are just too deliberate, too unnatural to the artist. Nothing about To Pimp a Butterfly feels like Kendrick is stepping out of himself or his zone. Not even the title. It’s not a phase or an experiment. It’s progression.
I bring up this progression element because it’s important. For all of the comparisons that I’m making, Kendrick is still very clearly distinguishing himself as himself. He has his admitted idols and influences, but he’s still very much his own MC. He has verses and songs that you can’t imagine anyone else ever delivering or doing justice to.
I know of some fans my age and older who’ve expressed their admiration for Kendrick as an MC, but felt the need to qualify their compliments by saying he wouldn’t have been so well regarded had he come on the scene two decades earlier. Back then he would have been just another quality MC. The argument goes that he’s praised just a bit excessively because of the dearth of talent among his commercially viable and prominent peers. With all due respect to those who make that argument, it’s bullshit. I admit to having a certain nostalgia for a bygone era of hip-hop (obviously; this whole article is dedicated to comparing a modern artist to a group that appears to have retired from recording, after all), so I’m willing to state that the talent pool back then might have been deeper and richer. But a diamond is nonetheless a diamond, whether it’s in the midst of gold coins or sitting a top a pile of ashes. In his relatively young career, Kendrick Lamar has already proven that he’d have been among the best in any era.
On this album, he’s proving again that he can do the needed, unique work of legends, and that at this point, he can be compared only to other incomparable artists, or perhaps only to himself.