Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (Extended Review)


Don’t like reading? We get that: here’s our video review for To Pimp a Butterfly.

Kendrick Lamar Duckworth is back to shake up the game once again, this time with his third studio album, the hotly anticipated To Pimp a Butterfly. This review requires a good amount of context to explain the weight of this album, so let me tell you a little bit about Kendrick’s previous release, the ever-important good kid m.A.A.d. city.

Much of GKMC‘s significance came from its popular reach. This album became monstrously prevalent because of its carefully crafted and expertly executed songwriting. Since his self-titled EP in 2009, Kendrick has been making records that appeal to all music listeners, casual and hardcore. So, with his last album, it was a combination of a lot of people buying the record because of tracks like “Poetic Justice” featuring Drake, “Swimming Pools”, “m.A.A.d. city”, and “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”, and pretty much every Hip hop head falling in love with Kendrick’s clever songwriting and minute attention to musicality. So, this is to say it fed both audiences simultaneously very well. The song that I mentioned before, “Swimming Pools”, was a big radio hit, and it’s a good example of K-Dot’s all-satisfying lyricism. The hook to that song is “I wave a few bottles then I watch em all flock, all the girls want to play Baywatch / I got a swimming pool full of liquor and they dive in it, pool full of liquor Imma dive in it.” It’s a bit deceiving, especially when you hear it in the context of a frat party or something. Yeah, I’d turn up to that song, and maybe some of you have, but if you break apart that chorus it’s not too difficult to sense Kendrick’s commentary on youth drinking culture and the scary amount of glamour surrounding it. Listening to music is the former mindset, that being the frat boy’s, is of course valid, it may not be getting the whole picture but it’s valid. And the dollar that Chad from Delta-whatever-the-hell spent on that single is just another penance that goes into Kendrick’s bank account to fund more music that can strike such a duality. And that isn’t the only joint like that, almost every song is incredibly entertaining and engaging music on the surface level, but it’s also very dense lyrically and thematically. Chad helped start a positive feedback loop that we all hope would bring more classics that continue to influence and shape Hip hop as good kid m.A.A.d. city did.

Between albums Kendrick kept busy by being very selective with the doling of his features. This attention in addition to his obvious skill and finesse on the mic made his contributions to other emcees’ tracks some of the best we saw in the two-year span. To name just a few: the excellent “Nosetalgia” on My Name Is My Name (embedded below), the “Really Be” joint off of YG’s My Krazy Life (which GKMC almost exclusively inspired), Q’s “Collard Greens” off of Oxymoron“Never Catch Me” (which was my favorite collaboration of 2014) on the last FlyLo album, and one of my personal favorite posse tracks from this generation of rappers, “1 Train” on A$AP Rocky’s Long.Live.A$AP.

It’s fair to say that this third studio album had some big shoes to fill. Kendrick Lamar crafted a modern day Hip hop masterpiece with his portrayal of the fish-out-of-water story and crafted a grand musical memoir that was heard and loved by a lot of people. So, even if March is crowded with other huge Hip hop releases, it’s time to see how K-Dot did with his latest project:

To Pimp a Butterfly uses the vehicle of a metaphorical caterpillar and butterfly to paint an important perspective of struggle and the gnawing want for change. Where does one start with topics that are this big? Self-reflection; and that’s what this album focuses around. That and an ongoing dialogue with our first and late King of Hip hop, Tupac Shakur, which accumulates at the end of the album on “Mortal Man”. There are certainly some parallels to be drawn, with 2Pac being seen as the West Coast rapper when Hip hop was rising to cultural prevalence and Kendrick also coming from the West Coast, more specifically Compton. To go along with that, both used the reach of their music to illuminate the real issues and struggles one faces in this “ghetto” that people are so quick to joke about. This conversation — which is a great bow on the album’s wrapping – is used as a spiritual passing of the torch. This conversation between them is highlighted by a poem that is pieced together through the album. This piece Kendrick is reciting to Pac is fittingly mirrored in To Pimp a Butterfly’s tracklist. For example: there’s a moment where Kendrick finds himself in a hotel room fighting off the urge to “self destruct”, which is told on “u”. There’s also “Hood Politics” where he returns to his home in Compton and has overwhelming survivor’s guilt. This is Kendrick’s storytelling really coming into play, as it often does with his music, to a great effect.

