I was a little bit wary in the months leading up to Kendrick Lamar’s upcoming release “To Pimp a Butterfly”; wary of the direction he would choose to take riding the wave of success of his sophomore triumph, the album that almost singularly sparked my interest in rap music in general, “good kid, m.A.A.d city”. He couldn’t write another Compton-centered album, it would be a stale subject. He couldn’t write a straight up party-rap album, he’d lose a huge part of his critical legitimacy. But how could he follow it up? I was conflicted. Luckily, Kendrick was too. And that’s exactly what makes “To Pimp a Butterfly” so special. As a collection of songs, TPaB is stylistically immaculate, encompassing a range of ideas and musical themes rarely heard in modern music, much less coming from an artist so colossally popular as Kendrick Lamar. We are gifted with Kanye-esque radio hits (King Kunta), modern proto-funk (Wesley’s Theory), slow-dragging piano-jazz hooks ala 90’s Nas (How Much a Dollar Cost?), and straight-up slam poetry (For Free). And even still, this is an album that absolutely should not be treated as a handful of songs to pick out of for your next crazy party playlist.
On To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar deftly expresses his inner torment over his status as an artist and as a representative of the black community. We hear a side of rap which has rarely been heard, one that is utterly confused and self-conscious. We hear him repeat it three times, in fact; “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same, abusing my power, full of resentment.” Together, each track adds a piece to the complete image of Kendrick’s view of himself. As an artist, he feels as though the pressures of maintaining stardom will force him to abandon his style for the sake of appeasement. As a black man, he feels as though he doesn’t have the right to relate to the social barriers and injustices faced regularly by other members of his community. And he expresses his anguish with palpable levels of anger and frustration. As he proclaims on “The Blacker The Berry,” the song which by far best sums up TPaB’s concept, “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015.”
Perhaps Kendrick Lamar happened upon a right place, right time situation with “To Pimp a Butterfly.” After all, social privilege and race relations have become entirely inescapable subjects in modern American culture. Perhaps he struck the iron at its absolute hottest point. But make no mistake, this album is special. I sincerely believe that it will be years before another album is released in any genre that so deftly blends concept and style. In fact, I’ll go a step further and say that in ten years time, music scholars will consider this one of the best rap albums ever.
Final Rating: 9.5/10
My Top Three Tracks:
1. These Walls
2. Complexion (A Zulu Love)
3. Mortal Man
*Bonus* Favorite lyric: “Critics want to mention how they miss when hip-hop was rappin’. Motherf*cker if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum!”