Kendrick Lamar • To Pimp A Butterfly • Aftermath / Interscope • US Release Date: March 16, 2015
There are two reasons that can make an album tough to review: 1) it’s absolutely horrible or 2) it’s mind-bogglingly brilliant. In the case of Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore effort To Pimp A Butterfly, it is the latter. How in the world would Kendrick Lamar follow up the contemporary hip-hop masterpiece that was good Kid, m.A.A.d. city – that was always the question. The answer is To Pimp A Butterfly, a starkly different album that still runs the conceptual approach near perfect and maybe equal to Lamar’s debut. As an album separated from Lamar’s previous work, this is nothing short of a masterpiece in itself.
To Pimp A Butterfly opens in captivating fashion with “Wesley’s Theory” which features appearances from George Clinton and Thundercat. It is initiated with elements of “Every N***er Is A Star” performed by Boris Gardiner. The depth of “Wesley’s Theory” is evident from one listen, but the message and concept make more sense upon successive listens. Over the course of two verses, Kendrick Lamar spits about success from the black man’s perspective and becoming too caught up in shopping and material things. Complex, it’s a brilliant way to kick off the album.
“For Free? (Interlude)” is incredibly ambitious, thanks to a brilliant jazz backdrop (Robert Glasper on piano) and Lamar’s unorthodox rhymes which have the jazz script in mind. Lamar is nothing short of a rapping beast here, particularly the second half of his verse: “Matter fact it need interest, matter fact it’s nine inches / matter fact see our friendship based on business / pension, more pension, you’re pinchin’, my consensus / been relentless, f*ck forgiveness, f*ck your feelings…”
“King Kunta” references none other than Kunte Kinte, a slave who is best remembered as the basis of Roots. If “Wesley’s Theory” was a bit less accessible at least initially, “King Kunta” is easier to follow. Not only is Lamar referencing the slave (“Now I run the game got the whole world talkin’, King Kunta / Everybody wanna cut the legs off him, Kunta”), but he’s also referencing his ascent in fame and overall notoriety (“I made it past 25 and there I was / a little nappy headed n***a with the world behind him”).
“Institutionalized” proceeds, featuring Anna Wise, Bilal, and Snoop Dogg. “Institutionalized” once more has a jazz sensibility about it, thanks to Pedro Castro’s clarinet riffs and the overall harmonic scheme. Bilal handles a memorable, brutally honest hook: “Sh*t don’t change until you get up and wash your ass n***a.” Snoop Dogg has a small role, but it contributes greatly: “And once upon a time in a city so divine / called West side Compton, there stood a little n***a / he was five foot something, God bless the kid / Took his homie to the show and this is what they did.”
“These Walls” continues in a soulful, jazzy manner, once more featuring the talents of Anna Wise, Bilal, and Thundercat. There is more a gentler vibe, which correlates with the sensual message. Much like everything else that is Kendrick Lamar, there is a more complex message beyond sex, which he highlights with lyrics like “If your walls could talk they’d tell you it’s too late/ your destiny accepted your fate / burn accessories and stash them where they are / take the recipe, the Bible and God.”
“u” opens with screams over a enigmatic jazz soundscape that’s both beautiful and unsettling. There is tremendous intensity on Lamar’s part, evident from his multiple vocal inflections on the simple hook (“Loving you is complicated”) and his fiery verses. “u” is notable because like a couple of other songs on To Pimp A Butterfly, the element of surprise is in full effect, notably with a production switch up prior to the second verse. The master of different voices, Lamar’s flow is choppy, drunken, and crazy (in a good way).
“Alright” gets some extra ‘swag’ courtesy of a joint production venture between Pharrell Williams and Sounwave. Kendrick Lamar is clearly on autopilot, never backing down from pointed, ferocious rhymes. Interestingly, Lamar revisits a recurrent line throughout To Pimp A Butterfly that first appeared on the opener: “What you want, you a house or a car / 40 acres and a mule, a piano a guitar…” Much like good Kid, m.A.A.d City, Lamar knows how to make an album full of songs relate to one another, a skill many musicians don’t possess.
Another unique interlude follows, “For Sale? (Interlude)” in which the MC constantly speaks of “Lucy” referencing Lucifer. This is clarified at the beginning on the intro: “They say if you scared go to church / but remember / he knows the bible too.” One of the best lines actually makes a pop cultural reference to I Love Lucy: “You said to me / you said your name was Lucy / I said where’s Ricardo?”
The most interesting portion of “Momma” comes during Kendrick’s fourth verse, where his eccentric genius goes unparalleled. Once more, jazz plays a pivotal role, fueling Lamar’s most agile, off-kilter rhymes. “Momma” is followed up by the electrifying “Hood Politics,” which instantly endears itself to the listener thanks to an addictive, ‘gives no f*cks’ hook: “I been A-1 since day one, you n***as boo boo / your home boy, your block that you’re from, boo boo / lil hoes you went to school with, boo boo / baby mama and your new b*tch, boo boo.” “Hood Politics” is one of the best among an album that is stacked from top to bottom.
One of the Darkest, haunting productions helps to fuel “How Much A Dollar Cost,” not to mention the vocal contributions of both James Fauntleroy and Ron Isley. Throughout the chilling track, Kendrick tells a story about a homeless man whom he refuses to give money, hence showing a shallow side. At one point Kendrick spits, “I looked at him and said, ‘Every nickel is mines to keep ‘ / he looked at me and said, ‘Know the truth, it’ll set you free / you’re lookin’ at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, the higher power.” By the end of the verse, listeners find out just “How Much A Dollar Cost”: “The price of having a spot in Heaven, embrace your loss, I am God.” Heady!
“Complexion (A Zulu Love),” features one of the most respectable messages of To Pimp A Butterfly. Kendrick Lamar tackles different shades of black skin, emphasizing it doesn’t matter how dark one’s skin is. He gets a solid assist from southern female MC Rapsody.
The main attraction of To Pimp A Butterfly comes in at track 13, “The Blacker The Berry.” A song about stereotypes and misconceptions on African-Americans and being upset about violence towards them, Kendrick Lamar is brutally honest. Notably, the key lyric throughout the song is “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” which appears at the beginning of the three verses he spits. The last iteration upon the third verse is the key as he finishes the line stating, “When I finish this if you listenin’ then sure you will agree.” He’s a hypocrite because “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? / when gang banging make me kill a n***a blacker than me? / Hypocrite!” Powerful.
Following “The Blacker The Berry” is a tall task by all means. “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” is another integral part of To Pimp A Butterfly, even if the chiller, West Coast vibe joint doesn’t ‘go for the kill’ as much as the “Berry.” Penultimate number “i” already possessed a strong, established reputation, winning two Grammys at the 57th annual Grammys. On “i” Lamar once more references the loveless Compton, and in spite of that, Kendrick spits, “I love myself.” To Pimp A Butterfly concludes exceptionally with “Mortal Man.”
The question isn’t whether or not To Pimp A Butterfly is good or not – it’s how good is To Pimp A Butterfly. The answer is that he album is near perfect by all means. Lamar transcends the expected hip-hop script, incorporating elements of jazz, changing his vocal inflections, and opting for rhymes that contain an incredible amount of substance relevant to society. To Pimp A Butterfly is arguably the album to beat in 2015.
Favorites: “Wesley’s Theory,” “King Kunta,” “Institutionalized,” “Alright,” “Hood Politics,” “The Black The Berry,” “i”