Kendrick Lamar’s rapid ascent to a place near hip-hop’s creative and commercial peak can be traced to his command of three key skills. On a purely technical level, he’s one of the most exciting rappers of his generation, possessed of both impressive agility and the capacity for tremendous force. When he’s on the mike, beats are less constraints than canvases–he doodles on and around them with abandon. He’s fearless, a quality that manifests in the sound and effect of his voice: it cracks and spits, carries feeble melodies, bears the weight of rich stories. And as a narrative sculptor, he’s formidable, stitching fully realized characters, lived-in locations and generational angst into snapshots of life for the young, black and questioning.
All are in full effect on Lamar’s third studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly, a worthy successor to his acclaimed 2012 release Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Lamar has issued another plot-centric, thematically complex work in which he debates whether he should leverage his celebrity to become a standard bearer for blackness. The inquiry comes to define the album: How can you fight for love on behalf of your people when you can barely find a reason to love yourself?
Lamar struggles to answer even as he rails against the demons and constraints that obstruct his journey: depression, systemic racism, substance abuse in society, police brutality. The album climaxes with an imagined conversation with Tupac Shakur in which Lamar grapples with the weight of black leadership and galvanization, a responsibility he claims to inherit from a range of black luminaries, from Nelson Mandela to Michael Jackson. It’s a bold gambit but also a typical example of his blinding, mighty ambition. Lamar wants nothing less than greatness, and To Pimp a Butterfly is another step forward on that path.
This appears in the March 30, 2015 issue of TIME.
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