And by nine-thirty two that morning PST, people were wondering why I hadn't written about it yet.
To Pimp A Butterfly, whose title is, yes, inspired by Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, why do you ask?, is Kendrick's follow-up to the platinum-selling, critically-acclaimed fan favorite good kid, m.A.A.d. city, which was notable for not only being pretty good, but for also only including one of his Black Hippy running buddies in a substantial role. To Pimp A Butterfly trumps that by not including Ab-Soul, Jay Rock (whose current Kendrick-featured single "Pay For It" should be bigger than it is right now), or ScHoolboy Q (obviously the second-most successful in the crew) at all. Hell, Kendrick barely acknowledges that other rappers even exist: only female spitter Rapsody gets an actual verse, while living legend Snoop Dogg makes essentially a cameo, and a deceased legend does only a bit more with less (more on that in a few). He at least utilized Top Dawg Entertainment's in-house production team to provide musical backing, although he pairs them up with outside influences, lending this project production credits that read like Kanye West's more recent output (you know, minimum three producers, twenty-seven writers, five different types of cheese per song).
After hitting the top of the music industry food chain, Compton native Kendrick Lamar found himself at odds with himself, trying to reconcile his success while trying to determine why it happened to him in the first place. He considers himself lucky, and it makes perfect sense why he would question everything going on around him. Combine that with his thoughts on racial relations and societal ills, and you'll get a very small chunk of what he threw onto this album, which is so funky, abstract, and obtuse that he honestly believes that it will be taught at the college level someday. Given what I just heard (because these paragraphs are being written after the actual review), he's probably on to something.
Although there was a single, "i", that was released in September of 2014, there was no real promotion leading up to this project. Kendrick didn't even really acknowledge that "i" was supposed to be a part of To Pimp A Butterfly in the first place, even though it went on to with Grammys for Best Rap Song and best Rap Performance, the Academy being quite fond of nonthreatening, postitive-themed hip hop, oh, and also even they had to have realized their fuck-up when they awarded Macklemore over Kendrick Lamar the previous year. "The Blacker The Berry", itself a truer glimpse into the darkness and density that the listener is about to undertake, was released to radio as more of an afterthought, chosen by Empire star Taraji P. Henson as her favorite track after she received an advance copy of the record. But even with the lack of promotion and the alleged "leak" by Interscope, the artist formerly known as K-Dot was able to secure his first number one album on the Billboard charts.
So, To Pimp A Butterfly.
1. WESLEY'S THEORY (FEAT. GEORGE CLINTON & THUNDERCAT)
Underground favorite Flying Lotus hits the big time, producing the first track on To Pimp A Butterfly, which also features vocals from Thundercat, George motherfucking Clinton, and an unmarked (except for in the liner notes) brief cameo from Kendrick's boss Dr. Dre. “Wesley's Theory” is a “What the fuck do I do now?”-kind of track, as K-Dot ponders the next step after striking
gold platinum with
good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Flying Lotus's work behind the boards is
funky enough to set a tone, but serious enough for Kendrick's message
during the second verse to not get lost entirely. Our host switches
roles and plays a record executive on the back half of the song: just
imagine a smarmier fake Jerry Heller from Dre's “Dre Day” video.
Speaking of the good Doctor, it's odd that he stops by to lend his
boy some words of wisdom when Kendrick is arguably the butterfly that
Andre is pimping. Hmm...
2. FOR FREE? (INTERLUDE)
Not so much an interlude as it is a quick verse that bridges songs, which is a nice change of pace for a rap album. “For Free? (Interlude)” kicks off with Kendrick's very character being assassinated (verbally, folks: K-Dot's still no gangsta), and once the insults stop flying, our host lays into his performance, which isn't about a failed relationship as one would expect, given the nature of the barbs, but rather is a metaphor (because Kendrick loves those) for the Black man's antagonistic relationship with society, specifically the United States. Terrace Martin lends our host a jazzy beat, which isn't bad, and the track does connect the dots between “Wesley's Theory” and “King Kunta”, but as a song taken out of context, you'll probably pass on it. Kendrick's chant “This. Dick. Ain't. Freeeeeeeeee” will most likely get stuck in your head, though.
