It’s been nearly two full weeks and most of us Hip Hop Heads have had a chance to at least ingest if not fully digest Kendrick Lamar’s newest output, an expansive, cinematic concept album of sorts entitled To Pimp a Butterfly. With its sonic influences and styles, its deep (yet accessible) subject matter, and a minimum of veritable “bangers” (though I’ve already been caught on repeat with i, King Kunta and Alright), there are those who are able to find disappointment with this as the follow-up to the Grammy-nominated debut good Kid, m.A.A.d City. For many of us, though, it’s sheer brilliance, an instant classic unlike anything that’s emerged in the last 15 years. So let’s take a look at just what makes it such an important Hip Hop album, work of art, and cultural statement in this review of To Pimp a Butterfly.
What exactly is …Butterfly?
Some have described it like a movie, others like a novel and while detractors decry its abundance of funk and jazz, it is most definitely Hip Hop.
It is unabashedly, explorationally and absolutely intentionally Black.
It is Big. As evidenced on GKMC K.Dot really knows how to craft a story arc and though the readings of TPAB are bound to be less literal, there is a depth in its abstraction that makes it larger in scope than his debut.
On that same note, it is a concept album, one that seems to grow from the inside out, though the concept is not entirely clear yet. He has composed a specific story, with motivation, character, and nuance but as he said in his RollingStone interview in reference to the title’s meaning, it’ll be up to students and professors in future college classes to determine what it really means.
There is also the question to be asked in terms of the two metaphors linked to the album’s title, what/who exactly is the Butterfly?
There is the metaphor in the final piece Kendrick reads on “Mortal Man”, describing the caterpillar and the butterfly. There is also the metaphor inherent in phrasing the album’s title to match Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. These two metaphors are certainly related but are they the same? What does each contribute to the narrative?
At a passing glance TPAB might appear to be denouncing the larger society be it government/police/record labels/white authority, seeking to pimp the young black American male for his beauty and talent, coopting the urban black experience while simultaneously fearing and demonizing it. And while the album doesn’t shy away from this narrative, delving into it on the opening two tracks, it’s really just a precursor (or a bait-and-switch, as on “The Blacker the Berry”) to the lesson that the greatest enemy lies within. Before being able to take on larger, external enemies, the argument goes, America’s black community must first learn the Respect described on “Mortal Man” and the elimination of the hypocrisy that is the backbone of “The Blacker the Berry”. It is the cornerstone of Lamar’s controversial and over-blown twitter comments during the Ferguson, MO protests. It is what we learn in the final piece, that the caterpillar is the one blindly pimping the butterfly, not knowing that by tearing into the cocoon that is his community he destroys a piece of himself. In pimping the butterfly, symbolizing African-American beauty, strength and power (his antennas), the caterpillar misrepresents his own culture for short-term gain, a move he perceives as necessary for survival. It is where one metaphor meets the other, in the destruction of innocence and beauty by the overarching forces of greed and fear. TPAB adds to the conversation with statements about combatting this cycle, beginning from within. In the final part of the conversation with Tupac, Kendrick seems to be taking the next step forward for Pac’s work as well. With the final reading of the caterpillar/butterfly piece Pac disappears and it leaves me with the notion that Pac has nothing further to add at the moment because he can see that K.Dot is carrying on his work.
The album opens with a sample of Boris Gardner’s “Every ni**er is a star” that fades up and opens beautifully from we know not whence, gentle and off-putting at the same time. It breaks on a James Brown-esque “Hit me!” before switching to a sound reminiscent of Snoop circa 2000, complete with West Coast beat, high-pitched singing and George Clinton voice-over. It’s “Wesley’s Theory”, describing the elements that make many rapper’s rise to success so cliché and often foolhardy. The catch, of course, is that while Uncle Sam wants to see you pile that debt high he will always come to collect. It’s the start of a three-song opening Act, a prologue even, catching the listener up to the beginning of the journey about to be undertaken. As the song ends we get our first taste of what makes this feel like an Outkast record (a not uncommon comparison). As we hear “taxman coming!” from the two unreferenced female “background singers”, itself a stylistic impulse of the Andre and Big Boi, the song stops on a dime to be contrasted by the squeaks of a saxophone. “For Free?”, technically labelled an interlude, sees Kendrick go full slam poet over the jazz piano of Robert Glasper. He returns to the refrain “this dick ain’t free” throughout the single verse in answer to “America, [the] bad bitch” with a quick pace and sharp tongue. It is sonically jarring and captivating, a proper preview of what lies ahead before we conclude the prologue with what might be the album’s best track. “King Kunta” is like an audio version of ‘Shaft’ starring James Brown where Kendrick asserts his rap royalty over an infectious swing beat. Nuanced with the unreferenced female background singers as well as male ones such as on “something’s in the water”, it’s a strutting song adorned with JB and P-Funk references both sonic and literal.
I remember you were conflicted,
Misusing your influence…