Album Review: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

One minute and thirty-six seconds. That’s how long it takes to get to the first rapped line on To Pimp a Butterfly. To even get there, you have to listen to a sample of a 1974 Jamaican soul song entitled “Every Nigger Is a Star”, George Clinton vocals, a tenacious Thundercat bassline, and Lamar singing a hook over a demented funk track. This is quite possibly the most anticipated rap album of the year, and actual rapping is one of the last of its elements you hear. No one said Lamar was going to make it easy for us.

Alright, so, perhaps not surprisingly given that his last record was a non-linear “short movie”, Kendrick Lamar wants To Pimp a Butterfly to be a lot of things. It’s his post-fame album. It’s his searching for a greater meaning album. It’s a celebration of Blackness. It wants to ask what being Black in 2015 means. It wants to be his self-consciously arty, genre and style hopping send-up to the past greats album. It wants to be Serious Art with a cohesive narrative guided by a poem that gradually builds throughout the album, but still a solid song-to-song listen. It wants to be impressive lyrically, technically, and musically.

Thank God it’s only 78 minutes.

The first thing most notice about the album is how deliberate it is in its sound. George Clinton, the founder of P-Funk, doesn’t introduce the album for nothing; there’s a lot of funk driving the record. But calling To Pimp a Butterfly a funk album is reductive and misleading: there are jazz cuts on the spectrum from the smoothness of “Institutionalized” to the freakouts happening in “For Free?” and “u”, flashes of disco, “Alright” leans into snare-heavy club territory, and more than a little psychedelic soul, particularly toward the middle of the album. It reminds me in a lot of ways of a fuller version of what The Roots were doing on undun and …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin: moody, live band-oriented instrumentals with a tendency to freak out, but unmistakably hip-hop to its core. It’s less dense than it is overwhelming; there’s a lot to listen to, like the way the “Alright” cheats a clarinet in during a verse, or the deft guitar licks in “King Kunta”. None of it’s really radio fare, but the same could be said about good kid, m.A.A.d city.

A big part of To Pimp a Butterfly‘s sound is just how damn rich it is. Each song is almost overloaded with how much it has going on, even something like “Hood Politics” that stays mostly in its lane starts with a bouncing funk beat. With the production values as high as they are–and the instrumentation as intricate as it is–this would be a fun listen just as an instrumental. The sound isn’t rich just in sheer quantity, but in how performed every little detail is. The back up singers on “King Kunta” play it up like a blaxploitation soundtrack, and the over the topness of Lamar’s drunken ranting during “u” would be corny in another context, but it fits the way the song falls apart underneath him.

Lamar pushes himself in different directions here as a rapper. At this point, he’s unarguably one of the most technically proficient mainstream rappers around; he could have dashed out a record of grinding beats into submission ala “The Blacker the Berry” and called it a day. But, tellingly, To Pimp a Butterfly‘s first single wasn’t “The Blacker the Berry”, it was the slippery, fleet-footed, multi-voiced “i”. Lamar uses an array of different voices on the album to convey a tone: he’s a broken mess on “u”, a squeaky younger version of himself on “Hood Politics”, a hood friend on “Institutionalized”, an incarnation of Lucifer named Lucy (long story) on “For Sale?”, and frequently plays off conversations with himself (see: “Momma”, “How Much a Dollar Cost?”). It’s actually a smart move; by playing up verbal tics, exaggerations, and occasionally doubletracking, Lamar by passes the fact that he still occasionally sounds gawky. And regardless of what voice he’s using, the technical abilities and flows still shine through, like the beat riding on “Wesley’s Theory”, the snarling on “King Kunta”, double time on “Momma”, rapid fire slam poetry on “For Free?”, or unrelenting lines of “Mortal Man”, he’s just a blast to hear rapping.

It’s also his lyrics that keep the narrative together. Lines occasionally get repeated (“What you want, you a house or a car/Forty acres and a mule, a piano a guitar?”), but most of the heavy lifting is done by a poem that intros or outros most of the songs. The poem adds a line or two during each iteration based on what songs it’s connecting, a move that mostly stays on the right side between interesting a tedious (it drops out just as the repetition starts to get grating on “Hood Politics”) before finally showing up in full on “Mortal Man”.

And honestly, if the album has a fault, it’s that it tries to cover way too much thematic territory in the ending interview with 2pac after “Mortal Man”. After spending the last seventy minutes laying groundwork, the album deploys its core “Black in America” thesis in a pair of poems that ultimately preach Black self-love and unity, but teeter close to respectability politicking at points. Lamar is, at the very least, aware that the message and/or its delivery are muddled; self-love jam “i” is here as a live performance (perhaps symbolizing the song’s message as an outward sign of inward goal) that is literally shouted down by a crowd (no small group has labelled Lamar as having a messiah complex, which is as hard to substantiate as it is to deny), and when he reads his final poem to 2pac symbolizing Black unity for Pac’s approval, his request is met with album-ending silence.

Even if it doesn’t quite stick the high-concept landing, To Pimp a Butterfly is an aggressively, fascinatingly Black album. A crate of surface references to wide noses, nappy hair, The Color Purple, Richard Pryor, Michael Jackson, colorism, racial policy at home and aboard, G-funk sounds, and gangsta culture populate the record. It’s an album about being Black and successful, being Black and depressed, being Black and on your shit, being Black and the constant tension of your Blackness being pulled and picked on by society, but being Black is at its very core. This record’s Blackness is invasive, almost as invasive as it is in Black lives. It’s the first album I’ve heard that I’m not sure I’d experience in the same way if I weren’t Black.

But, pulling back the reins here a second, let’s just examine To Pimp a Butterfly as an album. It is excellent. Even as Lamar’s ending ideas and executions trip over their own self-importance, they’re entertaining to listen to (Lamar does a great job reflecting 2pac affability when he interviews some of his back tapes), and the music, technical chops, and lyrics are all top notch. Regardless of who you are, anyone with more than a passing interest in hip-hop, soul, or jazz will finds a lot to listen to and appreciate here, and probably a lot to think about. Go check out it, five out of five.

tl;dr (but actually): To Pimp a Butterfly is a sprawling album that refuses to be lost in its own head, 5/5.

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About bgibs122

I enjoy music and music culture; I hope you do, too.
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