Album review: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

To Pimp a Butterfly will continue its metamorphosis from your speakers with each fresh listen.

Kendrick Lamar performs in Fajardo, Puerto Rico last year. Christopher Polk / Getty Images for Bacardi / AFP
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Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly (Aftermath/Interscope/Top Dawg) Four stars

Much has happened in the world since the Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar unleashed his breakout album Good Kid, MAAD City in 2012.

But perhaps the biggest sea change in his native United States has been the racial-­politics shock waves that hit the country in the wake of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, last ­summer.

It is against this backdrop that the 27-year-old has conceived To Pimp a Butterfly – the title tangentially referencing To Kill a Mockingbird, arguably the most enduring and wide-reaching literary work on race relations in the US.

Good Kid... was an extended, Dr Dre-endorsed ode to the city of Lamar's birth, largely concerned with escaping the confines of what surrounded and almost enveloped him. To Pimp a Butterfly sees him emerging from that chrysalis, blinking into the sunlight of a post-Ferguson world. And it might not surprise anybody to learn that Lamar does not like an awful lot of what he sees.

It's maybe even more remarkable, then, that his ire is initially concealed within funk and jazz tempos that dominate the first three tracks. The Parliament/Funkadelic legend George Clinton and the futuristic Los Angeles musicians Thundercat and Flying Lotus contribute – and that's just on the opener Wesley's Theory, a hat-tip to the tax-evading movie star Wesley Snipes that delivers a cuttingly sardonic rumination on the perils of black celebrities hitting pay-dirt.

The quotables come thick and fast from there on. Hood Politics calls out Barack Obama, which is all the more notable considering the album's cover art comprises a crude monochrome Photoshopping of a black revolution on the White House lawn.

But nothing matches the impact of the album's second single, The Blacker the Berry. Its five-and-a-half minutes of essential verbals are as incendiary as any- thing Public Enemy ever committed to tape. There's plenty of signature self-loathing, too, beating himself up for being "the biggest hypocrite of 2015".

In stark contrast, the first single, the Isley Brothers-sampling i, is Lamar's poppiest moment to date, with two Grammys to its name – but by this point (track 15), it's nothing less than necessary light after the 50 minutes of preceding shade.

While To Pimp a Butterfly goes far deeper than anything on Good Kid..., there's plenty of continuity for those looking closely. Several producers return, including Pharrell for the punchy Alright. There's no past marker post for Mortal Man, however, which closes the record with a surreal, beyond-the-grave "interview" with Tupac Shakur.

In an arena packed with pseudonyms, Lamar’s real-name, no-gimmicks approach is indicative of his painfully honest and self-aware rhymes. He’s a relatable voice full of neuroses – as distinctive as he is complex.

One thing is certain, though: To Pimp a Butterfly is a record that will continue its metamorphosis from your speakers with each fresh listen.

aworkman@thenational.ae