3. KING KUNTA
Sounwave and Terrace Martin give K-Dot a beat I wasn't entirely thrilled with when “King Kunta” first leaked. I thought it sounded like something best saved for Xzibit. (Side note: Xzibit, when you're finished reading all of those recent stories about how your MTV show Pimp My Ride was fake as shit, you should hook up with TDE's production squad. Trust me, it'll help.) Within the structures and confines of the album, though, it's alright, but still not great. Ostensibly drawing a comparison between himself and Kunta Kinte (which he's done in the past), K-Dot uses “King Kunta” mostly to boast about his rap dominance, even going so far as to trash his fellow artists that use ghostwriters. (So, your boss, then?) Unlike a lot of rappers today, though, Kendrick has actually earned the right to spit about that kind of shit, so...
4. INSTITUTIONALIZED (FEAT. ANNA WISE, BILAL, & SNOOP DOGG)
Utilizing a low-key beat from Rahki and Tommy Black, K-Dot laments the fact that he's trapped (or “Institutionalized”) in between lifestyles, unable to return to his pre-fame life (the “ghetto”, if you will) but not entirely comfortable with his newly-found success, using a specific example of how his friends now react whenever he invites them anyplace where there's other successful artists. The second verse is performed in the guise of one of these friends, rationalizing their behavior regarding why they still feel an obligation to steal a watch of a chain from these people who are essentially Kendrick Lamar's colleagues, and it is fascinating. Our host does a good job describing the complex and contradictory aspects of his life, and Snoop Dogg chimes in with a bridge that's smooth as hell. (I'm particularly fond of how he described K-Dot's height as “five-foot something”.) Bilal's on here too, I guess.
5. THESE WALLS (FEAT. ANNA WISE, BILAL, & THUNDERCAT)
The apparent tag team of Anna Wise and Bilal continue their partnership on “These Walls”, a song mostly about pussy, right up until when it isn't, because this is Kendrick Lamar we're talking about. You could find a deeper meaning within the first two verses without trying very hard, but even K-Dot admits toward the end that the first verse is about fucking the girlfriend of the dude who murdered his best friend during good kid, m.A.A.d. city's “Sing About Me”, pulling it off thanks to his newly-found fame. (He even instructs the guy, and by extension you two, to go back to that last album and listen to that song again.) Terrace Martin and Larrance Dopson give our host a beat that comes across as something De La Soul would use today, which is intended as a compliment. Not bad. Kendrick's ongoing poem that he's been constructing throughout the album bookends the piece.
The antithesis of the overly-positive, Grammy-award-winning “i”, “u” is depressing as shit to hear and to listen to, if that makes any sense. Kendrick reaches his low point, blaming himself for not being a better role model for his sister and for not being able to protect his best friend when he was murdered. K-Dot refers to himself as a “fucking failure”, and he somehow drops even lower than that throughout the song. He's trying to exorcise his demons on wax, which is fine, and his reference to his “mood swings” hints at something darker than even he bothers to contemplate on here, but let's be honest: you won't listen to this one more than once. You just won't. It's just tough to sit through.
7. ALRIGHT (FEAT. PHARRELL WILLIAMS)
There's some bleak shit on this Pharrell Williams-and-Sounwave-produced cut (which, thankfully, avoids any sign of Neptunes bling), and yet it's still intended to lift you from the sorrow that was “u”. K-Dot (and Skateboard P during the hook) keeps repeating the phrase “we gon' be alright” throughout, as though he's merely trying to convince himself of that fact, but that still doesn't prevent him from considering a pact with the devil to make everything easier and to “live at the mall” (the second time that phrase has been uttered on the album). The music isn't bad, and Pharrell's hook is decent, but I doubt anyone will put this on their playlists. K-Dot's poem grows in length at the very end, too.
