So I must admit, in the months preceding the release of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, I was very vocal about my skepticism of his ability to follow up what was a seemingly universally well-received “debut” album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. As I’m a full-fledged self-proclaimed Hater, this predisposition shouldn’t surprise many people, but after finally hearing Kendrick’s sophomore project I’ll be the first to eat my words on this one. Whether or not this album exceeds Good Kid in the box office or in the heart of fans is yet to be seen, but upon inspection one thing was poignantly clear to me personally: To Pimp A Butterfly can be seen as a beautifully deconstructed time capsule of American life in 2015, filtered through numerous facets of daily and existential encounters, historical reflection and slap-worthy afro-psychedelia.
In many ways this project exists in a different space than the majority of what we’d consider popular hip-hop—it addresses many of the motifs one often encounters in the genre (struggle, money, sex, success, identity) but does so in an approach much more consistent with acid jazz, futurist funk and even avant-garde-esque approaches. Kendrick disintegrates almost every fiber of the hip-hop listening experience, from beat structure to instrumentation to characters and narration. When I say “deconstructing numerous facets” of life, I mean just that: dude damn near has a track on the album for every topic one could associate with our culture’s perception of success, black men, and hip-hop itself. He spits slow, fast, harmonizes on drops, airy dissonance, a capella, in the stu and on live sets. But for real, let’s break it down a bit.
It doesn’t take long to notice the influence of past forms of viscerally black culture—in this case funk, jazz, and spoken word. Even the album’s feature’s reflect that; the only two guest artists we would call “true” rappers are Snoop and Rapsody (slightly peppered with some Pharrell bars if you wanna count that). These slid between the brassy crooning vocals of off-the-beaten-path singers like Bilal, Anna Wise and James Fauntleroy (of Cocaine 80s, I love these picks). To top it all off, classic heads Ron Isley and George Clinton roll through with their own brand of vintage heat that not only increase the tension and vocal texture of the mixes, but also literally anchor the record in a 1970/80’s-infused soundspace. Why is this important? Because we all know what a feature can do for a song, so by intentionally inserting some in-the-flesh old school flave, not only is Kendrick tipping the hat to the foundation of The Game and those who made it, but he’s creating some not-so-obvious vocal syncopation and keeping the listener guessing. I can definitely say that I had no idea what to expect after glancing at the featured artists…wasn’t too disappointed in the least bit. Add that ’70s climate of social tension and activism into today’s own climate of social tension and activism, and you got yourself some funky and enlightening catalysts for a dope LP.
The addressing of today’s topics repeats itself numerous times throughout the album: in the case of “King Kunta”, Kendrick attacks the popular conception of success by reverting his claims of being a “king” (something of a trite stereotype in hip-hop by this point; word to Kane), by donning the title of what our society would’ve previously associated with the protagonist from Roots, Kunta Kinte. By doing this he acknowledges what could be trumped up as the most negative parts of his outward reflection and elevates those as his repurposed identity of power. The first three tracks can all be seen utilizing this same approach: “Every nigga is a star….” “Oh America, you bad bitch, I picked cotton and made you rich/Now, my dick ain’t free…” Even that last bar…”my dick ain’t free”….wheew.! Free from oppression or free.99?? For whatever it’s worth, these first steps into the album are virtually the only time we see Kendrick in a fully confident and borderline boastful stance, something that I’d argue is mighty scarce in today’s hip-hop climate.
He goes on to address the converse, and in many ways deeper side of “success” in the following track, “Institutionalized.” “What money got to do with it/When I don’t know the full definition of a rap image.” This struggle between appreciating one’s roots and forward momentum is something that also appears repeatedly in the album, and is overtly manifested again later on in the track: “Be all you can be/true, but the problem is/A dream’s only a dream if work don’t follow it.” It’s this same recognition of hope (or lack there of) that resonates in his subsequent dissection of his origins and the mindstate that often accompanies socioeconomic depression and poverty. On “Momma” he eludes to the best part of rapping being the fact that it brought him back home after all his travels and tribulations, presumably wiser and with a more elevated perspective on his situation. Hell, “How Much A Dollar Cost” is an entire track depicting an interaction between the narrator and a homeless man panhandling for change at a gas station. He not only describes the social tension in the superficial physicality of the situation, but also the motivations of why each character acts the way he does, thinks the way he thinks, and why he’s in the position he’s in to begin with. “Complexion” and “Blacker The Berry” explore this same dichotomy through the lens black violence, race projection and identity, not only from popular society’s view but also within the black community itself. This ever-present recognition and willingness to approach every situation from multiple angles and attempting to tell both sides of every story is part of what makes Kendrick so human, relatable, and ultimately personal.
