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 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…
As “King Kunta” concludes we hear for the first time the beginning of the poem that runs throughout the album. Here the new journey begins in earnest, with the emcee reflecting on the effect that the urban cocoon can have on the caterpillar, boxing in and institutionalizing his mindset. It’s parodied in the short-sightedness of the “if I was the President” interlude performed by Bilal and Anna Wise. On a sonic note, I can’t help but hear a comparison to Mos Def’s “Brooklyn” in the drastic “zoom zoom” beat switch here as Afrika Bambaataa reference smashes into the song’s second verse. Bilal and Snoop come through for the best features on the album, Snoop’s an understated double couplet and Bilal’s a succinct and timeless piece of advice on personal accountability from K’s grandma:
Shit don’t change ‘til you get up and wash your ass, ni**a
In the verses Kendrick brings to life the idea that “you can take the ni**a out the hood but you can’t take the hood out the homie” as he describes a friend’s instincts to rob celebrities at the BET awards, unable to break free from the hood tactics that have become institutionalized. This gives way to an intricate “These Walls”, which references “Sing About Me” from good kid, m.A.A.d City and which exemplifies him “misusing his influence” for revenge purposes. Each of “Institutionalized”, “These Walls” and “u” gets its own line in the overarching poem, each adding a different weight to pull our hero from his success. “…Abusing my power, full of resentment,” he says before breaking into the darkly introspective “u” “…Resentment that turned into a deep depression. I found myself screaming in the hotel room…” With this he launches into a drunken, crying battle with the hotel room mirror, complete with a theatric style that recalls Eminem’s “Kim”. It serves as a direct contrast to “i”, the lead single and the album’s other emotional pole. His performance on the opening “loving you is complicated” shows a beautiful raggedness, an inflection that feels genuine. Sonically the song returns to the jazz from three tracks before with an ambling bassline and trumpet that evoke Kendrick’s drunken state.
After crashing hard on “u”, on “Alright” Kendrick attempts to pick himself back up, with a distinctly unconvincing tone. Produced by Pharrell and featuring him on the hook, the song introduces “Lucy”, the embodiment of Lucifer, to then be explored on a track all its own. “For Sale?” answers the indignation on “For Free?” by asking, “OK, how much do you cost then?” It’s a track whose etherealness sounds lifted from The Love Below that plays sweet for sour with the Lucy character. Never one to shy away from religion, Kendrick knows that Lucy “knows the Bible too” and within his search for answers there are still greater pitfalls. It’s in so many small places like the end of “For Sale?” where the album’s production shows its strength, creatively continuing and altering the vibe, fading into a slightly minor sound effect scape underneath the poem before a big, bright opening on “Momma”.
It’s possible in some places on the album to look past the lyrical sharpness as we get swept in the feel and concept of the work as it takes shape. The first verse on “Momma” is ridiculous, on a track so smooth and full baked in the heat of introspection that you could almost miss it. And I love the “I know everything” second verse; it’s the Sophomore passage of his sophomore release, a man wise enough to know he doesn’t “know shit”. It’s a great build-up as he lists the many and various things a man of his stature should know, confidently adding wisdom from the world around him only to have it trumped and shattered by a new perspective. It’s a beautifully simple song at its core, with a number of different interpretations for “home”. The most geographically immediate is a return to the place to which he is so devoted, Compton, bringing home the success and lessons from his journey into the world. It’s the heart of GKMC, the journey for home that his mother embodies on her voice mail messages. In early 2014, Lamar traveled to South Africa for a series of concerts and that trip is reported to have been a big influence on TPAB. In terms of “Momma” it was a return home on a grand scale and in the young African boy on the third verse he sees a piece of himself, a spiritual home in both the Motherland and the inner peace he seeks.
Make a new list, of everything you thought was progress
That was bullshit, I mean your life is full of turmoil,
Spoiled by fantasies of who you are, I feel bad for you…
K.Dot briefly interrupts the search for answers that runs through “Momma”, “How Much a Dollar Cost” and “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” to reconnect with the homies on “Hood Politics”. He adopts yet another vocal pitch, this one pitched higher as he speaks from the braggadocious perspective of one firmly locked into the competitive street life. Though I love the flow of the album, I feel like “Hood Politics” belongs before “Momma”, especially thematically. Sonically, though, it plays an important role in adding a bass-heavy Hip-Hop track into a run of softer songs.
The cleverly-titled “How Much a Dollar Cost” speaks to what our drive for money costs us in terms of humility and the appreciation of our true needs. Lamar extends a momentarily interaction with a homeless South African man into a philosophical quandary: given that his “relentless[ness]” is a contributing factor to his success, is he/are we right to resist giving to those who seemingly don’t want to work to provide for themselves? Finding the homeless man to be God in disguise, Kendrick learns his lesson too late. With its smooth, jazzy feel, “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” finds its roots in the likes of Tribe and De La Soul and features the album’s only guest verse from female North Carolina emcee, Rapsody. It deals with the topic of equality, especially in standards of beauty, between light and dark skin black folks, before flipping the racial narrative on its head with “The Blacker the Berry”. The album finally gets a chance to exhale on “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” and the Grammy-winning “i”. Though the album version certainly contains a heightened tension as King Kendrick fights to maintain control of the live crowd, order is regained through education, as he launches into an a cappella verse about the word “Negus” that happens to sum up so much of the album’s message.
