This is an album that will be remembered. Kendrick Lamar’s second major-label album follows the narrative of a poem that Kendrick wrote about his path from a Comptonite into one of the most important leaders to the African American youth. Tied into this poem is another recurring theme, the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. This butterfly is an extended metaphor for a person (Kendrick) who leaves their home (Compton) behind to become a star, and the trials and tribulations that come with that evolution.
Although they believe that their stardom frees them, it really exposes them to an industry that aims to squeeze as much money out of them as possible. The butterfly is pimped out by corporate America, and a success story for one is a pawn to another. Kendrick’s poem is told in final form on the album’s final track but we hear it build to completion from the beginning in the intros and outros of many of the album’s songs. When Kendrick ends a certain line in his narrative, songs begin with that line as the central theme.
Album opener “Wesley’s Theory” begins with a sample of an old soul tune by Boris Gardiner “Every N—– is a Star,” a 70’s soul tune that when listened to in whole reveals a central theme to the album; the subculture of black America. The Gardiner sample fades into a song that juxtaposes Kendrick’s dreams of making it big in the first verse to a second verse from the mindset of a country that wants it’s successful black artists to blow their money on materialistic luxury.
George Clinton, the frontman for the funk bands Parliament and Funkadelic, does some narration on this track. The p-funk innovator’s influence is all over the album. Whereas Good Kid m.A.A.d City was a masterful album with superb lyricism and storytelling coupled with mainstream-ish beats, To Pimp A Butterfly features instrumentals that almost exclusively fall somewhere in the realm of soul, jazz or funk. The lyricism is absolutely there, and perhaps better, but sonically the two albums are in different places.
Everyone has heard the first single for Butterfly, the megahit “i,” a radio-friendly track about loving oneself. It is reworked into a live-sounding version for the album. At this live performance, Kendrick’s positive vibes are drowned out by a raucous crowd that just wants to fight and cause ruckus, and the message is lost.
The preemptive response to “i” is the raw, powerful “u,” one of the best songs in Kendrick’s discography. A depressed, broken Kendrick takes psychological abuse from his own conscience, who chastises him for turning his back on his family, friend and community in Compton. Among grievances that he lays on himself are the lines “Where was your presence, where was your support you pretend? You ain’t no brother, you ain’t no disciple, you ain’t no friend. A friend never leave Compton for profit, or leave his best friends little brother. You promised you’d watch him, before they shot.” These powerful words come with the flow of a man overcome with guilt and grief. His voice cracks and breaks, and you can hear the liquor swish around in the bottle that Kendrick is abusing. It’s an incredibly powerful track, the perfect low to counteract the high of “i.”
“The Blacker the Berry” remains an album standout, although we first heard it without context the night after Kendrick took home Grammys for the positivity anthem “i.” “The Blacker the Berry” is a condemnation of some of the views that Kendrick has as a black man, focused around the lyrics “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015.” This statement becomes revelatory in the final couplet of the song, when Kendrick says “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the streets, when gangbanging made me kill a n—- blacker than me? Hypocrite.”
Kendrick ventures beyond focusing on the identity of a black man in the 21st century at times on the album. “These Walls” examines what the walls of the vagina of the girl that he’s having sex with would say with it’s first two verses, but with the third verse, the walls are that of a prison cell. “Complexion” is a criticism of the view that lighter skin is better, and in general that “complexion don’t mean a thing.” Kendrick’s thoughtful verses are joined by a great verse from female rapper Rhapsody.
The final track on the album is the most mind-blowing, as the entirety of the album comes into focus. Titled “Mortal Man,” the song is Kendrick’s realization that he is a new leader for African-Americans. After the rapping on the track ends, it is revealed that Kendrick had been talking to his biggest inspiration the entire time, the great Tupac Shakur. Through the splicing together of parts of a lost Tupac interview, Kendrick was able to build a conversation between himself and the fallen rapper. The two exchange ideas about the future of America, what it’s like to be a leader, and their role as musicians, in a surprisingly fluent, flowing conversation. Kendrick tells his poem to Tupac in it’s whole, and the album ends poignantly.
I had always thought in the recent couple of years that the best rapper in the game was a 1a, 1b affair between Drake and Kendrick. Drake dropped his If You’re Reading This surprise album filled with bangers and songs where he “went in.” But listening to Kendrick’s album soon after a new Drake album made something very evident to me. When Drake goes in (a la “6 pm in New York”) it’s just a bunch of bars. I love Drake, and the bars and punchlines are great. He is a talented songwriter, and can flawlessly seam together RnB and rap. There is commentary there at times, and Drake doesn’t really have a bad song to his name.
But when Kendrick “goes in,” he deconstructs the mindset of an entire population, with critiques and praises and self-reflection. With the release of To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick showed us that he can stretch so far beyond the genre of rap. The vision of this album sets a benchmark for rap albums to come. Rap evolved from other forms of predominately black music into it’s state today. Kendrick, on an album all about black culture in 2015, fused together all walks of black music from the last 40 years into something wonderful. Words about the album can really only do it so much justice. It takes a pair of headphones and the lyrics in front of you to really appreciate what Kendrick has done. Hip hop won’t ever forget this album, and the rest of the musical world shouldn’t either.