To Pimp A Butterfly / Kendrick Lamar / Interscope Records
When Kendrick Lamar put out good kid m.A.A.d city in 2013 and followed up on his verses in Big Sean’s ‘Control,’ the hip-hop community collectively let out a huge sigh. Finally, their messiah had arrived.
But I knew he had arrived even before then. When I first heard of Lamar in 2010 on a promotional song for Dr. Dre’s mythical album, Detox, I immediately became a fan. “Look Out For Detox” got me hooked: the banging Childish Gambino beat paired with a raw, aggressive delivery was and still is unmatched. I delved into everything Lamar had released and was impressed with his mix tapes, especially “Overly Dedicated.” I knew immediately that this guy was genuine, and even more, that he had ambition.
Now with the release of his third studio album, To Pimp A Butterfly, there is no doubt that he is an established hip-hop giant. I can easily say this album transcends anything out right now in the hip-hop world, and is without a doubt a hip-hop classic in the making.
This new album represents something different than his sophomore effort, which is the album that usually determines whether an artist has staying power. Older party anthems like “m.A.A.d city” and “Backseat Freestyle” were definitely far from Kendrick’s mind while creating this new album. He has clearly evolved and is fighting for a top spot.
With 79 minutes of runtime, To Pimp A Butterfly is one-part introspection and one-part cultural criticism. On his first single, “The Blacker the Berry,” Kendrick touches on issues such as racial tensions and self-hatred. He makes listeners take a step further in thinking about racism in America, and challenges the role self-hate plays in the black community. The final lyrics, “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?/When gangbanging make me kill a n**** blacker than me? Hypocrite!” reveal the significance of beginning the prior three verses with “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015.”
The album is not just about Lamar; over 70 talented contributors are credited with its creation. Experimental producer Flying Lotus lends his talents on “Wesley’s Theory,” which features funk legend George Clinton and bass virtuoso Thundercat. The funky psychedelic track seamlessly shows the chemistry Lamar and Flying Lotus have, as heard before on Flylo’s “Never Catch Me” off his 2014 album, You’re Dead. The song focuses on braggadocio and the contrasting burdens the government places on African-Americans: “And everything you buy, taxes will deny/I’ll Wesley Snipe your a** before you turn 35,” comments that slipping up financially makes individuals a target.
Lamar’s lead single on To Pimp A Butterfly, titled “i,” is an anthem of self-love, peace, and positivity that many have come to love, especially thanks to his widely viewed performance during the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Opening Week for the 2014-2015 season.
This song is a perfect juxtaposition to the sixth track of the album titled, “u.” When I first heard “u,” it confirmed Kendrick’s rare honesty and courageousness as an artist. He allows listeners to become aware of his low self-confidence with his angry and distressed tones. From not being there for his pregnant teenage sister and for a friend who was murdered, struggling with fame, and just not being good enough, “u” stands out as one of the most powerful introspective songs I have ever heard. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for Lamar to write this song, and it clearly shows his growth as an artist. The final verse of “u” features a battle with his drunken conscience that transitions perfectly into the next track, “Alright.”
After most of the songs end, Lamar recites segments of a poem, which culminate with “Mortal Man,” the final song in the album that features the legendary Tupac Shakur. I felt goose bumps immediately when I heard 2Pac’s voice. The outro consists of the recitation and a conversation where Kendrick discusses his experience and views on America and the meaning behind the album’s title with 2Pac, using the audio from a 1994 interview.
“Don’t let the music die,” said Tupac to a much younger Lamar in a vision, according to an interview with the latter in 2013. As a result of this vision, Lamar began to create more insightful music that transcends the typical “money, hoes, clothes, drugs” clichés in most of hip-hop.
Clearly drawing much inspiration from Tupac, Lamar also has acknowledged the significance of his album release coinciding with the 20th anniversary of Tupac’s third studio album, Me Against The World.
The meaning of Lamar’s album is tricky to figure out. To Lamar, he’s become a butterfly—a metaphor for actualizing his full potential. In this album, he refuses to be pimped, and to become a commodity. In the final moments of “Mortal Man,” Lamar does the impossible: he has a conversation with Tupac Shakur. In the end, Shakur cannot answer Lamar’s questions, because they become one and his spirit lives on within Lamar.
The album is not just culturally significant for African-Americans; I predict that it will reach many other people that are not aware of the challenges that African-Americans face. Songs such as “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” shows the complexity of colorism in the black community with an empowering verse by Rapsody, that declares unity. “Call your brothers magnificent, call all the sisters queens,” Rapsody said. Lamar’s “How Much a Dollar Cost” tells another cleverly deep story of the financial greed and the importance of compassion, using a homeless man disguised as God.
To Pimp a Butterfly will most likely make lists of top classic hip-hop albums. No other rapper on the mainstream level touches upon these subjects: Drake? A$AP Rocky? Wiz Khalifa? Nah, they are not about that. Sure, one can yell out obscenities while with friends, driving up the freeway, but that will only last for a few months until the next hot party song comes along.
I am proud to say that I have been a Lamar fan since 2010 and I am still looking out for Dre’s legendary last album, “Detox,” unfortunately. It’s been 15 years– thanks Dr. Dre. For the meantime, I’ll enjoy what this hip-hop messiah brings to table, keeping the philosophies and messages Shakur shared decades ago alive in today’s music.