Nearly every review of Kendrick Lamar’s still-new album To Pimp a Butterfly contains the word “overwhelming,” or “heavy,” or “weighty,” and all are accurate descriptors of the 27-year-old emcee's latest project. It’s a lot to take in. I simply wasn’t ready the first time I pressed play.
And how could I have been? Sonically, the thing is all over the place. But at the same time, it sounds focused. Whole songs are metaphors. Breakdowns, voice alterations, interludes, personifications. It’s homework of the most enjoyable variety, but it’s also an emotional trip.
I took three days to gather my thoughts on the record — the most Afrocentric high-profile release since the days of Public Enemy and N.W.A — and still feel there’s more to unpack from Kendrick Lamar’s third LP. Still, here are 16 observations on my early shoe-in for album of the year.
1. Kendrick Lamar Duckworth was nearly five years old when Rodney King was beaten by members of the LAPD, sparking the infamous L.A. Riots. From that angry climate, classics like Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Ice Cube’s The Predator were born, infused with the hostility of those times. Today, the unjust murders of Eric Garner, Mike Brown and countless other Black men and women provide much of the rage — and optimism — of Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
2. The album is unapologetically Black. And proud. There’s no 12 Years a Slave pathologizing. Instead, we get “King Kunta.” Demands for reparations. Backtalk to The Man [“For Free? (Interlude)”]. A takedown of colorism [see the feel-good “Complexion (A Zulu Love)”]. The pride of “The Blacker The Berry” can be jarring.
3. But the proudest moment might be this N-word history lesson pastor K Dot drops at the tail of his Grammy-winning single “i”: “This is my explanation straight from Ethiopia/N-E-G-U-S definition: royalty; King royalty — wait listen/N-E-G-U-S description: Black emperor, King, ruler, now let me finish.” Suddenly, this Isley-sampling ode to self love is about something bigger; it’s about an entire people. Sit with it and feel your self-esteem rise.
4. Much of good kid, m.A.A.d city’s appeal lies in its cinematic structure; listening is like sitting front row in a movie theater watching Boyz n the Hood, cradling popcorn and Mike & Ikes. To Pimp a Butterfly has that element too (the sober storytelling of “How Much a Dollar Cost”) but it’s more often engulfing, like an IMAX screen stretched around you 360 degrees. When “u” plays, you’re right there in that Four Seasons hotel room, awkwardly witnessing Kendrick’s drunken descent. That brief psychedelic break before the closing verse of “Hood Politics” swallows you in ambiance, like the soundtrack to a bad dream.
5. There are many themes and topics at play on To Pimp a Butterfly: Lucy (the devil), Uncle Sam (America), race, politics, slavery, materialism, self-determination, colorism, division, unity, fame, authenticity. And while it can all be overwhelming to absorb, at its core TPAB is a story about endurance. It’s a layered narrative: How to survive as a Black man in America. Surviving and escaping the slums, and the accompanying remorse. Surviving the soul-testing lure of money and fame. Surviving the bottomless abyss of depression.
6. The album’s overall darkness makes the bright moments that much more radiant. “For Sale? (Interlude),” colored by rich saxophone and trumpet notes, is a euphoric dream sequence that sonically contrasts the sinister conversation at hand with Lucy. The aim of “Alright,” cleverly sequenced behind the dismal “u,” is twofold, speaking both to personal struggle and the resilience of Black people. And just try not to two-step to “These Walls” or “Complexion (A Zulu Love).”
7. “Hood Politics,” with its aggression, catchiness and ghetto intellect, sounds like a song recorded by a Power of the Dollar-era 50 Cent high on helium. Easily the biggest live concert crowd rocker on the tracklist (followed by “i” and “Alright”).
8. There are clippings from other rap classics pasted all over Butterfly. The album’s heavy P-Funk influence has Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle written all over. The live feel and confrontational interruption that interludes “i” recalls “22 Twos” from Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt. On “u,” Kendrick guzzles from the same 100-proof liquor bottle as The Game did on “Start From Scratch” from The Documentary and it also echoes Notorious B.I.G.’s self-hatred from “Suicidal Thoughts.” Lucy is another incarnation of “Damien,” the Satanic force on DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot.
9. Musically, Butterfly flutters closer to Kendrick’s true-debut LP, Section.80, which is similarly shaped by live instrumentals and extended brass breaks. Black music of different times and vibes are blended together: Jazz, blues, George Clinton’s P-Funk, reggae, old soul, neo-soul, spoken word scatting. It all forms a musical journey not unlike Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
10. Kendrick Lamar wisely limits his rap guests to Snoop Dogg — who does a great Slick Rick impression on “Institutionalized” — and sharp spitter Rapsody. The kid’s got a lot to say, and he achieves it by altering his voice to fit different moods or characters in his micro/macro narrative. The less-is-more approach helps Rapsody’s verse of a lifetime shine on “Complexion.” She’s AZ on Illmatic.
11. “These Walls” is Butterfly’s most emotionally conflicted listening experience. What begins as a funky disco rap about a woman’s anatomy later reveals itself to be a twisted tale of revenge that picks up where gkmc’s “Sing About Me” left off. It’s sick, really. Kendrick digs the dagger into the now-incarcerated murderer of his friend, detailing not only the mental hell on earth he must be experiencing behind prison walls, but also the many ways Kendrick has plowed the walls of the murderer’s woman.
12. From “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)” to “Sing About Me” to “These Walls,” Kendrick Lamar is establishing his own mythology via stories that expand and refer to previous chapters. Kendrick is so meta.
13. There’s a reason “u” has the album’s lowest play count in my iTunes library, and it’s not for subpar lyricism or music. The pessimistic cousin of “i” is just uncomfortable. Here’s Kendrick at his most vulnerable, giving that not-so-little voice in his depressed mind an outlet. “F**king hate you, I hope you embrace it,” he says to himself. The “loving you is complicated” yelps are haunting. It’s incredibly affecting art.
14. On last year’s late success 2014 Forest Hills Drive, J. Cole rapped about the importance of figuratively and literally coming home after being blinded by Hollywood’s lights. Kendrick expresses similar sentiments over the mellow percussion of “Momma,” realizing the fakeness of all that he once valued and frantically searching for life's purpose. Coping with celebrity is no new concept, but today’s generation of MCs, from Cole to Drake to Kendrick, have all grappled with it with more difficulty — and transparency — than their predecessors.
15. The end of “Mortal Man,” Butterfly’s outro, imagines a conversation between the album’s creator and Tupac Shakur. The dialogue is as relevant today as it was back in 1994, when ’Pac originally spoke those words. But with two months left of my twenties, there’s one portion that stays with me long after the album commences: “In this country, a Black man only have like five years we can exhibit maximum strength,” Pac says. “And that’s right now while you a teenager, while you still strong or while you still wanna lift weights, while you still wanna shoot back. 'Cause once you turn 30, it’s like they take the heart and soul out of a man, out of a Black man in this country. And you don’t wanna fight no more.” But then what? What becomes of the fight when its members atrophy? Pac’s words reiterate not only the power of youth but also the importance of passing on the baton of knowledge and inspiration. Kendrick’s powwow with Tupac is symbolic of that necessary exchange.
16. If you’re questioning whether To Pimp a Butterfly is better than good kid, m.A.A.d city, you’re probably missing the point. They’re two chapters in the same book, the scriptures of Kendrick Lamar. To Pimp a Butterfly is an album to both lose and find yourself. An album to sulk and soar. A work of art, in the most literal sense. Just enjoy it.
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(Photo: Interscope/Top Dawg Entertainment)