Summer of 1987: Ronald Reagan was in the White House. Bernhard Goetz was acquitted of all counts of attempted murder and assault on the four black teenagers he shot on a New York subway. Prince was clocking universal acclaim for Sign o' the Times, singing about a young man "high on crack and toting a machine gun" on the title track. In Los Angeles, crowds lined up to watch the future governors of California and Minnesota shoot machine guns in Predator. The crack epidemic (the one sparked by the CIA in order to help fund a revolution in Nicaragua) was in full swing, leading to 387 gang-related killings. And, in the heat of mid-June, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth was born in the LA hub of Compton, a year before Dr. Dre and N.W.A. would make it a household name.
Twenty-eight years later, Dre is a headphone-hocking billionaire, a feature film based on N.W.A.'s meteoric, game-changing rise is nearing release, and little Kendrick—not Drake, not Kanye—is (and has been since his last album, 2013's Good Kid, M.A.A.D City) the Undisputed King of Rap. Kendrick's masterpiece of a third album, To Pimp a Butterfly, just hit the game like an atom bomb, breaking streaming records, topping the charts, earning near-universal raves. Metacritic, for one, currently rates it as "the best rap album of all time." And it really is that fucking good. TPAB is simply one of the most absorbing hiphop albums I've ever heard.
After spending the better part of a week with it on repeat, the album's emotional highs and lows—the feeling I get as the scraped-up, crazy-crying depression of "u" gives way to the dogged determinism of "Alright"—are with me wherever I go. The producer of "u," Whoarei, tagged the original version of the song "#prayer" on SoundCloud—and that's exactly what it is for me: a prayer for the strength and resiliency I desperately needed, and I bet I wasn't alone. Nor could I have been the only one smacked dumb when the recurring device of a poem, released in bits throughout the album, resolved into the big reveal: Kendrick is a Tupac Shakur disciple, asking his deceased hero, who appears via the ingenious use of a 1994 interview, to clarify old metaphors, about the future of America. ("It's gonna be murder, you know what I'm saying. It's gonna be like Nat Turner, 1831, up in this motherfucker," sayeth Makaveli.)
Rappers love to describe their work as "a movie" to pump up its artistic merits (Good Kid, M.A.A.D City inspired a short film by director Kahlil Joseph, in fact). But To Pimp a Butterfly is a musical—a nonlinear, multiple-perspective, 79-minute Spike Lee joint on Broadway scored by Dr. Dre, George Clinton, and Flying Lotus. And though those three stars were in fact involved in the album's creation, it's the troupe of not-quite-household-name producers and musicians—longtime collaborator Sounwave, the long-underappreciated R&B prodigy Bilal, and LA mainstays Terrace Martin and Thundercat—that suffuse both music and rapping with an infectious collective energy that recalls the feeling of The Chronic (though the two albums' intentions are very different).
Though it couldn't possibly be more timely, TPAB is not the sound of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It is the sound of black life (lives, in fact, a whole bunch of them) mattering. And while it may damn well be a perfect album, it is not a perfect political statement. Neither was the album that I thought of when I gave TPAB a first and second listen—one of my ultimate favorites, Outkast's Aquemini. For example: Andre did kinda tell a woman to choke out another woman for making a pass at her on "Mamacita." There are the "evils" of Lucy—likely short for Lucifer (and not, I'm assuming, the Lucy's Drive In on West Pico)—on "Tammy's Song (Her Evils)." Pinning it all on the evils of women is the oldest trick in the oldest book. I know Kendrick believes in the Bible (you can see a copy on the cover of 2011's Section.80), and I also believe that, like the guy depicted in its second half, he speaks only out of love.
I'll try to do the same regarding the troubling respectability politics that frame the ferocious single "The Blacker the Berry." Kendrick explicitly calls himself "the biggest hypocrite of 2015" for mourning Trayvon Martin despite having killed someone "blacker than me." But the man who killed Martin was acquitted in a court of law—while Kendrick, or whichever character that line is meant to be spoken by, likely would not be. In fact, the third verse of "These Walls" is directly spit to the black man rotting in a cell—who, unlike George Zimmerman, was "indicted, same night" for killing Kendrick's friend. "Black on black crime" is bullshit—most crimes, including murder, are intraracial—but I suspect Kendrick is speaking from his personal life experience, and is, like most folks, misinformed on the systemic roots of the violence in his community. More importantly, you never get the feeling that Kendrick is going to tell you racism is a thing of the past (like Kanye or ASAP Ferg have), or that black folks needed to "extend their hand in love" and "forget about the past" to fix it (as Selma soundtrack Grammy- and Oscar-winner Common fixed his face to say recently).
Despite the "perfect imperfections" (just to bite the style of CeeLo Green, as our MC himself does on "For Free?") in his lens, Kendrick has made the definitive statement in black music of this era—which, incidentally, is just about the only music of this era that's addressing the deepening ugliness of where we're all at in America. Not all of us can just "Shake It Off"—must be nice—but like Mama Badu told us back on Aquemini's "Liberation," we got to. We have to unburden ourselves of our load, because those backs, with "scars 'pon," have shouldered too much for way too long.
Just wait for the drop.