Kendrick Lamar, ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ [ALBUM REVIEW]
Time has a way of influencing music, artistry, people, places, things and everything in between. Over the course of the three years since Kendrick Lamar released his critically acclaimed debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, he has matured as a man, rapper and more notably as a role model.
In 2013, he was focused on capturing the essence of his life prior to rap fame. good kid, m.A.A.d city was dedicated to not only telling his own story but he also served as a voice for the involuntary mutes of the ghetto and he couldn’t deliver their experience fast enough. K. Dot seduced hip-hop heads with his unapologetic rawness on cinematic, autobiographical tracks like “Backstreet Freestyle,” “Sherene a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter” and “The Art of Peer Pressure,” to name a few. He shared his trials and tribulations — which centered on Compton, the crime-riddled streets and his own career — at the right moment and fans listened receptively.
His second major label effort, To Pimp a Butterfly, radiates with a parallel sense of urgency. When it was unexpectedly released on iTunes on March 15 — a week ahead of the previously announced March 23 date — the lyrical gift from the MC caused supporters on social media to cry synchronized emoji tears of joy. But for those fans expecting anything remotely similar to good kid, m.A.A.d city, the ever-enigmatic Lamar had a different story to tell.
The Grammy Award-winning artist dedicated this entire album to issues of racism, sexism and self-destruction in the black community. K. Dot’s 80-minute soliloquy is as nostalgic as it is timely. He takes the listener through the stages of becoming a butterfly, from self- awareness to discovery. In order to illustrate his own despair, which is mirrored by that of black America today, he retreated to the origins of black music.
Lamar borrows the poeticism of Gil-Scott Heron, the funkdafied glory of George Clinton, the uninhibited jazz rifts of Herbie Hancock and Duke Ellington and the brash narratives of N.W.A. to create sonic art that embodies every sense of the phrase “for us by us.”
He receives assistance from Pharrell’s two-step invoking productions, Flying Lotus’ driving beats, Thundercat’s synthesized bass, Ron Isley’s signature tenor harmonies, the sweet melodies of James Fauntleroy, Bilal and Anna Wise and Snoop Dogg’s smooth imprint, to name a few. Lamar’s sophomore effort is more of a progressive jazz album than it is hardcore hip-hop. While his high-pitched flow and image-heavy metaphors remain as strong as ever, his lyricism lacks the typical street chronicles average rap fans desire or would expect of him. As opposed to allowing the sound of the album to fall in line with his dark storylines, the rapper cloaks 16 tracks of honest and harsh truths in feel-good music such as funk, with hints of jazz and blues. He reminds fans that while a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, there’s nothing sweet about this tale.
At times, To Pimp a Butterfly sounds as if it were derived from the diary excerpts of an angry schizophrenic. While Lamar is on a personalized, yet familiar dilapidated road to mental clarity, he’s creating one of the most prolific examples of black pride and empowerment to date.
Daring to delve further into the cerebral chambers of this talented introvert, we take a deeper look at Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly album with a track-by-track breakdown.
If previously released singles “The Blacker the Berry” and “King Kunta” didn’t provide a glimpse of the tone this album, then the album opener “Wesley’s Theory” immediately puts it into perspective — this is a salute to all things black. The track takes off with a sample of Jamaican soul singer Boris Gardiner’s number “Every N—– Is a Star” before delving deep into the funkadelic architecture of George Clinton. Clinton’s commanding voice prefaces Kendrick’s sing-song rhetoric about stereotypical things he could have, should have and would have done once he got signed. The most notable reference on the track is possibly K. Dot addressing Wesley Snipe’s jail stint for tax invasion.
“For Free? (Interlude)”
The self-proclaimed preacher of hip-hop gospel continues his lecture with “For Free?” Channeling his inner Cab Calloway, Kendrick embodies a scat, fast-rap flow as he uses metaphorical rhymes to weigh in on the price of the black man. “This d— ain’t free,” he recites in woven loops throughout the interlude, which is backed by excited keys played by jazz pianist Robert Glasper and drum riffs from Terrace Martin. “I need 40 acres and a mule / Not a 40-ounce and a pitbull,” the MC demands.
