Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
TDE: 2015

During the last minutes of “King Kunta” there’s a familiar chant: “We want the funk!” An unsure voice replies, “…but if I give you the funk, you gon’ take it?” Fair question. Well, will we take it? Are we ready? When “I” dropped, the overwhelming feeling was that we didn’t want the funk. People fronted on the happy-go-luckiness, the retread Isley Brothers sample, the saccharine-tinted positivity. It was a collective sigh, an attitudinal echo of the reception to good kid, M.A.A.D. city: the more experimental shit seemed to be a little too “real” for people. Never mind that the major singles featured such twerk-ready topics as alcoholism and shutting out the world, they still felt geared toward airwaves and barely served to move the narrative along. Contrast that with the soaring diary entries with backbeats constructed by cherubs. It was concessions compared to confessionals. Completely understandable, it is his major label debut.

Forget all that. It’s unfair to compare his two albums, even though they’ll almost certainly present a single narrative because this feels To Pimp A Butterfly perfectly cohesive. A puzzle with pieces, jigsaw’d together that might have felt too disparate anywhere besides this project. It’s audacious for any release, let alone one from a major label (read: no safety nets). It comes during an era when most rappers forgot about the art of creating albums, and fans leaned towards singles. In doing so, some might have forgotten how much they can mean. So much of an artist’s power lies with their ability to curate both themselves and their sounds. Kendrick Lamar‘s success has propelled him to a place where he can be free (enough) to do just that.

His hand-picked roster of producers reached into the most vibrant and funkiest corners of black music to stir up soul with gospel and hard bop and synth-funk. They put Motown on stage with Brainfeeder while Freestyle Fellowship and N.W.A. blow trees in the greenroom, waiting their turn to shine. Pieces of songs—like the spacey swing of “Institutionalized”—sound like Kendrick just jumped out of Erykah Badu’s studio or woke up on the couch in J Dilla’s basement. Or maybe he’s overheated during a long summer in Art Blakey’s rehearsal room, like on “For Free?” and “u”. The crotch-grabbing of “King Kunta” catches him moon-walking through DJ Quik’s fever dreams while he barks at the naysayers. Most of the universe was quick to point out the debt to OutKast. Sure, who in their right mind would deny he doesn’t have a little Dungeon Family in him? Yes, you might be able to pinpoint his heroes. Yes, you can hear his influences. But that’s only what they were prior to having their structures and sounds stretched and bent into what the man has bouncing around in his head.

Which, judging by the heavy heart most of the words are written with, is a lot of darkness. The self-esteem overdose of “i” is an outlier, the light at the end the track list’s tunnel. TPAB is all about feeling conflicted, the songs recalling more of the race/gender/class politics Kendrick flirted with on Section 80. Now he’s paranoid and lonely and anxious, seeking solace from Mom Dukes on the woozy Cadillac cruise of “Momma”. He’s talking himself out of eating a gun barrel on “Alright”. He’s dancing with any number of devils: Uncle Sam, a woman, the music industry. Pick a song, any song, on To Pimp A Butterfly and it will stand alone, a letter sealed with thoughts, begging to be deciphered. Taken in context though, from start to finish they recount a story that’s his and his only. That’s not to say the layers of meaning one can pull from all these words isn’t an intentional move. Things like this don’t happen on accident. Let’s all be honest and say unpacking every theme, every motif, every last metaphor will take longer than a blog’s news cycle.

That something is not necessarily yours—or not meant for you—is a powerful and uncomfortable realization. It’s why this album feels so important. Some enjoy the music they do because they can relate. Some because it allows them to escape, to ignore. Listening to To Pimp A Butterfly, I can do none of those. I can’t relate. I can’t use it to aid in my escapism. I can’t ignore the messages and the meanings. It’s a record about a lot and it’s a record that means a lot. It’s about Kendrick examining himself and his values via his path in life. It’s about cognitive dissonance and infidelity and suicide and saving yourself. But by and large, this music is about being black in today’s landscape. That’s something I can’t relate to nor ever begin to understand.

4.5 out of 5

You can purchase Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly on iTunes.

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