I wonder, do any critics truly know when they’ve come across an album of such importance that it’ll be remembered in years to come as a benchmark? I wonder if when the initial reviews came in of Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Enter The Wu (36 Chambers)’ or ‘Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars’ that they truly knew the impact that the albums would have? Or did they ever wonder if they were simply giving in to the hype? I shall try my best now to truly capture what this album represents in a way void of any hype of bias.
Kendrick Lamar has found himself in a position that not many as musicians have before. He’s not only being heralded as the ‘Saviour of Hip-Hop’, but he’s taken it upon himself to become a spokesperson and a modern-day preacher. Following up on a fantastic debut (‘Section 80.’) that showed his ambition as a lyrical rapper, and another album (‘good kid m.A.A.d. city’) which many people already regard as a modern-classic for the way in which it’s one of the most coherent and spellbinding concept albums to be made in Hip-Hop, fans were anxious in waiting for the release of a new album just as much as Kendrick himself must have been. But through all this Kendrick has done the impossible, he’s remained extremely focused and if we consider ‘GKMC’ – the story of his own life – as the micro, then ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is so unbelievably focused on the macro now.
‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ has no continuous story arc like their was on his previous album. There are instead a series of tracks interlinked, all documenting the different trials and tribulations going on within Kendrick’s head since the success of ‘GKMC’. It’s not so much a continuous cinematic experience but a series of short films all interlinking with each other. Each of them offering a separate point of view as Kendrick struggles to come to terms with what he should do with his power.
Realising that he’s somewhat become a spokesperson for so many, Kendrick feels an overwhelming sense of depression on this album. There’s a moment on this album where Kendrick realises that just because he’s found a way out of the hood and documented his story to great success; it doesn’t mean everyone who was with him will share his happiness. They’re still miserable, they’re still in the maad city, and police brutality and division between communities seems to be spiralling out of control. On the track ‘Momma’ Kendrick talks about how he feels he knows everything about respect and love, but it’s only when he comes home that he realises that ‘he doesn’t know shit’. He further reflects on this on the track ‘How Much A Dollar Cost’ where he says ‘My selfishness is what got me here, who the fuck I’m kiddin’?’. There’s an overwhelming feeling throughout this album that Kendrick feels personally responsible for his community and frustrated to the point where he wants to change it all himself yet he can’t.
This guilt and anxiety are some of the biggest themes to crop up on this album; on the track ‘U’ he really embodies this with every single insecurity seeming to come at him all at once. The song is the polar opposite to ‘i’ – his polarizing anthem about self-love – and has him repeating the hook ‘Loving you is complicated’ over and over trying to ram it into us in a way that depression does when you get a bout of self-doubt. He doubts absolutely everything about himself on here. Throughout the first half of the track he asks himself ‘Where is the influence you speak of?’ and he allows these thoughts to fester until he snaps and the beat completely changes. At this point Kendrick’s voice sounds hysterical in a way previously heard on the track ‘MAAD City’, but instead of using it to make him just sound young and innocent, he sounds like he’s hysterically crying while drinking away his sorrows. On this half of the track he contemplates killing himself as well as beating himself up about how he couldn’t even go and see his friend in the hospital when he had been shot and eventually killed while Kendrick had been away. He says that this is a sin that even God can’t forgive him for and it’s one of the most heartbreaking moments on the album.
Temptation, sex and money are mentioned frequently on the album under the metaphor that is ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’. The butterfly represents black people and all of the potential they hold and on the opening track of the album ‘Wesley’s Theory’, the metaphor is exclusively about black entertainers in the industry. On the first verse of the track he talks about how when people from his hood get signed they end up ‘actin the fool’ and losing their goals and aspirations, which is how they end up getting pimped by the industry. On the second verse of the track Kendrick takes on the persona of a white record owner called ‘Uncle Sam’ who offers him everything in the world, trying to corrupt Kendrick into the ways of consumerism to help the white man get rich and to make Kendrick to lose his goals. In the context of Kendrick’s career this all makes sense. When you look at his ‘Control’ verse where he swore that he would be wearing ‘no more designer shit’ it’s evident that he’s taken that ideology with him onto this album. On the second song on the album ‘For Free?’ Kendrick refuses to be pimped with the genius way he says the line ‘This dick ain’t freeeeee’ taking on the roll of what sounds like one of the materialistic women he would have come across post – GKMC.
