Musically, lyrically and emotionally, Kendrick Lamar's third album is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece – a sprawling epic that's both the year's most bumptious party music and its most gripping therapy session. A rap superstar at last, after years on the underground grind, Lamar wrestles with the depression and survivor's guilt that followed his fame and success by turning to heroes from Ralph Ellison and Richard Pryor to Smokey Robinson and Kris Kross to Nelson Mandela and Tupac. He lives large. He contains multitudes.
The pleasures and rewards of To Pimp a Butterfly aren't easy. Leading the charge to bring live instrumentation back to hip-hop, Lamar and producer Sounwave call forth a sound as ambitious, free-associative and challenging as his rhymes: sci-fi funk on "Wesley's Theory," snatches of free jazz on "For Free?," steady-rolling G-funk on "King Kunta." Over all this, Lamar – his voice raw or multitracked into its own chorus – interrogates himself and a country where everything from his ancestors to his art has always been for sale. He repeatedly returns to a moment when he found himself alone in a hotel room, distraught and screaming. "I didn't want to self-destruct," he says. "So I went running for answers." The search is never-ending.