It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Kendrick Lamar. Since his highly acclaimed 2012 debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick has continued to be burned into hip-hop’s collective memory. Whether it’s the replay value of his debated ‘classic’ debut record, his infamous, historic ‘Control’ verse, or other features alike, Kendrick’s presence has continued to be felt as one of the most important voices in hip-hop’s new, digital age. Kendrick Lamar’s trajectory seemed to be headed down a more commercial, sellable version of the conscious hip-hop we are accustomed to, as his previous projects continued to get progressively more and more accessible in terms of sound. Whether it was his hit single ‘Swimming Pools’ cleverly highlighting the perils of alcoholism masked under a familiar trap-bounce and catchy-hook, or bangers like ‘Money Trees’ and ‘m.A.A.d city’ being able to teeter on the lines of conscious storytelling while still being festival and club favorites, it seemed as though Kendrick Lamar had mastered the ability to convey his message in the purest form possible while still appealing to the majority. His lead single for his sophomore album, ‘i’, was no different. It was a polarizing record that ditched the hard-bars, name-dropping and 808s for a funkier groove, courtesy of an Isley Brothers sample and Kendrick’s pitched up, OutKast-esque flow. As positive and pivotal as the message was, much of the hip-hop culture was left torn when trying to support a more positive, uplifting message, but with a less hip-hop, lyrical sound. Many thought the Grammy-award winning ‘i’ was a sign of things to come, and possibly a full-fledged leap into an even more radio friendly Kendrick Lamar, but with To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick has ditched the drum-machines for live instrumentation and an exploration in a potent and pure incarnation of modern jazz-funk.
Now, many music-enthusiasts alike claim that an artist’s debut album is the record that takes their whole life to make. For Kendrick, this reigned true—good kid was the ultimate culmination of the stories of his youth, with the ability to tell these stories retroactively. With this in mind, it was hard to tell where Kendrick could possibly go next, and after almost thee years off, Lamar returned with much more to talk about. To Pimp A Butterfly is the most layered and complex creation in Kendrick’s catalog. Where good kid’s genius fell back on a linear storyline pieced together with the use of skits in succession with each other, Butterfly is an even more theatrical experience that shoots off into many different narratives and stories, all threaded together with a spoken-word poem that prefaces or concludes almost every track on the album, each time with an added stanza that relates in one way or another to the song you are about to hear.
Where good kid was a straightforward, scene by scene recollection of the contradictions and truths of Kendrick’s youth, Butterfly offers a much more macro view on Kendrick’s current, adult life with the balance of being black and famous. Where there was innocence on good kid, this album is much more hardened, as every playful line is usually backed by a darker truth. The album intro, ‘Wesley’s Theory’, is without any pieces of poetry, but is equipped with a warping, funky Flying Lotus beat, with the vocal assistance of Thundercat and George Clinton. Here, Kendrick turns the tax-related tragedy of Wesley Snipes into a lesson to be learned for every black man—the first verse explains the impulse to want to spend every fame-dollar earned on hood-fantasies like supplying old friends with M16s, or assaulting the President with a chain around his neck. The second verse though, adds a pinch of reality as Kendrick raps from the perspective of Uncle Sam himself, claiming the enticing allure of this perceived wealth is only a scheme, and that the system itself will “Wesley Snipe your ass before thirty-five”.
Kendrick continues to cleverly align these truths in songs like ‘Hood Politics’, as he returns with a nasally, pitched up flow to define the logistics of what respect means in the hood, as well as discovering the corruption he is familiar with not being exclusive to the hood, as he raps:
From Compton to Congress
Set trippin’ all around
Ain’t nothin’ new but a flow of new DemoCrips and ReBloodlicans
Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’?
Here Kendrick takes a swing at the suits of America who spew negativity and shame at the gang-culture, without realizing that political ‘gangs’ technically do the exact same things as street gangs, but on a much more mass level.
