Album Review: Kendrick Lamar | To Pimp A Butterfly
“Every n**** is a star.” These are the first sounds the listener hears, and the first words spoken on Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore LP To Pimp A Butterfly. This phrase, taken from blaxploitation artist Boris Gardiner, can be thought of as a thesis statement for this incredibly wide-ranging and versatile album. Kendrick Lamar has grown as a lyricist, as an intellectual, and as a celebrity. He is no longer a “good kid” in a “m.a.a.d city”. He’s a transcendent hip hop artist, and one that will be remembered as the greatest of his era.
The main themes inhabiting To Pimp A Butterfly involve an introspective look at Kendrick’s experiences as a budding celebrity. He wonders about his responsibilities, contradicts himself, and makes many definitive statements about the state of black life in the United States. While somebody could dismiss this as a simple “black power” album involving conscious rap saying things like “yeah! get the kids out of the ghetto! let’s all live in harmony!!” a la Lupe Fiasco, the topics Kendrick explores go far beyond this narrow view. As he spits on “Hood Politics”: “I don’t give a fuck about no politics in hip hop … ain’t nothing but a new flu of Democrips and Rebloodlicans”. It’s enlightening for the listener who may not have connections to traditionally black neighborhoods or communities; enlightening one who might complain about gentrification and police violence but is unsure exactly how or why these issues arise.
Kendrick was criticized by some last summer for his release of “i” (one of my favorite tracks of 2014), an Isley brother-sampling uplifting piece of pop rap. Many thought the bright guitars and relatable hook (“I love myself!”) were corny and a departure from his socially conscious trap-influenced debut, good kid, m.a.a.d city. These critics’ fears should be put to rest on To Pimp A Butterfly. In fact, “i” has a direct counterpart on the album, “u”, which is perhaps Kendrick’s darkest track to date. Rarely can somebody make what’s really a simple love story sound so earth-shatteringly devastating. Halfway through the song, Kendrick switches to his “good kid” flow and forces his voice to crack and pop. He sounds crushed. You can practically hear the smack of his 40 ounce as he pauses to drink his sorrows away. Kendrick’s hardest-hitting work of his career appears on this record.
That isn’t to say Kendrick has completely ignored the lighter, more relaxed aspects of conscious hip hop. “For Free (Interlude)” sees Kendrick explore his newfound fame, practically ignoring flow as a saxophone plays wildly underneath him. He’s tired of buying shit for girls in an effort to sleep with them. “This dick ain’t free!” Later, “You Ain’t Gotta Lie” immediately establishes itself as the definitive anti-flexing song, contrasting artists like Migos and Rae Sremmurd. Kendrick essentially scolds his peers for asking about bottle service and huge bags of weed in an attempt to impress, and he accuses them of sounding like the feds.
While the huge topical variety may be compelling in and of itself, it wouldn’t really have an impact without strong instrumentals and interesting production. Thankfully, Kendrick seems to have realized the success of his single with electro-jazz fusion producer Flying Lotus, “Never Catch Me”. Much of To Pimp A Butterfly‘s production takes cues from Flying Lotus. The entire album is supported by jazz artists; live saxophonists and pianists bring the album to life. In particular, virtuosic bassist Thundercat adds an absolute ton of beautiful, crisp bass that pulses perfectly to fit the mood. FlyLo himself shows up on the opener, “Wesley’s Theory”, which is one of the album’s highlights (a difficult task on such an excellent top-to-bottom record). Guest spots on the album aren’t wasted, either. The only well-known guest verse is Snoop Dogg on “Institutionalized”, yet his verse really acts more like a hook or chorus. Kendrick is the centerpiece, and he other rappers would only get in the way.
This isn’t good kid, m.a.a.d city. There aren’t any bangers here, no songs that will be quoted as catchphrases in the years to come. This is a thematically diverse, introspective, beautiful rap record that will be listened to and respected for years to come. I have no issues crowning it as the best hip hop album since Kanye West‘s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; in fact, I have no problem naming this the definitive hip hop album of the last decade. Kendrick has crafted a masterpiece of an album, one that innovates and pays homage at the same time. In fact, Kendrick is probably the only artist today who could fabricate an interview with Tupac Shakur, put it on an album, and receive praise for it.
Five songs I’m listening to this week:
Bleachers | “Entropy” (feat. Grimes)
Grimes | “REALiTi”
Action Bronson | “Baby Blue” (feat. Chance the Rapper)
CHVRCHES | “Dead Air”