For its grandly orchestrated closing number Kendrick turns to two of his greatest heroes. Having proudly accepted his role as a leader to his art and to his people, he must now ask what happens when the battle gets tougher. Will those who have pledged their allegiance, their fandom remain loyal when “shit hits the fan”?
How many leaders you said you needed then left ‘em for dead
Is it Moses, is it Huey Newton or Detroit Red?
Is it Martin Luther, JFK, shoot or you assassin
Is it Jackie, Is it Jesse, oh I know it’s Michael Jackson
For the song’s first half he looks to the example of Nelson Mandela, whose spirit of justice he hopes to spread. After the third hook the song winds down into a twinkling piano line over which we hear the final iteration of the poem running throughout the album.
I’ve never known an album to need a Spoiler Warning but if you somehow haven’t yet heard TPAB one is certainly appropriate. As the poem continues to build through the course of the work, one begins to wonder who the “you” to whom the poem is addressed is intended to be. On the end of “Hood Politics” the poem is largely complete, except for its final lesson, one of respect, which we get in the final reading on “Mortal Man”. The album’s most shocking moment comes at the track’s 6:40 mark, when the identity of that mysterious “you” is finally revealed. When Pac’s voice comes on for what is made to seem like an interview with Kendrick, there is a not a Hip Hop fan anywhere whose jaw didn’t hit the floor. At the end of this long, sprawling, eclectic work the final reveal is that as Lamar has been working through his maturation as an adult, artist and cultural leader the poem he’s been crafting has been addressed to Shakur himself. Carefully constructed from pieces of a 1994 interview with a Swedish radio station, the exchange between these two heroes of Hip Hop is worth the price of admission on its own. My favorite Twitter reaction on the night of the album’s release had to be Questlove’s:
jesus christ….is he interviewing the ghost of 2pac?!?!?!?!?!?!!??!?!?!?!!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!
— Questlove Gomez (@questlove) March 16, 2015
i can't recall the last time hip hop made me jaw dropped. this Pac jawn gives me the chills yo…..im like….—-man….
— Questlove Gomez (@questlove) March 16, 2015
The second big reveal that comes during the album’s close is the reference to its title. At the end of the Pac interview Kendrick reads “something a good friend had wrote”, describing the analogy of the caterpillar and butterfly from which the work takes its name. This analogy is central to the reading of the album as a whole. It is complicated and not necessarily joyous, describing a number of forces at work in the caterpillar’s environment. When he says that he himself is not entirely sure how one should read into the album’s title, I think he’s being real and it’s because the album has a life of its own, bigger than the artist himself. Is he a caterpillar, pimping the butterfly by following the record industry career path, playing the role of the black entertainer that America loves so much while simultaneously fearing his real-life counterpart? Is he the butterfly, his artistic genius providing the wings to move beyond the walls that trapped him and so many like him? Is he saying that it’s natural and inevitable for the caterpillar to begin tearing at those around him or is the message to rise above that and find a way to be a butterfly? In the beginning of the album, it would seem the pimp is the government/record industry/white America, pimping the talent of rappers and other entertainers. By the end reading, though, we understand that the butterfly may be being pimped by outside forces but more strongly by those inside the “cocoon”.
With any genius album or work of art there’s a healthy dose of confusion as a listener, as if something is already in progress that you don’t know about, reasons for the unique artistic choices that the musician has made. That’s because there is – they’re cutting new shapes into rock face, carving a way forward in artistic evolution for all of us. With TPAB there’s plenty of that- questions about the sudden sonic switches or the heavy jazz influence. Part of that is context, with a landmark album standing out against an underwhelming musical landscape. But even if it had been released during more “Golden” eras of Hip Hop’s history it would have left an indelible mark.
The album is important because of its strong, honest, and extensive Black narrative. Simple indictments and blanket accusations don’t satisfy here, Kendrick wants to go deeper. He doesn’t claim to have the answers but instead aims to impart wisdom by detailing his own spiritual journey.
The album is important because Kendrick is one of the biggest artists in Hip Hop right now. For our artform to truly evolve “conscious rap” can’t only be taking place in the underground, it has to be accepted to some extent in the mainstream. We can’t be afraid for Rap to expand, to branch out in style, sound and content. For one of the genre’s biggest stars to put forth such an experimental work – though “experiment” isn’t the right word if you know what you’re doing – it inevitably opens Hip Hop to new possibilities.
The sort of critical acclaim heaped on To Pimp a Butterfly is rare, with the term “instant classic” being thrown around a lot. Some of this is inevitably the product of hype and new technology but mostly it comes from the ambitiously large scope Kendrick applies to his art, never shying from his own importance or the necessity of leaders in our social progression. After working on the album, singer Anna Wise described Kendrick as being like Quentin Tarantino, the “director and screenplay writer of his own movie”. He’s an auteur of a variety that is uncommon to Rap with a desire to use his “antennas” to shape and advance our culture through his art. He has crafted a full and captivating experience that is simultaneously accessible to his mainstream audience while encouraging them to take their love of Hip Hop a step further.