All Hail King Kendrick: A Review of ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ by Kendrick Lamar
Let me start out by saying something that everyone should probably know by now:
Kendrick Lamar is the best rapper in the world today. And it’s not even close.
You can go ahead and convince yourself that Drake and Kendrick are on the same plateau, but that would be insulting to the work Kendrick has put out thus far. You can tell me that J.Cole has put out as much great music as Kendrick has in the past 4 years, and I will tell you that you must be deaf or skimming through Kendrick’s catalogue. Even Kanye’s music post-My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy falls short to Kendrick. If anything, Kendrick is the guy carrying the torch that Kanye had been holding up so high for almost ten years. Kendrick Lamar is the first rapper with both the rhyme and storytelling ability of the all-time greats, such as Tupac, Jay-Z and Biggie, and the high art concepts of artists like Kanye West and Outkast.
The thing that a few people have been saying about Kendrick since his oft-discussed monster of a verse that he had on Big Sean’s “Control” is that everyone seems to overthink, overrate and overhype Kendrick’s ability. To me, this is one of the most ridiculous things that I see from time to time. I constantly hear people saying that Hip Hop is on life support but when we finally get someone who breathes life into the game, we want to crucify him for doing such. If you’ve listened to this record thoroughly, I just don’t see how you can’t see that this dude is absolutely has no competition in the game. None, zero, zilch. It’s the feeling I got when I first listened to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Now, onto the actual content. Kendrick Lamar finds himself at war with himself and the state of his country. I wouldn’t call this album a political one, it’s more of a human piece. It’s influences range from modern soul artists such as the Roots and Erykah Badu while capturing the essence of the retro soul artists such as Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott Heron. Kendrick blows us away right out of the gate with the appropriately funky “Wesley’s Theory”, which features Parliament-Funkadelic’s own George Clinton and frequent Flying Lotus collaborator, Thundercat. In the few opening tracks, we realize that Kendrick is not necessarily addressing issues within the black community, but also himself. He plays the role of preacher while also being one of the faces in the crowd, the caterpillar and the butterfly, so to speak. In the thumping, colorful anthem, “King Kunta”, he shows that although he is the king of the rap game, he was once “a peasant” and kind of still is. With fame seemingly tempting him, he stays true to himself because he knows very well how quickly he went from the ground to the throne he sits on today.
Kendrick introduces the mental prison he finds himself in on the track “Institutionalized”, which features Snoop Dogg, Anna Wise, and Bilal. He claims that while he still holds onto his hood mentality, he is not very proud of that. It’s a track that hints at the unique shade of vulnerability that Kendrick shows throughout the album. “These Walls” is one of my personal favorites on the album. It’s a track that plays on the good and evil that lies within the human mind. It’s disguised as a sex song, but it’s more about the human conscience and the walls that we put up, a very nice prelude to the next track. Kendrick reveals in the final verse that he’s having an affair with the girl who’s dating the guy who killed his friend on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thrist” from GKMC, making it a slight continuation of the track. The production on the track is very smooth and dreamy, setting the perfect scene for Kendrick’s lyrics.
“u” is the track that serves as the antithesis of “i”. It’s a direct look into Kendrick’s conscience and the guilt that he feels from his fame. If “These Walls” was a brief peek into the mind of Kendrick Lamar, then “u” is the closest thing to actually cracking open his brain and finding out everything he thinks about. This is another one those tracks that Kendrick absolutely spills his entire heart out. The thing about his approach to songwriting is the amount of honesty he has with himself. This track is just Kendrick leaving it all out there. You very seldom see an artist in any genre dissing himself with the seriousness and take no prisoners attitude that Kendrick displays on this very track. Kendrick finds himself drunkenly looking in the mirror and feeling the burden that he has put on himself since leaving Compton and hitting it big. It’s the definite emotional low point of the album. Kendrick appropriately follows “u” with “Alright”, a song about how although he and his homies may not see the light at the end of the tunnel just yet, they have to trust in God’s plan and as long as that happens they’ll be fine. It’s the promise Kendrick makes to himself that better things will come.
The interlude “For Sale” could be seen as the beginning of Kendrick’s relationship with Lucifer, or as he calls her, Lucy. Kendrick opts to use very dreamy, very jazzy Stevie Wonder-esque production to show how he’s being engulfed by “the evils of Lucy” only to lead into the track “Momma” which shows Kendrick coming back down to earth. He does exactly what his mother told him to do at the end of “Real” on his previous album. He tells us what he’s learned from fame and his experiences outside of Compton. Kendrick finds himself now as the butterfly he’s been referring to this entire album but only to realize that even he has been pimped by America and Lucy. Kendrick returns to his high pitched delivery that we heard so often on GKMC as he plays the role of someone stuck within the mindset of the hood on the song “Hood Politics”. K-Dot gives us direct insight on the politics within the hood and how that correlates with the American government. It’s a track that connects both the bottom of the country to the top. He also talks about the hypocrisies within the rap game and even name drops Killer Mike, referring to how if hip hop listeners really wanted to listen to “real rap” Killer Mike would have gone platinum by now. It’s a fucking monster track lyrically.
