27 Mar Music Recommendation: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly
To all those who take my praise as hyperbole, and to all those who roll their eyes whenever I speak of this man; I pity you. Truly, I do. Take all your preconceived notions and your surface layer judgement and just throw them out the window, because you are missing out on arguably the best hip hop record in a decade and a half, and one of the most brilliant lyricists in all of music. Not only has Kendrick Lamar proved his dominance in the modern game of hip hop time and time again, but with his most recent release, To Pimp A Butterfly, he may have just cemented himself in rap history as an all-time great.
Prolonged success in the music industry is not guaranteed after just one successful record; it’s not even likely for most. We tend to judge the best, most prolific artists in history on a 3-album arc of relevance, especially in hip-hop. Just take some of the most notable MC’s of yesteryear for example: Biggy (Ready to Die, Life After Death, and the posthumous album Born Again) Eminem (The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP, and The Eminem Show), even Kanye West (The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation); they all had a trilogy of records that put them in the conversation of “Who is the greatest of all-time?” Well, with last week’s leak of To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar has now fulfilled his 3-album prophecy. I believe it’s about time to reopen the dialogue, and start speaking of Kendrick Lamar in the same breath as those aforementioned legends.
Kendrick started to gain notoriety with his first LP back in 2011. Section.80 found a very socially aware young rapper with a pretty strong pop-sensibility. Kendrick raps over light, ear grabbing beats, but gives fresh and thought-provoking worldviews, particularly on songs like “F*ck Your Ethnicity” and “A.D.H.D.” His flow varies on every track and he displays such technical proficiency on my personal favorite track from that record, “Rigamortis.” Kendrick crams what seems to be a limitless amount of words into each bar until he is completely out of oxygen. His tone is laid back and a bit nasally at times on Section.80, but he more than makes up for it with a ton of personality and some really great writing.
His late 2012 follow-up, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, showed tremendous artistic growth in the form of a cinematic concept album. M.A.A.D City follows Lamar’s journey through adolescence as he deals with peer pressure and gang violence while trying to make it out of the infamous streets of Compton, California. I found myself getting lost in the story on each spin through the record. The narrative is so concrete, and Kendrick makes use of a lot of different characters and skits in what really is a phenomenal work of modern day storytelling. We get everything from Kendrick’s more introspective moments like on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”, to instances of him just rapping in the car with his buddies like on, “Backseat Freestyle.” Also, the beats on this record are a bit more diverse than they were on his first full-length, varying from the classic “boom-bap” beats to some more trap and electronic inspired sounds. The songs may appear to be a little disjointed from one another, but it all fits in context with the narrative and in the greater scope of the project. Kendrick saw quite a bit of mainstream success thanks to a bevy of successful singles including, “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “Poetic Justice,” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” without ever compromising his artistic vision for the album.
While Good Kid, M.A.A.D City gained Kendrick a more widespread fan base, and his first of what should be many Grammy Award Nominations, 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly is the apex of his career thus far. For starters, the instrumentation on the production side of this record is spectacular. Kendrick fuses jazz and funk music throughout the album, but brings some other interesting elements to the table as well like the spacey psychedelic guitar on “These Walls” or the soulful Isley Brothers sample on the record’s very first single, “i.” Kendrick is not only transcending musical genres, but different eras of hip hop as well. You can’t help but to think back on the glory days of rap music in the 1990s when you hear some of the dreamy keys and female led R&B vocal harmonies on this record; and even with all the variety here, the album still flows really well sonically.
The instrumental portion of To Pimp A Butterfly is enough to give this record lasting value, but it’s what Kendrick does lyrically that advances this thing to the next level. I’ve read before that Lamar didn’t have a special interest in reading growing up, which really surprised me considering how expansive his vocabulary can be and how incredibly poetic his lyrics are. The storyline on To Pimp A Butterfly might not be as tangible as the one on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, but there is definitely a narrative here; and the overall presentation of the album groundbreaking. Kendrick uses different voices and vocal inflections to fully embody the characters he portrays. He is constantly referencing himself and in a way, he’s not only progressing the loose narrative he’s formed on this record, but on the one he’s been building since Section.80.
The whole album is deeply rooted in metaphor as well, and Kendrick’s use of poetry is what really guides you through the themes of To Pimp A Butterfly. In addition to the slam poetry Kendrick brings to the “For Free? (Interlude),” he begins nearly every track with a spoken word poem and the lines he chooses to end the poem on play into the next song on the record. Each time he recites this poem, he gets another line further; another two lines further, until the end of the closing track, “Mortal Man,” when he recites the entire piece to none other than the hip hop legend, Tupac. The dramatic conclusion to the record ends with a free-flowing interview/conversation between Kendrick and Tupac (Kendrick took portions of old Tupac interviews and wrote his questions after the fact), in which we can see striking parallels between the two artists and their respective roles in society. After the interview is over, Kendrick asks his idol if he can read him another one of his poems. This one sums up the overlying theme of To Pimp A Butterfly, and as Kendrick recites his final lines, the starts to tension build. He finishes the poem and we hear him asking Tupac what he thinks. Kendrick says, “What’s you’re perspective on that?” to no answer. The music crescendos and the reality that Tupac is no longer with us sets in. “Pac?” he asks. “Pac…” The music cuts out. “Pac?!”
There is so much more I want to write about this record, and so much more that needs to be said. In all honesty, we could very well be watching history unfold before our eyes. This record is current and topical, and in the wake of all of the problems of police brutality and discrimination, it gives listeners a lot to dig through and digest. To Pimp A Butterfly is the first hip hop record since The Marshall Mathers LP to take social issues and frame them in a way that makes people start thinking differently. If you like your rap music two-parts hook to one-part substance, then this record might not be for you; however, if you like thought-provoking song topics and deep artistic lyrics, you’ll have plenty to enjoy here. While there aren’t really any blaring radio tracks on To Pimp A Butterfly, there are definitely fucking hits here as well.
To Pimp a Butterfly seems to be that peak level of artistry that eludes most musicians for the entirety of their careers. It just feels like this could be a seminal album in the genre, and a cornerstone of music history. To Pimp A Butterfly has the potential to reach a lot of ears that need a positive voice of reason, and for those of us not necessarily experiencing the brunt of what Kendrick Lamar is so angry about on this record, he does a phenomenal job communicating his frustrations. He sheds light on modern-day racism and some of the underlying hypocrisies surrounding it while getting his listeners to empathize in hope that they do something positive in turn. You know, we can listen to loudest voices in the conversation, but real change doesn’t happen until someone that thinks differently is heard. I believe Kendrick Lamar is that man, and I believe we all should be listening.