Kendrick Lamar is at his best when he embraces the contradictions that define his life. He is one of the most famous rappers alive, but feels stifled by his culture and his past. He’s outwardly full of bravado and bluster, yet unable to get past his crippling self-doubt. Fame has let him escape from the hell of the inner city, but he “keeps runnin’ back for a visit.”
All of this is on display in his new, game-changing album, To Pimp A Butterfly, making it more impressive that the album feels of a complete piece rather than just a collection of songs. Songs like “u” and “i” showcase the fluctuations in his psyche, cycling from self-hate to self-love. “Hood Politics” succinctly zooms from micro to macro on the issue of racial politics, starting with his friends in the hood and ending with the President of the United States.
Musically, he has forged an iconoclastic sound inspired by Flying Lotus and jazz and funk standards of the ’70s, leaving behind the sound that typifies a lot of modern hip hop. He has also largely done away with guest verses, which gives him more room to show off the remarkable amount of control and range he has over his voice, moving between gruff, rasping, and high-pitched yelps of victory. This is a work of supreme confidence and insight, and deserves a spot in the hip-hop hall of fame, right next to Illmatic (1994) and Fear of a Black Planet (1990).