by Brian O’Neill
When “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Kendrick Lamar’s highly anticipated third album was released a week early, the music world was abuzz with reactions and reviews of the unexpected drop. Following up their 2012 critically acclaimed “Good Kid M.A.A.D City,” and Lamar’s long list of stellar features and singles since GKMC’s release, expectations couldn’t be much higher for this new LP.
From a production standpoint, “To Pimp a Butterfly” is a world away from the heavily trap influenced sounds that have been ruling the airwaves in mainstream rap for the past year. Instead, the sound is deeply rooted in funk, soul and jazz throughout the album. Commissioning musicians like bassist Thundercat, The Isley Brothers and funk legend George Clinton, as well as producers such as Flying Lotus, Sounwave, and Pharrell Williams, “To Pimp a Butterfly” is a combination of 70s and 80s funk and soul, 90s West Coast G-Funk, old school boom bap and jazz, but done with a distinctly modern sound.
Songs like “For Free? (Interlude)” sound more like free-form jazz than hip hop. Others like “King Kunta” show the soul inspiration, with background vocals and a bass line that would feel at home with James Brown tracks. The George Clinton feature on “Wesley’s Theory” gives the song a distinct funk element, and singer Bilal’s feature on “These Walls” does the same. “i” has a pop soul feel, was made with the help of the legendary Isley Brothers, and won 2 Grammys this year.
Lyrically, Kendrick is as sharp as ever, talking about his experiences with fame, race and class in America, as well as those issues on a national scale. The first two tracks “Wesley’s Theory” and “For Free? (Interlude)” both cover society’s expectations for a rapper, spending their money recklessly, and how ‘Uncle Sam’ enables excess, pimps the rapper to his benefit, and throws the rapper aside when the profits stop. Kendrick refuses to follow in those footsteps. The themes of temptations of the rap lifestyle and hip hop culture are touched upon on “Alright” and “For Sale? (Interlude),” as Lucy, or Lucifer, tempts them with promises of fame and fortune.
The songs “u” and “i” are about self-hate and love, with “u” talking about Lamar’s struggles with depression and his shortcomings; his voice cracking and on the verge of a breakdown throughout the second verse. The hook in “i” that says “I love myself!” explains the song’s message of being happy with who you are perfectly, and is in stark contrast to the hatred and anger Kendrick shows in “u.”
The self-love message of the song “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” is directed at the Black community, saying “Dark as the midnight hour or bright as the mornin’ sun/Give a f*ck about your complexion,” to relay that every color is beautiful.
Race and politics are talked about heavily through the album. In another of the album’s singles, “The Blacker the Berry” Kendrick rhymes over a 90s boom bap inspired beat, aggressively addressing the self-hatred in the black community, as well as the racism from outside. The song “Hood Politics” compares congress and the government to street gangs saying, “Set trippin’ all around/Ain’t nothin’ new but a flow of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans/Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’?” Other songs like “Wesley’s Theory,” “Institutionalized” and “Blacker the Berry” talk about the impact of the Reagan Era on the inner-city poor communities, a topic that Lamar has discussed in all of his albums.
The album ends with “Mortal Man,” and has Lamar asking, “if the sh*t hits the fan will you still be a fan?” The song gives way to Lamar reading a poem, one that has been cut and dropped into the end and beginning of tracks throughout the entire album. The poem explains the message and themes of the album. Lamar ends the poem and a conversation with Tupac opens. Using an old interview with Tupac, Lamar cut and worked his own questions in. Even though Tupac’s words are over 20 years old, they are still relevant, as his remarks on the LA riots of 1992 can be related to the Ferguson riots of today.
“To Pimp a Butterfly” feels less like an album and more like a musical. Each song tells a story and builds off one another, and all tie together in the end. What this album lacks in radio hits and bangers, it makes up for with beautifully done production and storytelling. In a year already full of excellent releases in both hip hop and music in general, “To Pimp a Butterfly” is one of the best albums, not just of 2015, but of the past decade.