First Impressions: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly


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Here we have it. A little earlier than expected but the much-hyped follow up to Kendrick Lamar’s 2013 album Good Kid, Maad City has arrived. The Internet was already buzzing with speculation ahead of the scheduled release date next week. Commentators and fans were pouring over everything from the provocative cover art to the track list.

Good Kid, Maad City was one of the most respected hip-hop records of this century. Original production, stunning lyricism and content reflecting something deeper than shiny rims, throwing money at strippers or sipping lean. Understandably there was a lot of debate about whether this album could hope to live up to the almost impossible level of expectation around it. Kendrick devotees rallied round their idol proclaiming it would be “important” and “game-changing” and a host of other superlatives. You have to admire the faith but it seemed a little too much like breathless hero worship rather than a real assessment of the albums prospects. These are the type of guys who’ve had GKMC artwork as their twitter background for two years. The type who looks you dead in the eye and tells you how Kendrick’s the only one that matters with intensity that borders on creepy.

On the other hand you have the doubters. Kendrick is overrated they said, guaranteeing that this album would reveal him as a pretender to the throne. Drake fans in particular seem to have taken the buzz around the Compton rapper to heart. Kendrick’s lyrical but he’s not a genuine superstar a la Toronto’s favourite son they argue.

The comment section wars between the two sides has provided hours of entertainment. My favourite comment so far has to be a particularly worked up Drake fan on YouTube who proclaimed Drizzy the reincarnation of Nas and Marvin Gaye. Outrageous claims aside, someone did point out to him that Nasir Jones might not be an ideal candidate for reincarnation what with his being alive and all.

But now we can put the online fan-boy clashes to one side and make our own minds up. Kendrick’s been living off the good faith of GKMC plus a handful of tracks and features released since (Control anyone?). Up to this point he’s been like a heavyweight champion trading on his last victory. Ok so he’s fought the odd bout here and there but he’s really not tested himself. Now he has to step back into the ring to defend his title.

So far he’s talked a good game. Just about everyone involved with the album or with TDE has guaranteed it’s an instant classic (see also: anyone involved with any hip-hop album ever). But now the press conference and weigh in posing is over and K Dot’s actually got to throw some punches.

(I would include Youtube videos of the tracks but it’s not up yet, so you’ll have to deal with Spotify if you want to listen )

To Pimp a Butterfly

Album Art

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It doesn’t seem right to review this album without speaking a little bit about the cover art. From the image that adorns the album it’s clear it’s got ambitions above your standard mainstream rap record. A group of shirtless black men and boys celebrate on the White House lawn. They grin and clutch wads of dollars. At their feet a white judge lies on the ground, each eye crossed out with a big cartoon x. The photography is grimy black and white. It’s a long way from the flashy imagery that popular rappers tend to opt for these days. No chromed out whips, no screwface portrait of the artist, no scantily clad video girls (no women at all actually). There are echoes of Ice Cube’s Amerikka’s Most Wanted in the brashness of it. It’s also a statement that if you’d rather not think about race issues then this probably isn’t going to be for you.

Review

Now enough stalling, let’s move onto the actual music. The cinematic ambitions of the album are apparent from the opening strains. “Wesley’s Theory”, the track that opens the album, fades in with a sample taken from a seventies blaxploitation film proclaiming “every n*gger is a star!” If you didn’t get the message that black consciousness is going to be a big part of this album from the cover, you’re going to get it now. The upbeat tones of this jaunty sample are abruptly cut by a bouncy but dark funk driven beat as the album starts in earnest.

“Imma put the Compton swap meet by the White House/ republican run up/ get socked out” Kendrick raps on his opening bars. Again the comparison that comes to mind is Ice Cube, another Compton MC who combined gritty west coast street talk and funky beats with a burning anger at the plight of black people in America. We may know Cube now as the cuddly family film star but back in his heyday he was probably the most furious voice of black militancy in hip-hop.

“Wesley’s Theory” along with other tracks particularly “The Blacker The Berry” shows that same abrasive sensibility. The music is smooth but the anger in the content is undeniable. That combination of outraged commentary combined with celebration of black America’s musical heritage is present throughout the album.

On “For Free” and “u” jazz beats play under the verses. The funk influence is very strong throughout particularly in “King Kunta” and “Wesley’s theory”. “You Ain’t Gotta Lie” and “These Walls” recall West Coast hip-hop in the nineties when g-funk was at its height.

Pharrell Williams apparently described “King Kunta” as “unapologetically black” and that’s really a fair description of the entire record. Everything from the content to the music itself right down to the cover is clearly addressed to (and from) black America. The tone of the album veers between the upbeat tone of “i” and the blazing assault that is “The Blacker the Berry” but throughout it is abundantly clear that Kendrick is addressing his community. Perhaps in doing so however he is also knowingly providing an insight to outsiders, indirectly addressing his white audience at the same time.

