Let’s talk about the funk.
Specifically the funk as embraced in “King Kunta,” the most recent single and most radio friendly song from Kendrick Lamar’s new album To Pimp a Butterfly (that’s the album cover pictured above). With a slow-swinging bounce and a sticky, swaggering chorus, “King Kunta” is an early contender for Song of the Summer and the accessible entry point that some critics (read: gun-jumpers) claimed was missing on Butterfly.
Musically, “King Kunta” is homage to two of the Four Pillars of Funk: James Brown and George Clinton. The first half of the song is, in fact, a pastiche of Brown’s hit “The Big Payback.” Lamar samples the girl-group background vocals from “Payback” (“Yes we can!”) and echoes Brown’s declarations of righteous indignation. Brown’s opening line: “I’m mad!” Lamar’s: “I got a bone to pick!” Brown: “I can dig rappin’/I can dig scrappin’/But I can’t dig that backstabbin’.” Lamar: “I can dig rappin’/But a rapper with a ghostwriter/What the fuck happened?”
Halfway through the song, a gunshot rings out and stops the music. A voice—not Lamar’s—intones, “By the time you hear the next pop, the funk shall be within you,” followed by another gunshot. The voice sounds to me like a down-pitched George Clinton but it’s reportedly the same voice that narrates Section 80, Lamar’s first album. This quick interlude brings “King Kunta”‘s second half, which builds into a blazing guitar-solo outro reminiscent of Eddie Hazel, the monumentally talented, died-too-soon lead guitarist for Clinton’s early incarnation of Funkadelic.
Lyrically, “King Kunta” references a rich and complex legacy of African-American and African-nationalist literature. The title, of course, riffs on the rebellious slave in Alex Haley’s novel Roots, who, after being caught escaping his masters, chose to have his foot cut off rather than be castrated. Lamar is King Kunta, paradoxically both a slave and a king. Throughout the song he raps about, of all things, yams. “What’s the yams?” the girl-group asks. Lamar explains, “The yam is the powers that be.” As suggested by comments at the lyrics-analysis site Genius.com, yams is likely a reference to The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Heady stuff that I’m inclined to believe, given Lamar’s laserlike creative intent. There are, in fact, layers upon layers of meaning within this single song and its accompanying video, posted below. With the extended yams metaphor, Lamar brings to mind the first cousin of American funkateers, Fela Kuti, who was expert in cloaking deep discontent in seemingly tangential topics (ie. denouncing European colonialism in a song about a three-piece suit).
From start to finish, “King Kunta” is soaked in funk. So what? Hip-hop has sampled James Brown and George Clinton since Day 1. Lamar aspires to ride not only funk’s irresistible groove but also its liberation cosmology. A fact often lost in funk’s goofball signifiers is that Brown and Clinton employed the music as a means to a greater goal: empowering Black people and providing them the key to their own social and psychic liberation. “Say it loud/I’m black and I’m proud,” Brown sang in 1968, during the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement. Two years later came Clinton’s spiritual iteration: “Free your mind and your ass will follow/The kingdom of heaven is within.” Time and again, funk music’s emphasis on unity and celebration was put in service of empowerment and transcendence.
Lamar circles a lot of major themes in To Pimp a Butterfly, but Black liberation—personal, collective—is at the album’s center. Historically, liberation can be read into almost all music originating within the Africa-American community, going back to jazz and blues. Funk and its hip-hop offspring are the latest entries to that lineage. But when any music with a past succumbs to commercialization—see hip-hop over the past 20 years—empowerment and enlightenment get whitewashed (pun intended) into shallower, more marketable ideas. Lamar will not stand for that. He’s taking back funk the way he’s taking back hip-hop, making weapons out of both and aiming them directly at the status quo. In all of hip-hop, the major precedents for Lamar are OutKast, who collaborated with Clinton and established a new code of Black gangsterism; and the overtly political Public Enemy, who’s groundbreaking Bomb Squad production corps built their walls of noise primarily out of James Brown samples.
“King Kunta” is only the tip of the spear that is To Pimp a Butterfly; the album is profound enough that it’s taken two weeks since its release for the lauditorycritical thinkpieces to arrive en mass. It ranks among the masterpieces of hip-hop thanks to its embrace in the funk in all its forms.