Six songs into his new album, Kendrick Lamar locks himself in a hotel room and faces a brutal assault from his own conscience. His voice shredded like that of a man dying in the desert, with horns in the background wailing like a pack of dogs, Lamar raps that his talent’s worthless, that he’s sold out his friends, that his art has changed nothing, and that success has made him complacent. Thoughts of suicide flash through his mind, and the maid’s knocks on the door go unanswered.
The chorus to this horror-show of a song, “u,” reads like this: “Loving you / is complicated.”
Complicated—not impossible, not difficult, but complicated. Everything in Lamar’s world is complicated, probably because everything in the real world is. Whereas so much of pop culture, pop music, and hip hop filters life to seem slightly slicker and simpler, the 27-year-old Compton rapper adjusts the contrast settings, highlighting the dark corners and the cracks. He’s the only major rapper now working who fully embraces the form’s discursive potential, chasing every contradiction he comes across to its sometimes-ugly ends.
His new full-length record, To Pimp a Butterfly, comes after two albums of richly detailed narratives about growing up poor in Compton. But 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City went platinum, and his lyrics now focus not on who he once was but who he is: a celebrity. Yes, Butterfly is part of the not-always-so-grand tradition of art about how hard it is to be famous. But it’s also a dense, astonishing, cliché-busting confession about how his fear of failure intertwines with his race, community, ambition, and psychology.