To Pimp A Butterfly: a Musical Landmark

With Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar’s last release good kid m.A.A.d. city being one of the best hip-hop records since the 90’s Golden Era, I admit that I was a bit nervous about the release of To Pimp a Butterfly. In all honesty, his hit single “i” that dropped in the fall last year did not impress me lyrically or musically, and I began to fear that K. Dot was trying to reach a more mainstream audience by dumbing down his lyrics and fluffing up his sound. Then “The Blacker the Berry” track dropped in February and, though I thoroughly enjoyed it, it sounded completely different sonically from the jazz and funk-influence in “i,” making me wonder if this album was going to be a failure, a group of random tracks that Kendrick made in the last two years. As the weeks passed and more information was being released about the album (the cover artwork, the guest features etc.), my restless increased as I questioned whether or not the Compton emcee could create a beautiful record that could proudly stand next to its predecessor. Then the album dropped a week early, and everything else suddenly became unimportant; I had to listen to it.

This may sound like obsessive fandom, but there were serious discussions within the hip-hop community whether Kendrick could create another good kid, m.A.A.d. city. I believed that he might have shot himself in the foot by creating such an influential and brilliant concept album as his debut into mainstream hip-hop. Nas did that with his debut and now all his other albums, though not bad, simply fade in the dark shadow created by the towering achievement that is Illmatic. Jay-Z’s lyricism on Reasonable Doubt set a standard for the Brooklyn rapper that he has never managed to reach again thus far. Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) still remains the group’s best work, especially after their tragedy that is A Better Tomorrow. Similarly, good kid is now the ruler by which all critics and fans alike will measure Kendrick’s future projects. If Nas, Jay, and Wu-Tang couldn’t pull it off, what hope did K. Dot have on this new album, one with a song that I already thought was mediocre? My answer: he had none, and boy was I wrong.

Sonically, To Pimp A Butterfly is new not just for the Californian rapper, but for the entire hip-hop genre. The closest record that it can be compared to production-wise is Outkast’s double-disc album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, with its flashy, funky rhythmic vibes in many of its songs. However, the main difference is that Speakerboxxx/The Love Below does not dare to combine funk and soul with its hardcore rap songs while To Pimp A Butterfly does. Featuring George Clinton, a man whose entire musical catalog has been utilized in the last two decades as samples for hundreds of G-Funk hip-hop tracks, Thundercat, a rhythmic bass-playing monster, and Bilal, one of soul’s newest artists, this album has perfectly layered funk, soul and jazz sounds, from horn sections to amazing guitar riffs to off-the-wall basslines that will make anyone bob their head. Completely ignoring all else about this record, including the skits, the rapping and the spoken word, it is a great body of instrumentals just to listen to on their own, even topping the marvelous Dr. Dre beat-production on good kid.

The first track is “Wesley’s Theory,” a groovy jam that samples the obscure song “Every Nigger is a Star” by Boris Gardiner. George Clinton’s great, booming vocals come in, leading into Kendrick Lamar’s discussion of the rise of the African-American celebrity out of the violent ghetto and their inability to save and invest their money wisely. He snidely comments with lines like “The hard part is keeping it, motherfucker,” proving himself to be incredibly honest, even if it means making statements that sound uncomfortable; a constant theme throughout this record.

Right afterwards is the hilarious spoken word interlude “For Free?” with an incredible horn section and satirical lines criticizing the materialism and superficiality in popular culture and the media. “King Kunta” then follows, with K. Dot bragging in the most socially conscious way he possibly can: by comparing himself to Kunta Kinte, the main character in Alex Haley’s novel Roots. It is stuff like this that separates Kendrick from every other rapper, even other great socially conscious emcees like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Common, making his albums truly unique masterpieces.

“Institutionalized” follows with a laid-back beat and Snoop Dogg and Bilal on the chorus. Just like its title suggests, the song discusses the many ways African-Americans are subjugated in American society, from being “trapped inside the ghetto” to being incarcerated to not being able to go to college because they could not afford it. Lines like “Streets put me through college” and “A dream’s only a dream if work don’t follow it,” make the song become progressively melancholic, leading seamlessly into the tracks “These Walls” and “u.” The former, with its silky, guitar notes sprinkled around and disco-era sounding drum kicks, talks about metaphorical walls that contain the rapper’s sorrows. “u,” in a way, is the response to “These Walls,” with a drunken Kendrick rapping in a hotel room about not being there for his friend’s funeral. He gets extremely personal with these tracks, but manages to provide a larger message as well, showcasing the rapper’s ability to look beyond himself and into the entirety of American society, one that is just as flawed and broken as he is.

“Alright” is the light at the end of the tunnel, a nice Pharrell Williams produced track that gives hope to the hopeless and love to the loveless with the main lyric “But if God got us then we gon’ be alright.” “For Free?” is another catchy skit that leads to “Momma,” “Hood Politics,” and “How Much A Dollar Cost?” all songs that feature an introspective Kendrick as he reflects ghetto urban life while also trying to ensure himself that he doesn’t ever forget the roots that formed him as an artist and a man. “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” featuring underrated female emcee Rapsody follows, is another positive song, this time encouraging all people to love the skin color that they were born in.

Things get progressively darker from here, with “The Blacker the Berry,” a hard-hitting trap-influenced track that displays Kendrick’s disdain towards America’s inability to treat blacks respectfully as equals while calling out the African-American community for their gang violence and self-hatred. “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” lightens up the record for a second, with the Compton rapper behaving as a mother towards his audience, telling them to be themselves no matter what.

The track “i” comes on afterwards, and is a million times better than the single he dropped last fall. In the album is a live version that adds the raw emotion and soul needed to make it good. Halfway through the song, the crowd’s rowdiness forces the rapper to stop the performance and address the African-American community about the various epidemics that plague it such as the gang and police violence that kills hundreds of blacks each year.

The last track, “Mortal Man,” is mainly a conversation between Kendrick and Tupac Shakur. Yes, I said that correctly: K. Dot brilliantly took snippets of a Tupac interview and added his own vocals as well, making the track sound as if the rapper is talking to one of the most influential Californian rappers that ever existed. At the end, Kendrick recites a poem that explains the concept of “To Pimp A Butterfly” as a symbol of African-Americans who are used in the American system and them disrespected and tossed aside as another wash-out.  Yet he ends on a high note because all African-Americans are caterpillars, soon-to-be-butterflies that will leave their mark on the world forever.

In some sense, “Mortal Man” is the only way K. Dot could have ended this album. Released the day after the twenty year anniversary of Tupac’s classic album Me Against the World, To Pimp A Butterfly displays all the social awareness that made Me Against the World so incredible while also showcasing a new, fresh sound in hip-hop that has never been done before. This record is Kendrick Lamar, giving respect to its predecessors while simultaneously soaring higher than they, or anyone else, ever did. It is a record that will have a lasting impact on musicians and artists for the next ten years, and finally allows all Kendrick Lamar fans to say, without a shadow of a doubt, that he is one of the most talented and brilliant rappers to ever exist. With this, Tupac has officially passed the torch eighteen years after his death; now it’s Kendrick’s turn.

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