It took me a while to figure out what exactly Kendrick’s new album is. His previous one, good kid, m.A.A.d city, is a classic of the form, and part of it is the way it is made. Billed as a “short film by Kendrick Lamar,” good kid wraps its story in a nonlinear structure while, at the same time, elevates rap to a higher art form.
Good kid is Lamar’s story; To Pimp is his commentary. Whether or not this makes for a better album, I do not yet know. I’m listening to it in full for its second time as I’m writing this, and I still feel like I need to listen to it another five more times at least before I form a proper opinion.
But I do understand something about it, and understanding this is important to critiquing or loving the album.
To Pimp is the sequel to good kid. At the end of good kid, Kendrick’s mother leaves him a voicemail:
“If I don’t hear from you, by tomorrow… I hope you come back, and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let ’em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back, with your words of encouragement, and that’s the best way to give back. To your city…”
That’s what this album is. It is Kendrick’s way of answering his mother’s plea. I used to think that his “story” was good kid, and it still is. But this is Kendrick coming back to tell all the “black and brown kids” everywhere what he has learned.
If you look at the album like this, everything becomes clearer. The album is really about two things, working concurrently: Kendrick reaching to the new generation, and the inner-conflict that that action brings about within him.
The conflict is borne from contempt for this next generation, and understanding why Kendrick feels that way is to understand where he comes from. In the fourth song, “Institutionalized,” the line “streets put me through colleges” is juxtaposed with his current situation: “my n****s think I’m a god.” It leads him to believe that “truthfully all of ‘em spoiled,” and in his mind he’s right, because he can remember a worse adolescence, but it can also come across as nonchalant. Kendrick isn’t living that way anymore; how is he in any position to say who is spoiled and who isn’t?
This comes to a head in the album’s best song, “How Much a Dollar Cost?” Kendrick’s new lifestyle disillusions him so much to the point that he refuses to give change to a homeless man, who turns out to be God. Kendrick’s reasoning isn’t anything new: “Contributin’ money for his pipe, I couldn’t see it”; “Like I’m the reason he’s homeless and askin’ for a favor”; “’Every nickel is mines [sic] to keep.’” The homeless man tells him that a dollar is worth a spot in heaven. It’s not something material that this new lifestyle can buy. In short, it’s worth more to someone else than it is to you.
All of this weighs on Kendrick’s mind. The album ends with something remarkable: an imagined interview between Kendrick and 2Pac, taking clips of an interview 2Pac did in 1994. Kendrick uses this opportunity to talk about the black community in general, but poses specific questions about newfound riches:
KENDRICK: “Do you see yourself as somebody that’s rich or somebody that’s made the best of their own opportunities?”
2PAC: “[…] I took nothin’, I took the opportunities, I worked at the most menial, and degrading job and built myself up so I could get it to where I owned it […].
Keeping that reputation is really the most important thing for Kendrick. He struggles with it, sometimes indulging his new life and forgetting where his roots. The movie Top Five, which featured Kendrick’s song “i” in its trailer, is a good companion to this album. Chris Rock plays a fictionalized version of himself in Andre Allen, and, throughout the movie, is interviewed by Rosario Dawson’s journalist, giving a good excuse to discuss being black then, now, and what it means.
At the end of one of the best scenes in that movie, Leslie Jones’s character, someone Allen knew before he made it big, tells him as a parting: “Stay black, n***a. Keep it 100.” Basically, don’t let fame forget who you are.
That’s the key for Kendrick, especially because it is clear he strives for more. Right before the imagined 2Pac interview, he finally completes the poem that he gave us hints to throughout the album. In it, he—for him—puts to end the notion of gang wars. He entered a new war, one that “made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned.” Kendrick strives for the role of a leader. He’s just unsure if he can.