Guest appearances are used sporadically and carefully. There are nods to the legends of west coast hip-hop with Snoop providing the hook on “Institutionalized” and a short cameo from Dre on “Wesley’s Theory.” Appropriately the grandfather of funk himself, George Clinton, appears on “Wesley’s Theory” as well. The rapper Rapsody also provides a female perspective on the song “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” a heartfelt look at discrimination based on skin tone.

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While Kendrick shows considerable respect to his musical forefathers, his comments on the current state of hip-hop are less positive. “King Kunta” includes multiple digs at the state of the genre. He criticizes his peers for a lack of originality and berates them for the use of ghost writers, commenting “I swore I wouldn’t tell/but most of you sharing bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two man cell.”

Kendrick’s ire also extends to the media on “Hood Politics”: “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip-hop was rapping/ motherfucker if you did then Killer Mike would be platinum.” The tip of the hat towards the Run The Jewels rapper is a nice touch as well.

Some of the songs on the album are obscure and challenging. “u” is a descent into self-loathing that sees Kendrick adopt a desperate delivery that sounds as if it could break into tears at any moment. “For Sale” sees Kendrick struggling to resist the attentions of a temptress named Lucy. Who Lucy is or what she represents is not made clear but a spoken word piece that builds up slowly over the album refers to “the evils of Lucy” so it’s pretty clear it’s nothing good. The beat is a dreamy mix of bleeps and echoing vocals that creates a sense of unsettling weirdness. Is Lucy really Lucifer? The corrupting influence of money? It’s left to the listener to make their minds up.

The political commentary meanwhile is present from start to finish. It’s not always clear on first lesson but there’s always an underlying message to each track. “Wesley’s Theory” appears at first to be a bittersweet ode to a doomed romance. Then the last verse reveals a smooth talking “Uncle Sam” attempting to lure Kendrick into a consumerist trap, encouraging him to spend his way into inescapable debt: “remember you ain’t pass economics in school and everything you buy taxes will deny/ I’ll Wesley Snipes your ass before 35.”

The politics of the record are most overt and aggressive on “The Blacker the Berry.” It’s a chainsaw tirade of a song that addresses racism head on. It’s probably the most energetic and catchy song on the album. While many rappers have dropped the odd verse or rhyme about racial issues, “The Blacker The Berry” must be one of, if not the, most militantly minded song ever included on a mainstream hip-hop record. The fact that it was chosen as the second single is even more remarkable.

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The machine gun attack of “The Blacker the Berry” is counter-balanced by the more positive, radio-friendly vibes of “i.” When it was released as a single a lot of people saw it as a worrying sign of Kendrick’s new direction. It sounded too bubblegum, too family friendly and too upbeat. However in its proper place on the album it makes a lot more sense. After the journey through the darkness “i” offers a welcome glimpse of optimism.

The album closes on “Mortal Man.” Now, this track provides a bit of a stumbling block on first listen. At times, Kendrick seems to be veering towards the sort of messiah complex so beloved of Yeezus himself here. The first verse ends with the lines: “I freed you from being a slave in your mind/ you’re very welcome/ you tell me my song is more than a song/it’s surely a blessing.” However the song treads just the right side of full-blown egomania. Kendrick offers some sincere reflections on a trip to South Africa, invoking Mandela, and ruminates on the plight of black leaders in general.

The second half of “Mortal Man” will probably be the most controversial part of the whole album. It features Kendrick reciting the poem that has slowly been built up at the end of each song. Then Kendrick poses a question to an unknown figure and the voice of Tupac responds, starting a conversation between the two. The sudden appearance of the late legend is an unexpected twist that has you wondering what is happening for a while. With a few Google searches it becomes clear that Kendrick has not in fact found a portal to the other side but that Tupac’s responses are taken from a little known interview given in 1994, just two weeks before his shooting. It’s a brave move that could have easily strayed into horrifically corny territory. However the section is just about brief enough and delicately handled to make it engaging rather than cringe worthy.

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This review has been based off just a couple of listens to the album as a whole. There’s probably a lot more to say and a lot of things that have been missed which will only begin to reveal themselves over time. However, based on first impressions, the album lives up to the hype. It may not be the colossal, civilization re-defining masterpiece that some of the more excitable Kendrick groupies have proclaimed it. It isn’t a flawless album. Some tracks are certainly more interesting than they are genuinely enjoyable. At times it’s all a little too opaque and you wish it could be clearer, more straightforward and easily digestible.

Ultimately though the records (or films or books or any art for that matter) that are remembered are the ones that are a little challenging. Radio hits come and go but the music that makes you pay that bit more attention and think about the message behind it is what stays with you in the long run. To Pimp A Butterfly is one of those albums. A frequent complaint about today’s hip-hop is that it has nothing to say and that crowd-pleasing beats and catchy hooks have replaced any soul it once had. This album most definitely has a message if you’re willing to sit down and engage with it. The reason Kendrick has been so celebrated up to this point is his ability to bring difficult, ugly issues to a wider audience. With this record he’s stepped it up a level considerably.

I would definitely recommend listening to the album as a whole and before you make a judgement. Thanks for reading and please share any of your own thoughts below.

 

 

 

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