8. FOR SALE? (INTERLUDE)
A companion piece to “For Free? (Interlude)” in name only. K-Dot uses the track, produced by Taz Arnold, to dive deeper into the conversation he had begun with Lucy (better known as Lucifer, in case those anvils Kendrick had dropped from that ten-story building had missed their intended target). Running at nearly five minutes, “For Sale? (Interlude)” is truly more of an actual song, but it dives additional insight to the temptations surrounding our boy. As a song, meh. As part of the ongoing narrative, it's okay. Astute heads will also notice that Kendrick's poem-in-progress, which reappears at the very end, is following the ongoing storyline of To Pimp A Butterfly. Interesting!
The poem from the previous track ends with our host returning “home”, so a song with the title “Momma” begs to be taken literally. To Pimp A Butterfly isn't that straightforward, though: the words “mother” or “mom” aren't mentioned once during “Momma”, because Kendrick's idea of “home” is a cross between God (since he's deflecting the advances of the devil) and Africa (or “the motherland”; a recent trip to South Africa inspired at least a portion of this album). K-Dot is coping with his success much better than he was, and he's slowly realizing that his childhood has molded him into the man he is today and that it isn't as easily forgotten as he might have feared. Anyway, musically, this was blah until the final piece where the beat switches up and K-Dot spits in exclusively ad-libs, it appears.
10. HOOD POLITICS
As evidenced by K-Dot's higher-pitched flow and the fact that he actually refers to himself as K-Dot, “Hood Politics” is supposed to signify our host's “return” to the hood, thereby proving (to himself) that he's the same person he was before hitting it big in the first place. The hook is annoying as hell, but the instrumental, with responsibilities shared amongst Tae Beast, Sounwave, and Thundercat, was alright, and the actual verses were pretty good. After diving into “Hood Politics” during the first verse and then actual government politics during the second, Kendrick uses the rest of the track to offer commentary on how the hip hop game has changed ever since his cameo on Big Sean's still-technically-unreleased-but-that-won't-stop-us-now-will-it “Control”. Not bad. Oh, and there's that poem again!
11. HOW MUCH A DOLLAR COST (FEAT. JAMES FAUNTLEROY & RON ISLEY)
I actually really liked this one. While still in South Africa, Kendrick encounters a bum who asks him for money, and K-Dot can't bring himself to just give it to him. Personally, I feel this is his best storytelling rap since good kid, m.A.A.d. city's “The Art Of Peer Pressure”, as our host articulates his reluctance by rationalizing every reason why he shouldn't aid and abet the transient's alleged addictions. The ending is a bit off, since it has to tie into Kendrick's redemption arc, but I still enjoyed this. LoveDragon's beat is solemn and dope, and the vocals from Cocaine 80s' James Fauntleroy and, at the very end, Ron fucking Isley were a nice touch.
12. COMPLEXION (A ZULU LOVE) (FEAT. RAPSODY)
Attacks a complex problem in a simplistic-yet-moving way. K-Dot (and his guest Rapsody) show love to all of the colors on the African spectrum: regardless of whether you're light-skinned or darker in shade, our host wants you to know that you should all be treated equally, and that there is no reason for the self-hatred amongst your own people. This affects other races, too, so I wouldn't be surprised if this gets picked up as an anthem of sorts. Rapsody, an artist I admittedly have very limited exposure to, sounds pretty fucking good during her verse, but this is the Kendrick Lamar show, and his performance on here is as gushing as the next song is incendiary.
