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

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“See a lot of y’all don’t understand Kendrick Lamar
Because you wonder how I could talk about money, hoes, clothes, God and history all in the same sentence
You know what all the things have in common?
Only half of the truth, if you tell it
See I’ve spent 23 years on the earth searching for answers
’til one day I realized I had to come up with my own
I’m not on the outside looking in, I’m not on the inside looking out
I’m in the dead fuckin’ center, looking around”

Don’t say he didn’t warn us. Kendrick Lamar outlined his mission statement on 2011’s “Ab-Soul’s Outro,” a fast and furious jazz rap interlude from the critically acclaimed Section.80. In the year that followed, K.Dot strayed from such fusion stylings to take on the violence-and-drug-riddled exploits of his Compton upbringing on good kid, m.A.A.d city, hard-hitting G-funk influence in full effect. It’s almost too fitting, then, that To Pimp a Butterfly meets the two halfway.

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An awe-inspiring maelstrom of boom-bap, trap, soul, funk, R&B, and jazz, To Pimp a Butterfly is as sonically stunning as it is lyrically dense. Every contradiction, every shift in tone or genre, adds yet another layer to Kendrick’s universal worldview. This is a 2015 album that couldn’t possibly exist at any other time in any other year, as Lamar draws on everything from the pioneering P-Funk movement of the 1970s to last year’s all-too prevalent police shootings of blacks. Whether he’s turning the history of slavery on its head with the Ahmad Lewis-aping “King Kunta,” or tearing himself apart from the inside on “u,” Kendrick shines a light on the psychology of love and hate that fuels all sorts of seemingly inescapable institutional behaviors.

Critics and fans alike will turn to “u” or “The Blacker the Berry” or “i” for the album’s defining moments, but it’s the elegant, meditative fable “How Much a Dollar Cost” that truly drives Kendrick’s thesis. Backed by a somber piano loop in the vein of Radiohead’s haunting “Pyramid Song”, Kendrick paints a picture of a South African beggar pleading with him for a dollar. Resentment, entitlement and paranoia color Kendrick’s attitude, as he dismisses the homeless man’s plight as that of a crack addict:

“A piece of crack that he wanted, I knew he was smokin’
He begged and pleaded
Asked me to feed him twice, I didn’t believe it, told him, ‘Beat it’
Contributin’ money just for his pipe, I couldn’t see it
He said, ‘My son, temptation is one thing that I’ve defeated
Listen to me, I want a single bill from you
Nothin’ less, nothin’ more’
I told him I ain’t have it and closed my door—tell me how much a dollar cost”

Before long, however, the beggar reveals himself as none other than God, denying Kendrick’s chance of salvation only to lend the rapper the humility he desperately (and unknowingly) needs. Only through compassion and courage can we lift up ourselves and those around us—no gesture is too small or too insignificant to make an impact. Kendrick spreads this theme through different aspects of everyday life across the album—the sexual impulses of “These Walls”, the proud heritage of “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” the hood politics of, well, “Hood Politics”…each song confronts individuality vs. groupthink in a unique way. Make no mistake, this is an endlessly listenable album with a novel’s worth of ideas to spread.

And a novel’s worth of quotables, too. Kendrick’s rapping is impossibly clever, his sense of humor disarming, his rhythms intricate, his voice chameleon-like. He puffs his chest on “Alright”, nags lovingly on “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”, whispers on “Institutionalized”, croons and tempts on “For Sale?”, gives life to a snotty young punk on “Hood Politics,” and sobs drunkenly all over “u,” the latter an especially devastating mid-album highlight:

“You the reason why mama and them leavin’
No you ain’t shit, you say you love them, I know you don’t mean it
I know you’re irresponsible, selfish, in denial, can’t help it
Your trials and tribulations a burden, everyone felt it
Everyone heard it, multiple shots, corners cryin’ out
You was deserted, where was your antennas again?
Where was your presence, where was your support that you pretend?
You ain’t no brother, you ain’t no disciple, you ain’t no friend”

Apart from targeting well-worn social and personal problems with daring clarity, Kendrick also explores the deep depression that threatens to sink his stratospheric rise to the top. It’s a topic rarely touched on in any artistic medium with such high visibility, and so the vulnerability and honesty K.Dot displays on this record is a game-changer.

In turn, his realness casts a disparaging and frankly embarrassing shadow on the brag raps that continue to plague the Billboard Top 100—Nicki Minaj, Drake, Lil Wayne, Chris Brown, Big Sean, Fetty Wap, Rae Sremmurd, Young Thug, O.T. Genasis, and yes, even Kanye—to hopefully set a new lyrical and topical standard for emerging artists moving forward. “The Blacker the Berry”, meanwhile, targets the uncomfortable hypocrisy of impoverished black communities that condemn the murder of innocents by whites while turning a blind eye to the rampancy of black-on-black crime.

But there are moments where To Pimp a Butterfly threatens to crumble under the weight of its own ambition. Though the subject matter certainly makes sense, “For Free?” is almost too ferocious a free jazz follow-up to the smooth funk stomp of album opener “Wesley’s Theory”, its hilariously soulful cum explicit intro as jarring a transition as you’ll find on any record this year. “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” is the only throwaway track on the album, saying nothing that one of the other 15 tracks doesn’t already say in superior fashion. And the quick, verse-long interjections that open “Hood Politics” and “Institutionalized” are frustrating teases of potential tracks, rather than suitable introductions to the songs proper.

Still, one can hardly fault an artist as skilled as Kendrick for shooting too high. He’s on another level, playing an entirely different game than his peers, and if To Pimp a Butterfly can be occasionally overwhelming it’s only because there’s so much to take in. This album refuses to receive the same impulsive, reactionary treatment everything else gets in this day and age, much as everyone’s tried to declare the final verdict on its legacy when it hasn’t even been out for a week. Give it time, patience, and close attention—I’m sure this album will only improve with age, and we’ll discover more nuggets of knowledge deep within its crevices for years to come.

Now then, let’s return to “Ab-Soul’s Outro”, that eerily prescient track from 2011, for a CliffsNotes summary of Kendrick’s steez:

“I’m not the next pop star, I’m not the next socially aware rapper
I am a human mothafuckin’ being, over dope ass instrumentation—Kendrick Lamar!”

The more he changes, the more he stays the same.

Rating: 9/10

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is available on iTunes and Amazon.

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Nick Porcaro is a 24-year old graphic designer, musician and writer based in Jersey City, NJ. Nick graduated in 2012 from UArts in Philadelphia, PA with a BFA in Graphic Design. As a musician he’s played guitar for over 10 years, in addition to dabbling in bass, drums and vocals. Nick currently plays rhythm guitar with Max Feinstein and has worked with Matt Scuteri, Sara Martin, Shakedown Inc., and The Nerd Who Ate St. Louis. When he’s not freelancing for the Wilma Theater, Nick is writing songs for his debut solo record.
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