Apr 7, 2015

To Pimp a Butterfly - @Kendrick Lamar album review by @Niles_C

Kendrick Lamar had a long and weird offseason.

After his arguably classic major label debut good kid, mA.A.d city in 2012, K Dot was in and out of the spotlight for a multitude of reasons. He went platinum, got snubbed at the Grammys, called out almost every new rap dude/pissed off New York with his “Control” guest verse, then made some comments in an interview for Billboard Magazine about police brutality and released a song, The Blacker the Berry, that seemed to contain undertones of respectability politics. All of this culminated with the surprise release of To Pimp a Butterfly on March 15th, eight days before schedule.

The remarkable thing about Kendrick Lamar’s still-young career is the way he evolves. None of his releases sound like the previous one, yet they ascend in quality. This career crescendo of sorts is evident throughout To Pimp a Butterfly (which will be herein referred to as TPaB). The first two songs set the tone for the entire album. Wesley’s Theory starts with a sample of the Boris Gardiner 70’s Blaxploitation theme Every Nigger is a Star which are the first words heard and seemingly a declaration that shapes the album. From there we’re treated to George Clinton talking on a funky ass beat supplied by Flying Lotus. Dr. Dre and Thundercat also appear. From there we head to For Free? (Interlude) which includes a scattershot jazzy beat by Terrace Martin and spoken word-like lyrics by Kendrick Lamar. The rest of the album follows suit as the beats alternate between funky or jazzy. The next song King Kunta was a blast of unadulterated funk which I broke down here. It also includes the first lines of a poem that unravels throughout the album. Institutionalized has a beat switch that has become a TDE staple. Kendrick spits some quality boards about how we’re all “institutionalized” by the idea of money. Bilal & Anna Wise provide background vocals and Snoop comes through and kicks a few storytelling type bars that are reminiscent of Slick Rick.

These Walls is a bouncy upbeat song that sounds like something you’d hear on old school at noon on a Saturday morning as you cleaned the house. The big payoff is the fact that it references the narrative of Kendrick’s last album and reveals he’s sleeping with the girlfriend of the man that killed his friend as a form of revenge. U is a somber track that heads back into jazz territory and has K Dot essentially criticizing himself and his decisions in some pretty harsh terms. You really feel the depths of depression through the ambiance created by the lyrics and music. The recently-maligned Pharrell drops by to produce and feature on Alright which counterbalances the depression of the last song with hopeful lyrics and promising that “We gon’ be alright!” The saxophone on this song is amazing. For Sale? (Interlude) is much more trippy and dreamlike in his construction.  Kendrick introduces us to the character of Lucy.  Through her promises of riches and contracts and fame, you deduce that Lucy is not only short for Lucifer but also a personification for the temptations and evils of the music industry.

Momma has a hazy vibe that reminds me of a Sunday afternoon sunset. In this song, Kendrick is returns to Compton and encounters a young boy that reminds him of himself who encourages to never forget where he comes from. Another beat switch into jazz is present towards the end. Hood Politics gives off a sound that will remind you of Dr. Dre’s music in the late 90s to early 2000s.  K Dot speaks on support he gets for being himself from dudes around the way, compares gangbanging to politics (see the “DemoCrips and ReBloodlicans” line), and subtly references the impact of his controversial Control guest verse. How Much a Dollar Cost tells a story of a homeless man asking Kendrick for money overseas. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it has a twist ending. It features James Fauntleroy, who is audio melatonin to me and dulls every song he appears on. The song is saved by the legendary Ronald Isely, who appears on the outro and provides a proper closing to a great storytelling track.  Kendrick tackles the ever important issue of colorism in Complexion (A Zulu Love). He mostly raps from the perspective of a slave talking to his love interest on a plantation.  Rapsody steals the show with a guest verse and further delves into the subject, bringing it into modern times. It’s an amazingly profound song that will prove timeless.

The Blacker the Berry is the second single on TPaB and may be the most racially charged song on the album. Lalah Hathaway and Assassin assist on the intro and chorus respectively but the song is all Kendrick over a beat that can only be described as urgent. I’ll let others write think pieces on the thematics of the song, but Kendrick said that the last two lines were meant to be taken on a micro level rather than a macro level, so keep that in mind before you judge too harshly. You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said) is a lighter song that applies his mother’s advice to people that talk a lot but don’t say much. It’s become one of my favorites on the album and reminds me of the California version of a song that A Tribe Called Quest might make. Like he did on his last release, Kendrick gives us a different version of his album’s first single.  This version of i is engineered to sound like it was recorded live at a small venue. It has more energy, background singers, and fits better with a message of self love. Halfway through the song there’s a fight in the hypothetical crowd that has Kendrick stop the song to kick knowledge to an amped crowd, delivering an acapella that compares and contrasts the word nigga with the Ethiopian word Negus that means royalty. This gives an explanation that will serve the unfamiliar with food for thought.  The last song on the album Mortal Man unfortunately (for me anyway) opens with more James Fauntleroy but talks about Kendrick’s leadership abilities and asks the vital question “When the shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?” The poem that has been building throughout the album is recited in its entirety and the beat switches to a jazz medley to reveal Kendrick conversing with Tupac via quotes brilliantly intercut from a foreign 1993 interview. Jonathan shared his thoughts on Mortal Man himself here in an Editorial piece.

At this point, Kendrick Lamar has cemented himself as one of the best rappers out. His albums have a cinematic scope and he makes every song count on TPaB. There’s no filler on this album. Every song is connected and flows into the next. The slow reveal of his poem from song to song is a genius touch. The production is top notch and works as a love letter to hip hop. You have the jazz that was sampled heavily in East Coast classics that helped jumpstart the genre and you have the funk that laid the foundation for the rise of West Coast G Funk and beyond. He uses both of these as backdrops to talk about the Black experience in a cohesive manner. This album was essential and important especially in today’s racial climate. He has a multitude of guests on the album but none of them feel out of place; instead they complement the tracks on which they appear. Even though I don’t like James Fauntleroy I can at least say that he served his purpose. Even any criticisms I might have (I wish the new version of “i” got to rock longer before the switch) are minute. The issue some may take with the album is its density. This is truly a heavy album and while I managed to break down every track above, there still may be some themes and motifs that I missed. Some people have to be in the right mood and mindset to want to listen and decode all of these songs. Some may feel alienated by the subject matter. After all, it’s a Pro-Black album. However the beats make for something smooth and/or funky that most can enjoy even if they aren’t trying to analyze the lyrics. I don’t like to declare anything as best album of the year or classic but there’s a damn good chance TPaB will make it through the initial wave of hype and emerge as a sonically exquisite album that didn’t shy away from tough topics. In a time of music that becomes evermore disposable and forgettable, To Pimp a Butterfly just might become timeless.

Rating: 5 out of 5


Multimedia Journalist, Founder and Chief Editor of WTM Host of A-Side B-Side Podcast and more. I like to talk about stuff and write it down. Sometimes to a microphone. Either way, I need you to feel this.

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