In the words of “Holy Name of Mary Choral Family” in 1986 (recently popularized by Kanye West’s “On Sight”’ from 2013’s Yeezus), “He’ll give us what we need, it may not be what we want.”
After an interminable three years since his universally acclaimed good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Kendrick Lamar is back. In those three years following good kid, m.A.A.d. city, with car-bumping tracks such as “Backstreet Freestyle,” “Money Trees” and “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” Lamar quickly garnered one of the most enthusiastic followings in modern hip-hop and left his fan base watering at the mouth for his next release.
It’s finally here: To Pimp a Butterfly. And it looks like he’s about to irritate a sizable chunk of his fanbase; if you were expecting good kid, m.A.A.d. city 2, you will be extremely disappointed.
To Pimp a Butterfly is reminiscent of what Radiohead did with Kid A, what The Beatles did with Sgt. Pepper and what Kanye did with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It is a benchmark release, a rubber match between Lamar and the hip-hop genre, an album which entirely dismantles how hip-hop — and Lamar himself — will be examined for years to come.
Greater than Sum of its Parts
This is Lamar’s most divisive effort, but it’s a musical tour de force nonetheless. Comparing Butterfly to his other albums is like trying to compare Android to Apple; Android does more but Apple is more fun. It goes without saying that good kid, m.A.A.d. city has more bangers and standalone tracks with high replay value — sure, it may be more fun. But To Pimp a Butterfly simply does more; it’s musical complexity and lyricism has ostensibly more depth than its predecessor.
TPBF is more a slow-building artistic exhibition than it is a mere compilation of stand-alone tracks. It’s evident that on good kid, m.A.A.d. city, which traced a similarly compelling narrative, there were tracks that were complete bangers. But Butterfly is a more captivating series and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As such, Butterfly is not dissimilar to an avant-garde jazz arrangement, so no, you won’t “get it” by parsing through tracks, looking for bangers to play at a party; Butterfly’s magnificence reveals itself more with each dedicated cover-to-cover listen.
New Kendrick, New Sound
TPBF is a chaotic, demanding album that fuses many foundational elements of hip-hop and rap — jazz, blues, soul, Jamaican dub and Afrocentric rap — with Lamar’s increasingly virtuosic vocal deliveries and narrative —building capabilities.
But Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly incarnation does not come without friends. Flying Lotus, who collaborated with Lamar last year on FlyLo’s “Never Catch Me,” lends his hand to album opener “Wesley’s Theory” and starts Butterfly with an eruption of horns, snares, synths and theremins. Although FlyLo only features his beats on “Wesley’s Theory,” his influence seems to re-emerge throughout.
The contributions don’t stop there. Butterfly’s production and writing credits reveal the myriad hands that sculpted its sonic backdrop: Terrace Martin and his speckled horn and saxophone arrangements; Soundwave, who’s been married to K-Dot’s production process since Kendrick Lamar EP; Grammy winner Robert Glasper and his smooth-jazz keys; and of course, the amorphously full-bodied electric bass contributions of Thundercat.
Every keyboard chord, saxaphone run-off and bass wobble comes from a different artist with a different background. This approach would have likely failed with any other artist.
So is it G-Funk? Is it jazz-rap? Hip-hop? Soul? Afrocentric-rap? None of them, specifically. But with Lamar at the helm, there’s a rare unification that makes TPBF feel like a musical history book filled with the very best sonic archetypes of “black music.”
Compton: Just one head of the Hydra
The album traces his internal narrative, detailing his metamorphosis from an insular Compton caterpillar into a global, massively famous butterfly. Leaving Compton allowed Lamar opportunities for fame and success, but after returning to his home, Lamar experienced an overwhelming survivor’s guilt and a realization that his world was just as disastrous as it was once before.
Only in a conversation with 2Pac himself on the final track, “Mortal Man,” does Lamar reach catharsis, putting words to his caterpillar-butterfly metaphor. “Although the caterpillar and the butterfly are completely different, they are one in the same. What’s your perspective on that? Pac? Pac? Pac?!” Sadly 2Pac’s life was cut too short to answer that question. Fittingly, as Lamar calls out to his deceased muse, To Pimp a Butterfly ends.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Lamar spoke about this metamorphosis.
“There’s some stuff in there, man. It’s a roller coaster. It builds.”
He speaks the truth. This is a poignant and mental experience. To Pimp a Butterfly is like Dante’s Inferno told through a black man’s idea of the “American experience.” It’s the sound of treachery, heresy, anger, greed, lust and violence. It’s the sound of a black man’s departure from Compton, his subsequent self-resentment, reconciliation and psychological restoration. For Lamar, it’s his most organic and raw record yet.
And while his previous work used Compton’s menacing environment as a structure for Lamar to craft his narrative, To Pimp a Butterfly sheds those restrictions and reveals that Compton is just one head of the Hydra, a microcosm of a nation that is exponentially more claustrophobic and racially divisive.
“The funk shall be within you”
To Pimp a Butterfly is the sum of Lamar’s work on a grander scale. Whereas good kid, m.A.A.d. city allowed Lamar to cultivate his own idiosyncrasies as a rapper, To Pimp a Butterfly finds Lamar unable to use that safety net to say what he wants to say.
With To Pimp a Butterfly, the sheer gravitas of his message cannot be spoken through the sounds of his prior work. Here, he’s a conduit for black empowerment; Lamar ventures beyond Compton, digging as far back as he can and speaking for African-Americans’ ceaseless historical struggle.
“Well this is my explanation straight from Ethiopia/N-E-G-U-S definition: royalty; King royalty – wait listen/N-E-G-U-S description: Black emperor, King, ruler, now let me finish,” Lamar says on the album version of “‘i.”
But ultimately, it’s the listening experience that only gives complete understanding of how important this album is. Lamar’s communicating with us in a way that’s perplexing, maybe even stressful.
To Pimp A Butterfly is going to be stressful for fans who expect continuations of Section.80 and good kid, m.A.A.d. city. However, debates on it’s standing as “hip-hop” or “rap” (how radio friendly it is, how much you can “turn up” to it) undoubtedly dichotomizes fans into the very groups Lamar denounces.
But through listening to Butterfly, no matter which way you take it, Lamar’s damage has already been done. His track “King Kunta” says it best, “By the time you hear the next pop, the funk shall be within you.”
Lamar is doing this for himself because he thinks — no, he knows — that following his internal artistry is what he needs to do. It just so happens that Lamar pulled off To Pimp a Butterfly with extraordinary finesse. But he’s also doing it for his fans, the world. It may not be what some of us wanted, but it is surely what this world needs.
To Pimp a Butterfly, with all it’s proselytization and grandeur, is sure to make quite the mark.