There are a large variety of themes and issues addressed on Kendrick Lamar’s third album – anger, depression and race to name a few. Each is explored in detail, with Lamar always drawing back to his own life for comparison and relatability. Almost every track runs well over four minutes too, resulting in a massive and heavily conceptual album that feels incredibly complex and oppressed, but still manages to remain up-lifting. This is exactly what many have been clamouring for from Lamar – an album that is original, experimental and timeless, but most importantly one that is 100% Kendrick.
The central theme is one of a caterpillar and a butterfly. He explains the former is the boy in him from Compton, who he was before fame; a brash self-aware child with a growing conscience. He created the butterfly persona in order to be ‘pimped’ out to record labels and sell his personality to his masses, something that he is not happy with. Lamar uses different pitches for his voice throughout the album, perhaps to discern between the two sides of his character. The high-pitched voice features on ‘Hood Politics’ as he explains just that, from a younger, more naive point of view than that of ‘Mortal Man’ which features no pitch change and conveys a more educated look on life, with the amalgamations of both the caterpillar and butterfly’s separate perspectives.
Depression is another theme that is explored in detail throughout the album. During ‘u’, he goes on a self-deprecating diatribe that deals with feelings of guilt and self-loathing that have come with fame. However for every dark cloud on the album there’s a silver lining. ‘I’ offers a different perspective from the same suicidal state of mind, but is instead a much needed message of hope from an otherwise visceral look at his life.
The production is an eclectic mix of many sounds, all of which fit into Kendrick’s overall vision of what he wanted from this album. It sounds like a lot more live instruments were used and less heavy bass & electronic elements than on what we have previously heard from him. That’s not to say those elements are not present but are used more so with nuance. There is a heavy jazz influence from the get go on ‘Wesley’s Theory’ which features Flying Lotus, Thundercat and George Clinton. The jazz undertones are not just heard in the production though, but also in his abnormal vocal delivery. ‘For Free (Interlude)’ almost has the same tone as scat singing, but with him rapping about what “keeps him obnoxious.” There are also traces of funk that take over the infectious ‘King Kunta’, just one of the tracks that deal directly and starkly with race.
This is a very angry album, but not a violent one. It offers some solutions and a brighter side, while never downplaying the rightful resentment and anger that his race have towards their own justice system. That raw emotion is best captured on the brutally honest ‘The Blacker the Berry’. It is also a record that takes chances, through both thought provoking lyrics about the state of society and genre bending music. Kendrick Lamar could have taken a more commercial route that may have sold more records, but he is not one to stand idly by and collect cheques. He wants to spread the knowledge he has acquired through struggle, but most importantly, the idea of respect for each other, and that in itself is quite admirable. All that and I didn’t even mention his conversation with Tupac at the end. Yes, Tupac. Hear it to believe it.