“How Much A Dollar Cost” is where we find Kendrick at a crossroads with himself once again. This time it comes in the form of an encounter Kendrick has with a homeless man asking him for a dollar. It’s probably the most direct song on the album, but it’s message is one to think about. Kendrick begins to wonder what exactly does a dollar cost? Although he has fought for his money earned he begins to realize his fight for greed has left him with little empathy and wonders why this homeless man is trying to tempt him with bible references, only to find out the homeless man is God himself. An absolutely fantastic song that people seem to be sleeping on.
K-Dot continues his journey on “Complexion” and “The Blacker The Berry”. The first one highlights black beauty in every shade of brown. He and featured guest Rapsody try to show their community that it’s not about light skinned vs. dark skinned, it’s a celebration of the beauty behind being of color, thus dubbing the stereotypes of ones complexion wrong. “The Blacker The Berry” addresses ones blackness in an extremely more visceral way. Kendrick is firing on all cylinders here. He addresses his own hypocrisies as well as the hypocrisies within the black community. He is proud of his complexion, as he had shown in the previous track but is extremely angry with the state of black americans, in lieu of the Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Mike Brown cases all ending unjustly. While he is angry with the perception that his fellow blacks have, he’s displays anger towards himself and fellow blacks for the hatred they spew onto themselves. It’s an absolute haymaker delivered to an entire generation. Another monster track.
“You Ain’t Gotta Lie” is another track where Kendrick tries to promote self-empowerment. He urges the listener to just be themselves and let go of their insecurities. It’s a pat on the back after the social ass-whupping he gives us on “The Blacker The Berry”. The album reaches it’s high point with the re-recorded, seemingly live version of the single “i”, where Kendrick adds crowd noise and a significantly more energetic vocal delivery. People complained about how the glowing positivity made Kendrick seem a little corny or campy and those people are the exact kind that Kendrick tries to reach out to on the back half of this album. THOSE are the people who are holding back the black race from truly growing and loving themselves for who they are. He adds a little scene to the back half of the track where he breaks up a fight in the crowd and decides to preach with a lesson on black insecurity by shedding light on a race divided that cannot stand unless it is unified. It makes the people who criticized Kendrick’s positivity on the single version of this track look absolutely foolish. K-Dot shows exactly why blacks must love themselves and one another in order to truly make change. It’s Kendrick’s triumph, and, to me, the centerpiece of the album.
The final track “Mortal Man” is the one where Kendrick leaves everybody talking FOREVER. He spends it questioning the loyalty of his fans to prove a point about human beings more than the loyalty of his fans specifically. I believe that Kendrick does this because he wants to show that no matter what a person does, they are mortal. We worship celebrities, musicians and activists only to turn our backs on them at the first sight of trouble. Not knowing that we ourselves are equally as mortal and capable of putting ourselves in the same situation. It’s a track that leaves us thinking about loyalty to not only the ones we idolize, but even our friends. He ends this track off by finishing up his poem that he’s been reading aloud at the end or beginning of tracks on the record, only to reveal that he’s been reading it to TUPAC!!!!!! He then proceeds to have a conversation with the deceased rapper himself about the future of his generation. An absolutely iconic moment. Kendrick having a conversation with his own idol, who happens to be dead. Kendrick then reads another poem to Pac after hearing his thoughts on Kendrick’s generation, to which there is no reply on Pac’s end. Very much, a “fill in the blanks yourself” moment. Insane.
At this point, I’d like to think that Kendrick Lamar has reached a career zenith with To Pimp A Butterfly, but it would be unfair to say such a thing about an artist who has just started to hit his stride. It’s the right album, at the right time, for the right audience. 2014 was a dismal year for music and for black culture in the United States. While it seems like this year will be one in which all of the heavy hitters come to play, Kendrick Lamar dropped a bomb on the game to not only change the direction of Hip Hop, but also change the direction of his culture (in it’s first two days, To Pimp A Butterfly garnered over 20 million streams on Spotify, a new record)
Three years ago, I said that Kendrick Lamar was the breath of fresh air that Hip Hop sorely needed, but now, I believe he’s truly become a game changer. The most telling thing about his rise to the top of the mountain has been his willingness to stay true to himself. K-Dot is about as artful and true to form as any artist in music today. He’s one of the first black artists of the iPhone generation to make music that can appeal to the most die hard underground music fans, while also being popular enough to break streaming records on Spotify, and he’s done it all by just focusing on one thing: making great music. No more. No less. If D’Angelo’s album Black Messiah was the first shots of social change within the genre, then Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly is the hammer that drives the nail home. Kendrick reminds us just how beautiful hip hop can actually be if the messengers of the game actually gave a shit. Not only that, but he also shows us how powerful music can be. We finally have an artist of great importance, genre be damned, who is actually saying something about the state of America today while also teaching us how his actions and attitude shape his own culture.
I recall geeking out when Prince strutted and snarked his way through his extremely brief appearance at this years Grammys. Not only because his appearances on national television are extremely rare, but also because he left us with something to think about. He left us with a quote that connected both the state of the music industry and the state of our country in a way that only a timeless artist of his caliber could deliver:
Albums- you remember those? Albums still matter. Like books and black lives, albums still matter. Tonight….and always.
Now, after spending almost two weeks straight listening, evaluating, and enjoying Kendrick Lamar’s latest opus, To Pimp A Butterfly, I can say that Kendrick once again showed us exactly why albums still matter.