Funk never felt so good as the album’s third single “King Kunta” takes shape with the direction of producer Mark “Sounwave” Spears. A sample of DJ Quik protégé Mausberg’s “Get Nekkid” sets in and Lamar sets it of with a chorus referencing yet another figure in black history, Kunta Kinte, a slave portrayed in Alex Haley’s 1976 historical novel Roots and the popular television miniseries of the same name. “Now I run the game / Got the whole world talkin’ / King Kunta / Everybody wanna cut the legs off him,” he rhymes. The song is another glimpse at how the Compton rapper perceives fame as it relates to race.
The bass high and the snares heavy, “Institutionalized” is produced by K. Dot’s frequent collaborator Rahki and Tommy Black. The West Coast rider is seemingly back in his zone with those unique, signature vocals as he spits lines centered on the strong hold institutionalization has on people living in the ghetto. “What money got to do with it / When I don’t know the full definition of a rap image? / I’m trapped inside the ghetto and I ain’t proud to admit it / Institutionalized, I keep runnin’ back for a visit / Hol’ up, get it back / I said I’m trapped inside the ghetto and I ain’t proud to admit it / Institutionalized, I could still kill me a n—-, so what?” he rhymes. Just as he closes the opening verse, the soulful serenade of Bilal chimes in as he serves as a vessel for a message from K. Dot’s grandma. Snoop Dogg eases in on the throwback, hip-hop infused track, which takes you from grandma’s house to a conversation at a nightclub. Anna Wise, who also sang on good kid, m.A.A.d city track “Real,” puts a female touch on the cut. She can also be heard reciting, “zoom zoom” borrowed from hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock.”
With assistance from Bilal, Anna Wise and veracious bass strums from Thundercat — who can be heard playing bass on Erykah Badu’s “Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY)” — Lamar offers sexual innuendos cemented in poetic verse on this hip two-stepper. Comparing the corroded veins of fame to the delicate catacombs of the female pleasure dome, the rapper paints a vivid picture of self-destruction versus self-emancipation. “Walls feeling like they ready to close in / I suffocate then catch my second wind / I resonate in these walls / I don’t know how long I can wait in these walls / I’ve been on these streets too long looking at you from the outside in,” he raps with desperation.
Obliterated by his own sorrow and empathetic to the affliction of his entire race, Kendrick Lamar is in his darkest hour. The song, which is the polar opposite of his Grammy Award-winning self-love anthem “i,” finds K. Dot excavating his soul to purge out his flaws, impurities and deepest insecurities. The track is split into two parts, with the latter featuring a raging, inebriated Lamar as he freaks out in a hotel room and debates suicide on the Whoarei production. Bilal, Jessica Vielmas and TDE’s own SZA offer background harmonies, which if not to assuage Kendrick’s anguish, helps soothes listeners who are distracted by his high-pitched wails.
His depression under wraps, Pharrell Williams’ production chops helps the rhymer turn over a new leaf. He’s armed and ready to face another day in this Hades of a society. He turns to Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple for the opener. “Alls my life I had to fight,” Kendrick recites. While he recognizes all the wrongs surrounding him, Lamar, like the enslaved ancestors before him, is confident that with God on his side everything will be “Alright.” Sounwave also has production creditss on the track, however Pharrell appears on the hook of this jazzy hip-hop infusion.
“For Sale? (Interlude)”
What is not “For Free?” must be “For Sale?” Lamar continues to strategically reticulate elements of institutionalized racism and ongoing African-American oppression with his own battles with stardom and his responsibilities as an artist and black man. He ends the Taz Arnold production with words of reflection: “I remembered you was conflicted / Misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same / Abusing my power full of resentment / Resentment that turned into a deep depression / Found myself screamin’ in the hotel room / I didn’t wanna self-destruct.”
Just a little over the halfway mark and K. Dot taps resilient Los Angeles-based producer Knxledge for this neo-soul hip-hop lovechild. Led by a sample from Sly and the Family Stone’s “Wishful Thinking,” and the soothing sounds of Lalah Hathaway and Bilal, the rapper’s canvas is set to transition seamlessly throughout the war going on in his mind. Yet he still embraces success and feelings of resentment. “Remember scribblin’, scratchin’ diligent sentences backwards / Visiting freestyle cyphers for your reaction / Now I can live in a stadium, pack it the fastest / Gamblin’ Benjamin benefits, sinnin’ in traffic / Spinnin’ women in cartwheels, linen fabric on fashion / Winnin’ in every decision / Kendrick is the master that mastered it,” he rhymes.
