I’ve been attempting to write a review of the new Kendrick Lamar record, To Pimp a Butterfly, for weeks. But every time I sat down and typed out a few paragraphs, I’ve second guessed myself and deleted them. This record is so dense and so complicated, that the thought of providing an eloquent critique has been elusive. This record is intimidating. To Pimp a Butterfly is among the most ambitious hip hop records I have ever heard. It’s also one of the best.
Butterfly follows 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city as another sprawling, autobiographical concept album. But while m.A.A.d. city succeeded as both an homage to and as a subversion of gangster rap, this new record breaks out of the genre completely. Funk inspired beats take the lead here, but there are also elements of jazz and old school west coast hip hop. The studio band features pianist Robert Glasper, sax player Terrace Martin, and bassist Thundercat (a standout). They are key to the album’s atmosphere. Although these songs are all incredibly unique and vary greatly (samples range from Sufjan Stevens in “Hood Politics” to the Isley Brothers in “i”), the albums feels like one long live performance. It all sounds cohesive.
Lamar’s vocals explore a variety of themes, including (but definitely not limited to): mental illness, entertainers’ struggles with fame/success, the backwards politics of the hip hop industry, and individuals coming to terms with their ever changing beliefs regarding race issues in the 21st century. Kendrick plays a variety of ‘characters’: the (rightfully) over-confident rapper in “King Kunta” and “Hood Politics,” the idealist/rebellious youth in “Institutionalized” and “The Blacker The Berry” and the conflicted star struggling with and overcoming mental depression in “u” and then “i.” Lamar balances the conflicted anger with uplifting optimism.
“Loving you is complicated/Place blame on you still/Place shame on you still/Feel like you ain’t s***/Feel like you don’t feel”
“I done been through a whole lot/Trial, tribulation, but I know God/The Devil wanna put me in a bow tie/Pray that the holy water don’t go dry/As I look around me/So many motherf***ers wanna down/but an enemigo never drown me/In front of a double-mirror they found me/I love myself”
Juxtaposed, these two lines seem so show that Kendrick is a hypocrite, but I don’t see it that way. The contradictions show his growth as an artist, and as an individual.
Interspersed throughout the record is a spoken word poem that explores Kendrick’s internal struggles that come with fame, and the obligation he feels to the community he grew up in. When the poem comes to fruition on the album’s closer, “Mortal Man,” it culminates in a conversation with the ‘ghost’ of 2Pac. The fallen icon and new school leader discuss the burden placed on the youth of today to drive progress, and how those achieving success/fame have a responsibility to affect positive change in the communities they come from. It’s their responsibility to ensure that others see the same success.
“When he’s trapped inside these walls certain ideas take roots, such as/going home, and bringing back new concepts to this mad city/The result?/Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant/Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on the situations that the/caterpillar never considered, ending the internal struggle/Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they/Are one and the same”
To Pimp a Butterfly
By: Jordan Swoyer