Often the temptation on this album is represented in physical form as ‘Lucy’, which can be taken as short for Lucifer. Lucy first shows up on the track ‘Alright’ which has Kendrick trying to find ways to deal with the stress that he felt on the track ‘U’. Lucy shows up and offers him many of the same things that the character Uncle Sam did. On the next track ‘For Sale?’ Kendrick fully takes on the character of Lucy and tempts him further and further to sin all for the same reasons that he was being tempted on the first two tracks of the album – to divide and segregate people instead of uniting them. In the world completely obsessed with consumerism Kendrick knows that big businesses need us to stay divided to get our money. Kendrick embodies so many voices on this album to represent so many different viewpoints. so much more-so than on ‘GKMC’ – he rarely even embodies himself, he has a voice for everyone around him and a voice for every temptation and struggle he feels.
The album goes through distinct stages with inner turmoil and thoughts throughout. Whether that be him forgetting too much about his hood after he finds fame (‘Momma’) or taking us back to where the hood was everything he knew (‘Hood Politics’), he’s always giving a different viewpoint and questioning how it feels to be segregated as a black person wherever you are in society. This can amount to unbelievable rage like on the single that through the world of its axis, ‘The Blacker The Berry’ where he talks of respect for each other while also shunning institutional racism. Kendrick never really gets the answers to his questions, but instead points out the obvious floors that WE need to sort out. The new version of the track ‘i’ -which seems to be recorded live – gets cut off towards the end of the song by a rampant and angry crowd. Kendrick then gets angry at this; this could represent either the frustration he felt when there was such a lukewarm response to his song that was so clearly trying to uplift people, or the frustration that no matter what he does in his community, there’ll always be inner conflicts as well as the ever-growing division with police brutality.
Even though this album’s tracklisting is made so that everything conceptually flows into each other with such beauty, all of the themes are tied together more-so by a poem that Kendrick reads between nearly every song. He reads more and more of the poem as time goes by and each time the last line will somehow relate to the song that comes next. By the time the poem finishes at the end of the album it’s revealed that Kendrick is talking to none other than Tupac Shakur. Kendrick took an old interview of Tupac’s from the 90s and made it sound like the two are having a genuine conversation – it’s truly beautiful and awe-inspiring. Especially on what the album ends on with Kendrick explaining the theory of how the butterfly is pimped. Tupac represents what a rapper can do to inspire a generation. With this album it feels like Kendrick could now possibly be on par with the influence that he had.
One of the best albums of last year was Flying Lotus’ ‘You’re Dead!’, an album filled with jazz and electronic brilliance. The basis for To Pimp a Butterfly was built off of Flying Lotus’ beats and is something else that completely tied the entire album. It’s a celebration of black music. Kendrick literally came up with the concept for the album after being given the beats. The music on this album would still be an enjoyable listen without Kendrick as much as ‘You’re Dead!’ was. He also has a host of other producers and the bassist extraordinaire Thundercat who all help him to create this sound that is so unbelievably experimental for a commercial album. I’m hoping that this marks the moment where a) everyone steps up their game in terms of what’s important in rap music and b) a moment where we finally get back into the stage of having instrumentals in Hip-Hop where people take something of the old and create something entirely new and original from it.
Fans of the commercial sound of ‘GKMC’ will have a hard time getting into this at first because of the fact that it’s so dense and musically diverse. ‘GKMC’ was brilliant because it was inventive and extremely ambitious yet accessible. ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ isn’t accessible at all, and yet it’s probably one of the most grand and cinematic hip-hop albums of the 21st century. It’s also one of the most dense albums I’ve ever heard; everything that I’ve touched on in this review is just the tip of the iceberg. Give this album time to sit with you and reveal itself to you. It’s one of the most beautiful and thought-provoking rap albums of the last decade. Scrap that – one of the most thought-provoking and powerful albums in general of the last decade. One that won’t hold your hand and walk you through it but will instead present the questions and flaws, and let you decide what the answers should be.
Best Tracks: Wesley’s Theory, For Free? King Kunta, These Walls, Institutionalised, U, Alright, Hood Politics, The Blacker The Berry, i, Mortal Man …… all of them really.