At last, the Kendrick Lamar we know and love from good kid, m.A.A.d city returns as he is most lyrically stable and at home on “Hood Politics” — mainly in part for its eerily bouncy beat, which instantly gives off West Coast, riding out vibes. Influenced by samples from indie rocker Sufjan Stevens, the beat provides the perfect backdrop for K. Dot to offer a lyrical assassination in the name of political injustices from the White House to the trap house. He’s fed up with posers and assures himself, “I been A-1 since day one, you n—-s boo boo,” Kendrick rhymes on the hook. He even takes a jab at so-called hip-hop fans and critics. “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip-hop was rappin’/ Motherf—er, if you did, then Killer Mike would be platinum,” he slams.
“How Much a Dollar Cost”
The prophetic preacher returns with divine intervention in the form of a conversation with the creator himself. The spirit surfaces in front of Kendrick in the form of his only begotten son disguised as a homeless man. The lost soul meets the rapper at a gas station, hoping to get a $1 from the wealthy rapper. While James Fauntelroy provides the R&B vibe, K. Dot analyzes the plight of a man rejected and misunderstood. In attempts to drive the message home, Ronald Isley emerges through the pearly gates with an angelic tone, humbling the TDE frontman to come to terms with the answer to his question.
“Complexion (A Zulu Love)”
For every black woman who felt that she was blessed with more than enough melanin and to every light-skinned black man who understands he is treated differently compared to his darker-skinned brothers, Lamar’s “Complexion” is for you. K. Dot takes the shape of a cotton-picking slave who possibly could have been affected by the brown paper bag test — a form of discrimination by using a brown paper bag to determine acceptable skin tones. As if the rapper’s braggadocio about his outer shell weren’t inspiring enough, 9th Wonder signee Rapsody speaks on behalf of the ladies. She challenges the non-believers and those with low self-esteem to have faith in their beauty, kinky hair, curvy hips, hazelnut skin and all.
“The Blacker the Berry”
Fists high and chests out, it doesn’t get mush sweeter than this. Cantillate whispers from Lalah Hathaway kick off this hard-hitting beat courtesy of Boi-1da. Kendrick Lamar comes off as angry here; he’s rightfully fed up and disgusted with the respect society has for black lives. “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? / When gang banging make me kill a n—- blacker than me?/ Hypocrite!” he confesses. Dancehall favorite Assassin, who was also featured on Kanye West’s “I’m In It” brings the message home on the hook shouting rhetoric of amour-propre for his black heritage.
“You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”
Lessons from mama come to the forefront as Kendrick Lamar revisits issues of the past, tapping into his “The Art of Peer Pressure” days. This time around, instead of battling with the influence of his boys, he is offering advice for those who lie and pretend to be down or attempt to infiltrate his inner circle. “Circus acts only attract those that entertain / Small talk, we know that it’s all talk / We live in the Laugh Factory every time they mention your name,” he delivers.
If you don’t love yourself than who will? The lead single off the album comes at you like a ray of sunshine in the midst of sonic murkiness. The album version of the record features a welcoming opener for K.Dot, the “number one rapper in the world.” The Isley Brothers sample makes “i” one of the more upbeat tracks on the project. A rapper promoting self-love and unity never sounded so good.
The homestretch is more like a cruise to paradise for Kendrick Lamar. Inspired by a trip to South Africa to visit Nelson Mandela’s jail cell, K. Dot concludes his auditory essay with a 12-minute analysis of all of the topics he touched throughout the album. He maintains his overall thesis of dissecting black history — past and present — over samples of Fela Kuti’s “I No Get Eye for Back,” from 1975’s Alagbon Close. But after all of the pondering, the MC still has questions that need to be answered. He asks his followers, supporters, family and friends, “when s— hit the fan, is you still a fan?” a line he repeats throughout the hook to highlight how leaders — including Moses, Michael Jackson, Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. — have suffered from abandonment at some point in their reign.
The lyricism and message — already a gem in its own right — makes coming to the end of this project bittersweet. But just when you thought the journey of To Pimp a Butterfly is over, the “Mortal Man” enters the gates of heaven to hear some final words of wisdom from Tupac Shakur. Using audio from a rare 1994 interview with Pac, Lamar illustrates the parallels in his thought process to that of the “California Love” rapper. While it is certainly eerie and emotional, the artistically-scripted conversation between the two West Coast rappers is a rewarding moment for hip-hop and black pride as a whole.