Album Review: Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’

Kendrick Lamar_ToPimpAButterfly_album cover“The goal of an artist is to create the definitive work that cannot be surpassed.”

—George Bernard Shaw

Classic. Genius. G.O.A.T.

These are just a few terms used too loosely when it comes to music generally, hip-hop specifically. However, when a possible glitch unleashed Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly on an unsuspecting public more than a week early, the praise was immediate, because the impact was immense. To reduce TPAB to a rap album is doing the artist and collaborators a disservice, because the cultural commentary and criticism supersedes standard music fare and needs to be examined as the critical document of 2015.

On 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, K. Dot provided us with a narrative of Compton through the eyes of young man coming of age as a rapper. The album garnered him seven Grammy nominations. Though he wouldn’t leave with a trophy, he solidified himself among the top rappers in the game, but kicked it up another level when his guest verse on Big Sean’s “Control” sparked controversy by Kendrick mentioning many of his peers as rappers he intended to “murder” lyrically. The line in the sand was drawn. Immediately, the anticipation for his follow-up to good kid, m.A.A.d. city was raised, but save for a few guest appearances, he’d been relatively quiet. His contemporaries got busy; Kanye West released Yeezus (and took Kendrick on the subsequent tour), Drake released an album, a mixtape/album and remained visible, while J. Cole raised the bar with two albums, including his “surprise” album 2014 Forest Hills Drive in December.

While label mate Schoolboy Q enjoyed a breakout year, Top Dawg Entertainment began the tease of a new Kendrick Lamar album via Twitter. When “i” was released in September to a mixed reaction, many were stuck on The Isley Brothers’ “That Lady” sample and not focused on the lyrics. The single, however, earned him his first two Grammy trophies for Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song. Yet, it was his appearance as the last musical guest on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report that gave an indication of where the highly-anticipated album was headed. The track, “Untitled,” found Lamar backed by Thundercat, Terrace Martin, Bilal and Anna Wise, while performing a raw commentary on racial perspectives as the country was in turmoil over the non-indictments in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases.

But, there was still no official word on the album.

The Internet release of the thumping “Blacker the Berry” gave hope that the album was on the way. Next came the leak of “King Kunta,” the much-talked about song, which Rolling Stone claimed sounded like a Blaxploitation theme song. Again, a few cryptic tweets and then the album cover was released. The jarring image found a scene straight out of a Compton cookout planted in front of the White House, and we learned the title would be To Pimp a Butterfly. Even more reason to rejoice was learning that we were weeks away from its release date, March 23rd. So, imagine the surprise when the album was “mistakenly” released more than a week earlier and it was everything we’ve waited for. I mean, everything.

To Pimp a Butterfly explodes with the urgency of NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton,” the fierce urgency of now! Having already solidified his standing as a dope MC and storyteller, he uses this platform for the critical inquiry of society. The album is ripe with criticisms and commentary on materialism, government, education, gang culture, the military industrial complex, colorism in the African American community, race and class, survivor’s remorse and also self-love and self-hate through the lens of mental health. Having touched on his battles with depression in recent interviews, Kendrick Lamar delivers a poignant, yet frightening glimpse into some of his darkest thoughts on the haunting “u.” The second verse in particular, which introduces an inebriated K. Dot, finds him examining his pain and guilt for not being the man he proclaims to be, not looking out for a friend’s brother, who was shot and murdered, and even touches on his own possible thoughts of suicide. It is “u,” when coupled with the album’s version of “I”, that reveals the true greatness of “I.” The “live” version of the song provides a more upbeat MC, with clarity as he quells a skirmish during his performance and then launches into a narrative about taking the time to enjoy “what little bit of life we have left.” The song ends with an a cappella verse in which he explores the “n-word” with a definition of the Ethiopian Negus, which means king or emperor.

There’s beauty all through the album; it’s truly a journey in black American music, as it finds its roots in blues, jazz, R&B, soul, funk and hip-hop. The album opens with “Wesley’s Theory,” which features Dr. Funkenstein himself, George Clinton, and plays like an updated Parliament with its critiques on government, consumerism and the bevy of metaphors that will be at play throughout the album. The liner notes reads like a who’s who: Thundercat, Bilal, Robert Glasper, Ronald Isley, Terrace Martin, Lalah Hathaway, Rapsody, Anna Wise, Snoop Dogg and a brief appearance from Dr. Dre. It’s these voices and appointed talents that shaped the sonic journey TPAB takes us on. The other element that last the entire album is a poem that builds into its completed form at the conclusion of “Mortal Man” and leads to a “conversation” with Tupac. Kendrick reads the poem to Pac and then goes into an “interview,” spliced together from a rare 1994 interview and gains clarity from one of his inspiration about his direction and emotions he’s feeling.

The album is dark; that’s because we’re living in dark times and it speaks to the mood of the day. Honestly, each day since listening I’ve had a different favorite song, largely because it depends on my mood of the day. I’ve bounced around the driver’s seat to “Alright” a day or two, contemplated my space in society listening to “Momma,” and cried for what reason I can’t place a finger on while replaying “Mortal Man.”  I hear Baldwin. I see Malcolm and I feel Huey. I am reminded of how I felt watching 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station. I feel the spirit of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Eric Garner. I’m reminded of 2Pac’s conflicted nature. I feel the lyrical dexterity and superiority of The Notorious B.I.G., Jay Z and Nas.

Kendrick Lamar Duckworth has raised the bar to a height that may be unattainable, but gives us all something to aspire towards.

Classic. Genius.

—Al-Lateef Farmer

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