At certain points on this record, Kendrick takes this same anger and wit to brighter sounds, like ‘King Kunta’ and ‘Alright’. The former is a G-funk track doused with soul and psychedelia, all paired perfectly with a flow and cadence not to far removed from that of James Brown. It serves as a boogie-break in the record, allowing the pace to slow and offer a breed of catchy-relief before dipping back into harsher realities. Comfort is also found on the Pharrell-produced ‘Alright’, which follows a simplistic and familiar premise, as Kendrick explores escaping the grips of his vices and depression through women, money and excess, and that as long as one can maintain a belief in God, the rest will take care of itself. Even with these upbeat bangers, though, it is still tough to find any radio appeal in Butterfly, which may even be a difficult listen for some hip-hop listeners who haven’t waded past the mainstream. Even the previously mentioned pop-single ‘i’ is swapped for a live version with a more schizophrenic flow (teased on Kendrick’s SNL appearance) added with more coarse lyrics like, “When you looking at me, tell me what do you see? / I put a bullet in the back of the back of the head of the police!”
Kendrick even ditches his past love Sherane to chase around a new romantic interest named Lucy, who is a personification of Lucifer, and acts as the devil on Lamar’s shoulder throughout every move made in the narrative of Butterfly. Kendrick also addresses ditching Compton in general, and often times blames himself and his ongoing adaptation to fame for neglecting family, friends and responsibility alike in his hometown. This comes to an extreme height on the chaotic and dark ‘u’, where Kendrick spills the weights of his mind on this alcohol-induced track. Undoubtedly the darkest track on the album, Kendrick breaks into a sobbing, schizophrenic, depressed mess that blames himself for things like the death of his best friend’s little brother who he was supposed to look after, and could only FaceTime him rather than grant him a hospital visit. “You ain’t try”, Kendrick croaks, all before addressing a past suicide attempt with Kendrick writhing “You shoulda felt that black revolver blast a long time ago”. It is here that the darkest pits of Butterfly are felt—that the truth and honesty behind every record bleeds from the realities of being at the top of America as a black male, and all the vices, demons and self-hatred that may come with it. A similar darkness comes across on the single ‘The Blacker the Berry’, which addresses the tragedies and pitfalls of being an African-American this time by looking in the mirror instead of blaming the system at large. “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin killed in the street, when gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?” Kendrick questions, all before calling himself and that mentality hypocritical.
After jumping through wormhole upon wormhole of a chaotic frenzy of jazz-funk beats, the album steers to an end with the sincere and soulful final track, ‘Mortal Man’. It is on this track that Kendrick questions the motives and loyalty of those listening, genuinely asking “If shit hits the fan, are you still a fan?” as he continues to evaluate every luxury in his life with the possibility of it being temporary, even his fans. He even goes as far to mention Michael Jackson and his tarnished legacy, saying “That nigga gave us Billie Jean, you say he touched those kids?” and wonders if his legacy is also at risk if he was accused of something similar. The track is brought to a close with the completed version of his spoken-word poem, only to be revealed that the poem is just one part of a conversation with the album’s ultimate cameo and Kendrick’s biggest influence: Tupac Shakur. It is in this conversation with the late hip-hop legend that Kendrick seeks answers and guidance from Tupac as if he was a personification of God, all before expounding on the album title and defining what it means to embody the contradiction that is a young, powerful black man in America. Pac eventually leaves Kendrick unanswered, as does the album’s narrative. There is no hero. There is no turn of events. There is no resolution. Instead, we are left with the fact that maybe Kendrick doesn’t have the answers, and can only do as much as to ask the questions, all while celebrating and absorbing every moment in between.
To Pimp A Butterfly presents it’s self as a genre-busting, frenzied fusion of funk, jazz, soul, and hip-hop. Thematically, it follows no story-arcs, and can turn and twist at any given moment, with the only through line being that every single song is unapologetic, devastatingly honest, and pridefully black. Whether you choose to pinpoint the brilliance in the innovative production or the unorthodox and supreme lyricism offered by Kendrick here, the bottom line is that at every single angle, Butterfly remains exceptional. Kendrick Lamar has not only crafted the most potent, distinguished, original representation of his mind and message, but he has done so with the utmost sense of skill, creativity and emotion. Simply put, Kendrick Lamar has not only topped his acclaimed debut, but he has crafted one of the greatest, most impactful albums in years.