It’s been almost three years since Kendrick Lamar released his phenomenal album Good Kid Maad City, arguably launching him into the discussion of the greatest rappers of all time. It’s been decades since Hip-Hop has seen such significant and sudden influence, yet in October 2012, Hip-Hop communities alike and much of the world, fell in love with Kendrick’s unique style, unparalleled lyricism, and home-grown modesty. Since then, Lamar has continued to produce major hits at a factory pace, including his infamous “Control” verse, while also working with the industry’s most creative and influential figures. Tracks from his debut album still get air time on the radio which is incredible considering some artists can’t even get run-time on air for more than a week or two. As his last album acquired an unprecedented amount of popularity from fans of various genres and demographics, this of course leaves his follow-up album, To Pimp A Butterfly, with an unimaginable weight on its shoulders. While Kendrick Lamar may very well be one of the greatest rapper of all time in the making, it’s important that while appreciating and listening to this album, its crucial not to get sucked into all the hype, and to always question your favorite artists and their choices, despite the social pressure to conform. Something Kendrick preaches himself.
For a long time it was impossible to speculate anything… all the waiting, the mystery, the expectations… yet slowly we were given glimpses into the unknown with “i” and “The Blacker The Berry”. Undeniably two great tracks, wrestling with each other in opposite energies, as is the rest of the album. As for the proceeding tracks and those in between, the album has a sound that can be described as funk, jazz, and poetry intertwined cleverly behind thin veils of Hip-Hop story telling. Kendrick is one of the best story tellers in the genre, and listening to the entire album front to back is effortless as each song transitions smoothly into the next although some of the sounds and themes can be rigid, aggressive and unapologetic at times. Living racism in modern institutions, destructive personal demons, women of shallow and intimate nature, depression and evolution all fall into his crosshairs on various tracks. In fact, there really isn’t a track on this record that doesn’t have a deeper meaning if you spend some time searching.
The album is also cleverly mirrored at itself with tracks like “i” and “u”, and “For Free?” and “For Sale?”. His first single “i” is an uplifting and energetic ode to being comfortable in one’s own skin while its counterpart “u” is a melancholic rant solely focused on hating what you see in the mirror. In the same fashion, “For Free?” maintains Kendrick can’t be dating just any basic girl, and “For Sale?” is more of a ballad to spending time with someone special. These clever mirrors within the album are not only impressive on a creative level, but most likely why Lamar’s music resonates with so many different types of people at once.
Compared to his earlier works, To Pimp A Butterfly is much more similar to his debut album Section.80 in terms of feeling and embrace. However, this is by far Lamar’s most powerful and politically minded project to date with an obvious mission to connect with those so intensely caught up in our culture, that they no longer see those around as valuable.
“I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same… abusing my power full of resentment, resentment that turned into a deep depression. Found myself screaming in the hotel room, I didn’t wanna self-destruct… the evils of Lucy was all around me… so I went running for answers”…
… is just one of quotes repeated throughout the entire album and a clear message to anyone using any power in the wrong way whether on a small or large scale. Kendrick Lamar uses the 12 track record to really make every attempt at giving insight to an intimate feeling, a social or political issue, and the opportunity for a deep connection with the modern listener.
Instrumentals belonging to this album are typical in what you might expect from Lamar, but nonetheless are among the best you’ll hear this year. With some of the best production available in Hip-Hop and over 71 people contributing to the album, there’s no surprise at how catchy and full of vibes To Pimp A Butterfly really is. Funky drum kicks, smooth jazz overtones and poetic lyrics find a near perfect balance in a sound that can only be recognized as Kendrick Lamar.
You may have noticed there aren’t as many well-known features this time around besides Snoop Dogg, James Fauntleroy and an interview with Tupac on the outro to “Mortal Man”. Sure, J. Cole could have easily been a feature and killed a verse or two and yes, the Jamaican vocals on “The Blacker The Berry” are the same from Kanye West’s Yeezus if you were wondering, but Kendrick Lamar never had any intention of just another regular rap album. He’s created music only he can, and imagining anyone else on the mic for even a brief second seems rather pointless when fans have been waiting so long for this project.
The temptation to compare To Pimp A Butterfly and Good Kid Maad City will be understandably strong for most people yet this opinion is of course completely dependent on the listener. While it’s yet to be seen how Kendrick’s newest album will be received at upcoming award shows and in total units sold, the album does seem to have less radio appeal as there are far fewer attention-grabbing features and overall just feels less exciting than Good Kid Maad City.
Many people have and will speculate on what To Pimp A Butterfly is supposed to mean but no one could have said it better than Kendrick Lamar himself on the outro to “Mortal Man”. He explains the concept of the album in a surprisingly insightful metaphor on modern society…
…“The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it. Its only job is to eat or consume everything around it, in order to protect itself from this mad city. While consuming its environment the caterpillar begins to notice ways to survive. One thing it noticed is how much the world shuns him, but praises the butterfly. The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar. But having a harsh outlook on life the caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak and figures out a way to pimp it to his own benefits. Already surrounded by this mad city the caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon which institutionalizes him. He can no longer see past his own thoughts. He’s trapped. When trapped inside these walls certain ideas start to 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 situations that the caterpillar never considered, ending the eternal struggle. Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same.”
One of the most beautiful components of this album is that it can mean so many things to so many people at once. You can spend weeks listening to the album forming an opinion, then within another week, To Pimp A Butterfly can mean something totally different to you. This is the proof of a great album as the music evolves with you as you listen and can stick with you even when you put down the headphones. To Pimp A Butterfly may not have everything his previous album had to offer but remains an artistic expression that too few artists attempt anymore and well-deserving of its praise.
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