In the past, one of the things that helped put Kendrick’s thematic moments into boldface, or at least give them a lot more emotion, was his character playing. With just a small change of inflection Kendrick was telling the same story from a completely separate character with different motives, struggles, weaknesses, and, most importantly, perspective. This gave songs like “m.A.A.d. city” all of their weight and emotional heft. This is a technique that I was very happy to see Kendrick utilize to even more success of To Pimp a Butterfly. Like, holy shit, I could hardly get through the latter half of “u”. And to mention it while we’re here, that’s probably the realest, most telling track I’ve ever heard Kendrick on, and I don’t say that lightly.

A Kendrick album is always a treat, but I am digging how many questions can be raised after listening through To Pimp a Butterfly. The title is a reference to To Kill a Mockingbird; are there any thematic parallels? And let’s talk about this album cover… This is a few choppers away from being the most stereotypical trap mixtape cover ever. In fact, someone over at /r/hiphopheads threw that together. Could this be another stab at the “biggest hypocrite of 2015” line from “The Blacker the Berry”, with this album being so conscious while the Trap scene is so much the opposite? In addition to all of this, the whole album is obviously lyrical, so there is a lot of reading-into necessary (or at least Rap Genius searching) to realize the full breath of To Pimp a Butterfly. This could be my music critic brain showing itself, though, so let’s address maybe the most pressing question. It’s unavoidable; with To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick now has a pretty sizable body of work, so let’s discuss: what’s the best K-Dot project? Or, to put it more simply, good kid m.A.A.d city or To Pimp a Butterfly? Obviously a big question, but I can say this: these both tell very different stories of very different Kendricks. GKMC told the universally relatable story of growing to accept and embrace one’s roots, and, as dark and as bleak as it may have gotten at times, To Pimp a Butterfly got much more so. Again, just listen to “u”. They both have their draws. TPAB is a lot more of an intimate and honest look into Kendrick’s mind. But, on the flip side, I think GKMC’s storyline took us through a greater variety of sounds, which helped with my overall engagement as a listener. Give me month and maybe I’ll be able to pick my favorite, but for now I’m satisfied with holding them both very dearly.

My last argument for good kid m.A.A.d city was what held me back significantly from embracing To Pimp a Butterfly with the instant classic label that the masses so quickly slapped it with. After my first listen-through of this album, I missed all the variety that we heard on GKMC. Also, I tend to latch onto the raw explosive emotion of a track like “The Blacker the Berry”, and there are only a couple of these audibly passionate peaks. Another was “i”, which got even better since we heard it in 2014. However, as much as I would have personally liked to hear an album more in line with tracks like “m.A.A.d city”, “Collect Calls”, or “The Blacker the Berry”, To Pimp a Butterfly is excellent and its excellence is completely undeniable. It’s everything we could have possibly asked for in a follow up to an album that changed Hip hop as GKMC did. It’s deeply personal, introspective, and reflective as well as culturally sensitive and smart politically. But, more significantly, it does all of this while having an incredible narrative and musicality that is beyond question. Kendrick’s potential (if you could ever call it that at this point) is limitless. He will be the reigning King of Hip hop for a long, long time. To Pimp a Butterfly felt like Kendrick reaching to his furthest extends as a rapper, and the product is almost unbelievable. I guess we’ll see if he can push it even farther with his next release. He’s given us two albums that are nothing short of seminal, so he can certainly take his time.

If you’re not listening to this album already, stop wasting your time by reading my stuff and learn yourself something.

Personal Highpoints:

“Wesley’s Theory” / “u” / “Hood Politics” / “The Blacker the Berry” / “i”

Personal lowpoints:

“For Free?”

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Charlie Johns