Artist: Kendrick Lamar
Title: To Pimp a Butterfly
Release Date: March 16, 2015
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
For those of you who were waiting on good kid, m.A.A.d. city, part two and are condemning Kendrick Lamar’s latest album for its uncompromising experimentation and lack of mindless bangers, I’m sorry. You’re truly missing out.
What’s more, you probably misunderstood good kid in the first place. Comparing the two feels necessary, but it’s apples and oranges. To have expected merely the same from an artist like Kendrick Lamar is to have sorely underestimated his talent.
Lamar’s scintillating debut was a modern West Coast rap classic, with detailed beats that turned heads and compelling storytelling that, for many, did nothing less than establish him as the premier lyricist of our generation. The thing is, somehow, Butterfly builds on that. Every bass lick, soul sample, and rhyme is part of an overarching statement about black America, and the never-ending quest for equality, redemption, and pride. Its distinctly old-school vibe, forays into uncharted musical territory and socially conscious lyrics will make this the album on which Kendrick truly separated himself from the pack, for better or worse. For my money, everyone else is eating his dust.
Kendrick has always been a gifted lyricist. His continued proficiency in this area is no surprise. m.A.A.d. city proved that he could pen a narrative that had both astonishing detail and emotional weight. But musically, what Lamar accomplishes on To Pimp a Butterfly defies superlatives. Lamar took an old-school approach in crafting this album, forgoing smoke-filled sessions riffing over half-baked laptop beats and instead bringing in a closely-knit group of some of L.A.’s premier instrumentalists to play live, resulting in sixteen impactful, shape-shifting songs that operate on a plane above the barriers of genre and prove to be much more organic, unpredictable and fundamentally musical than any big-budget rap album I’ve heard to date.
When it comes to individual songs, it’s an embarrassment of riches. “The Blacker the Berry” boasts a murderous beat and some of Lamar’s most impassioned and self-aware bars, inspired directly by the Trayvon Martin shooting. “These Walls” is a sultry funk groove, with modern bass savant Thundercat supplying a fat dose of low frequency poetry. First single “i” seemed out of character when it was released back in September, but here benefits from a longer, grittier live take and infuses a sliver of hand-earned positivity into Butterfly’s often dark and challenging track list, just before the closer “Mortal Man” leaves you breathless. “For Free?” references the experimental beginnings of hip hop in a restless burst of slam poetry. The list goes on.
If you’re still wondering when modern music will find its voice and silence all the terminally bored champions of past eras, stop wondering. To Pimp a Butterfly is an album I would put up against any of the genre’s canonized classics. I believe that in the tradition of great albums, its themes will ingrain themselves in our culture and come to define an era. Its boundless artistic scope and imagination might be too high a mountain to climb for all the bedroom producers it will undoubtedly spawn, but if they take even an ounce of the soul and thoughtfulness put into every aspect of this album, music as a whole will be better for it. However this album is thought of and talked about years down the line, we’ve seen Kendrick Lamar do right by his vision, and push himself to a height few even dare to conceive of, let alone reach. Here’s hoping he never bothers to look down.