*This serves as an album review and an explanation for those looking to get a better understanding of the album, or just another perspective for whomever may be reading this.
By now you’ve probably heard—Kendrick Lamar’s second major label LP To Pimp A Butterfly is out and everyone’s an opinion on it. The highly anticipated project from the TDE aficionado was going to answer a few questions. After two years and change since his last effort, many were skeptical about what Kendrick had to offer this time around.
The questions were plenty. The album’s first official single “i.” put many fans on the fence as some just couldn’t understand Kendrick’s new found funk. Some were concerned with his direction and feared he’d succumb to the infamous sophomore slump (and Erykah Badu). Then there were his peers; artists like J. Cole and Drake who dropped career marking projects in the past few months along with other artists such as Joey Bada$$ and Lupe Fiasco.
Where was Kendrick going to go?
If you answered “wherever the f— he wanted to because he’s Kendrick Lamar” then you got that one correct.
The album kicks off with “Wesley’s Theory,” and from there it’s very apparent that Kendrick is not playing anyone’s game but his own. Some artists dig in the crates, but Kendrick digs into the history books and grabs George Clinton, the innovator of Funk, to bring an old sound back to 2015.
At first I did love you,
But now I just want to fuck
– Kendrick Lamar, Wesley’s Theory
The hook relays as Kendrick spits from the perspective of the pre-butterfly caterpillar on the heels of success and paints the picture we see on the album art. The second verse features Kendrick speaking from the perspective of Uncle Sam, who looms in the background of Kendrick’s brash purchasing decisions. The intro sets the tone for the album in its entirety. Kendrick experiments with everything from sound to himself on TPAB and it’s going to take some getting used to.
The album takes an important turn during “These Walls.” The easy rhythm seemingly serves as backdrop for Kendrick enjoying the fruits of his labor in the form of female companionship. That is until the third verse reveals that the female isn’t a just some regular vixen, but it’s the baby mother of the same man who killed Kendrick’s friend from “Sing About Me,” who is now serving time for that very crime. Kendrick “abuses his power full of resentment.” It’s there when the poem that carries on from track to track officially comes to life. The metaphors, the plot twist, and the tragic irony are all what make this song and more importantly the album as a whole. On the surface it’s seemingly so easy to simply vibe out to, but when the music starts to digest it shows us what separates the average rap guys from you Kendrick Lamars.
Walls telling you to listen to “Sing About Me”
Retaliation is strong you even dream about me
Killed my homeboy and God spared your life
Dumb criminal got indicted same night
So when you play this song rewind the first verse
About me abusing my power so you can hurt
– Kendrick Lamar, These Walls
From then on Kendrick has an episodic battle with depression that almost culminates into suicide in “u.” He receives reassurance during the Pharell assisted banger in “Alright.” Then he encounters the devil in the form of “Lucy” during “For Sale.” Fame catches up with Kendrick and he decides it’s time to head home after a trip to South Africa, but things don’t really start to shape up until he encounters a strange homeless man.
“How Much A Dollar Cost” is where TPAB reaches its climax. Throughout the album Kendrick is seemingly on the search for something and he finally encounters it when he meets God at a gas station in the form of a homeless man. Produced by LoveDragon (who is rumored to be Dr. Dre’s new alias) the song is cinematic in sound with dramatic strings and horns, sure piano chords, and bone chilling vocals from James Fauntelroy and Ronald Isely. Kendrick is riding his high horse when he meets a homeless man begging for a single dollar. Kendrick shoos the man away as he drops biblical references as to why Kendrick should give him a dollar. Kendrick’s assured selfishness backfires when the homeless man reveals that this begging was nothing but a test from God himself.
Kendrick’s writing on this record is what separates him from the pack. You can feel the tension in the beginning of the second verse.
He’s starin’ at me in disbelief
My temper is buildin’, he’s starin’ at me, I grab my key
He’s starin’ at me, I started the car, then I tried to leave
And somethin’ told me to keep it in park until I could see
The reason why he was mad at a stranger
Like I was supposed to save him
Like I’m the reason he’s homeless and askin’ me for a favor
– Kendrick Lamar, How Much A Dollar Cost
His sense for imagery makes the music visual. Kendrick’s writing and voice inflections gives us a first person visual of the rhymes throughout the album. This doesn’t just stop at the artist. The way that these instruments are played aren’t what you’re used to getting when you think of a rap album. There are feelings here to create an impact as opposed to the computerized effects of an 808. The engineering is a compliment as opposed to a crutch on Butterfly. You feel the misguided anger on “The Blacker The Berry.” The “live” version of “i.” sounds as if it was really performed during a concert. Some people probably really thought that was a new Tupac interview.
The album does have its share of takeaways. “Momma” and “You Ain’t Got To Lie,” are so traditional to west coast and “real” hip hop that they sound a little out of place on this album. “Momma” particularly rubbed me the wrong way because of its scatterbrained verses which touch on everything from Kendrick’s earlier rapping days, his “know-it-all” tendency, the child from South Africa (or Compton?), then his search for God. It was all over the place.
There’s also the listener base for this album. “This sh—t is for the kids, bro” Kendrick yells at concert goers on the album version of “i.” But is it really? A lot of grown adults are still clueless as to what he was talking about on “i.” Not everyone is going to be able to fully grasp the concepts of this album. Your half-eared listener is going to bash this as the new term called “weirdo rap,” save the hook to “Hood Politics.”
Overall, what Kendrick did with To Pimp A Butterfly was nothing short of amazing. He could have easily dropped a GKMC 2 and scooped up a ground ball, but he went the hard route and delivered another body of work that will stand the test of time. His pen is as sharp as ever and his level of creativity is inspiring those we look to as inspirations. He challenges the listener to sit with this and let it sink in. He serves as a mirror for those struggling with their identity and purpose. The music is pure down to it’s sound. He borrows the sounds of funk, neo-soul, and the scores from your favorite films. His writing features him some of the best storytelling, personification, and hints of braggadocio we’ll get all year. Kendrick is pimping his butterfly. At this point the only person dodging putting the crown on his head is him himself. He sounds as if he could careless for rap supremacy and is choosing the Tupac/Mandela route. But we don’t know, maybe this is just another talented rapper caught up in his own hype.
What’s your perspective on that?
Kendrick? Kendrick? Kendrick?