If I had to pick one track that serves as a microcosm for the album as a whole, I’d say it’s “u”. This might not be the obvious choice at first, but hear me out. “u” is basically a song with two movements or sections, each taking a different angle at explaining how Kendrick (and concurrently hip-hop as a whole) has failed; as an artist, a leader and a community member. The track starts out with a repeating primordial scream, followed by dissonant chords and randomly tinkling keys/horns that speak more to Bitches Brew than anything from Good Kid, and continues in its haunt through a heartbeat-like kick drum and Kendrick’s own breathless screeches of “Loving you is complicated.” The whole first half elaborates in first person on how he [you] “ain’t shit”, that “i’m convinced your talent is nothing special” and that despite all his accomplishments, despite “speaking in front of 100,000” people, his messages still haven’t reached his little sister, who’s struggling through a teen pregnancy. He berates the nameless “you” for having too much pride, hubris, and becoming complacent in fame. All this throughout a methodical, spacey horn-squawking 4-on-the-floor environment that builds and builds but never really drops until the second half of the track. When we’re finally rewarded with a percussion drop and a more traditional beat structure, the track takes shape as a disjointed, wobbly and often melodically-varied cadence, with the rapper assuming the position of a word-slurring, (possibly faded) voice-cracking peer, presumably from Kendrick’s past. He goes on to blast the rapper for big-timing his home, profiting off the misery of Compton and being absent while said peer’s younger brother died in the hospital…“You ain’t no brother/you ain’t no disciple/you ain’t no friend”. While definitely a manifestation of Kendrick’s fears as a growing artist and man, this just further reinforces the trend of refreshing self-awareness and disclosure that gives the project such a dynamic range of content and applicability.
About halfway through the album Kendrick meets a girl named Lucy, presumably Lucifer, who becomes the personification of all the ills of the industry and ultimately, Kendrick’s new life as a star. Though I won’t elaborate too much on this, for me Lucy was less of a strong point for the project’s narrative and more of a beacon for giving life to his fears. In my eyes Lucy makes her most significant appearance in the refrain that pops up intermittently throughout the entire album, between tracks, after tracks and in their intro’s. Of all the concepts woven through Butterfly, in my mind this is the dopest. We hear it again and again in Kendrick’s own voice:
I remember you was conflicted,
Misusing your influence.
Sometimes I did the same.
Abusing my power, full of resentment,
Resentment that turned into a deep depression.
I found myself screaming in a hotel room,
I didn’t wanna self destruct.
The evils of Lucy was all around me,
So I went running for answers.
Until I came home.
Not only could this excerpt essentially sum up what this entire album is about, but its piece-meal interjection between the struggle of anecdotes, ideals, and Kendrick’s own inner duality only heightens its message when it’s revealed at the very end of the project in its entirety. It’s like a partially deciphered radio message, ghosting its way bar by bar through the airwaves of an entire story, only to be uncovered in the last moments as a confession by its creator. An admission statement that serves as a period to a spoken journey and an introduction to….a conversation with Pac?!? WHAT?? This has to be the most fire fuckin idea I’ve heard on an album in years, for real. And through my whole first listen I’m thinkin “how the fuck did he get his hands on this?? Those vocal samples are clean as hell…” In any case, the conversation with Makaveli speaks for itself, and the caterpillar-to-butterfly metaphor at the end only encapsulates that push-pull altercation of identities and paths that each track elaborates on individually. It’s crazy (and sad) to hear just how parallel the conflicts of these two distinct generations are, and this final exchange between past and future wraps up Kendrick’s 2015 time capsule beautifully. But I gotta say, the real value of that last convo for me has to do with positioning. “Oh you rap? Oh you’re from Cali? Cool….Ghost Pac was on my last album.” More importantly the social revolutionist Pac was on my album. Not just the “I Get Around” buck-fifteen flexin-in-the-pool Pac. The Black Panther Pac, the Voice of the Disenfranchised Pac, the leader of a new era in black identity in his own right. That’s the conversation Kendrick inserted himself into, and if To Pimp A Butterfly is any indication of where his mind is headed, I’m sure we’ll be hearing his own revolutionary voice many more times to come….
Until next time,