13. THE BLACKER THE BERRY (FEAT. ASSASSIN)
The best song on To Pimp A Butterfly, and by far the most accessible, although that word has no meaning when held up against this album. For that, credit goes to producers Boi-1da and KOZ for delivering a backdrop that fucking knocks, one that Kendrick spits fire over. Our host tackles racism, not just from white people, but a more-inclusive definition of what he just finished describing on the last track, pissed off at the attitudes surrounding him and destroying his people while acknowledging that he is also responsible for some of that destruction, hence his referring to himself as “the biggest hypocrite of 2015”. Kendrick's songwriting is gold-star-standard on “The Blacker The Berry”, using repetition during the verses themselves (not just during the hook, performed by Assassin) to lull the listener into a false sense of security before yanking the rug out from underneath you. Damn, this shit is good.
14. YOU AIN'T GOTTA LIE (MOMMA SAID)
On which Kendrick Lamar admonishes fake rappers who have established their careers on habitual lies that have taken on lives of their own. He doesn't name names, because why would he, he still has to work with these people, most of whom you and I would be quick to classify as “fake”, but he disses them so eloquently that most of his peers will probably not even catch that shit. “You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” isn't great, but it has smooth components to it, so most likely you two won't shit it off.
I didn't like “i” when it dropped as a single. Grammy be damned, I felt that Kendrick's positive message about self-love and redemption was buried underneath that all-too-familiar sample from The Isley Brothers' “That Lady”. Surprisingly, the album version of “i” is drastically different. On its surface, it's the same song, except re-recorded to give it a live performance-feel: the message, the sample, and the lyrics are all identical. However, the revision comes to a head with K-Dot bringing the track to a halt when an argument breaks out within the crowd he's ostensibly performing in front of, giving him an opportunity to keep the peace as the leader he's slowly becoming, before dropping an acapella verse that's supposed to underline that evolution. Still not my favorite song, but within this new context, I appreciate “i” much more than I did. Still really shocked that he would fuck with his hit single like this, but then again, the album version of “Swimming Pools (Drank)” was sort-of different than what was played on the radio, too.
16. MORTAL MAN
Sounwave produces the final track all by his lonesome, and perhaps Kendrick felt liberated with there being less people in the studio, as his performance on the actual song portion of “Mortal Man” is thoughtful and deep, as he questions the allegiance of his fans by asking them how likely it is that they would stick around if they hear something negative about him, even bringing out Michael Jackson's child molestation charges to illustrate his point. The name-checking of African and African-American leaders is an attempt to force a connection between them and our host, and I suppose I understand that Kendrick doesn't want to waste the platform he's been given, but at the same time, having Something To Say doesn't always equate to entertaining songs (although I dug Sounwave's beat on here). The final seven minutes and twenty seconds of the track are the most controversial of the entire album, as our hosts imagines a conversation between himself and the late Tupac Shakur, one in which Pac actually responds (through means of cut-and-paste of an older interview). K-Dot tries to underline the point of the entire project by “reading” the man two poems, one of them being the one he's been writing this entire time, that establish the theme of a Black man railing against a system that is designed to oppress (the ghetto, the music industry, the United States, whatever). I fall into the category that sees this extended outro as unnecessary, although I liked how the ending is left ambiguous as the album suddenly ends. And with that, Jesus fuck are we done here.
THE LAST WORD: There's no question about it: To Pimp A Butterfly is one of the most important rap records of our time. But now that we have that hyperbole out of the way, we need to ask: is this album any good? The answer is complicated, in that it both is and isn't worth your time. Kendrick Lamar is an artist, and he clearly put his heart and soul and possibly part of his liver into To Pimp A Butterfly, and the fact that Interscope allowed him full creative control is a blessing not many rappers receive, so he takes full advantage on here. To Pimp A Butterfly is dense, filled with nearly every idea regarding racial relations and the hypocrisy of being a successful Black man in the United States that ever crossed K-Dot's mind grapes, and the music that results from it is just as intense and obtuse. Kendrick doesn't give any easy answers and he refuses to hold your hand through the process; for the most part, he trusts that you'll be able to pick up what he lays down, which is admirable. I've used this analogy in the past, but it makes perfect sense on here: with To Pimp A Butterfly Kendrick was writing the Great American Novel, and he used up all of his concepts and theories as though he wasn't sure he would ever get another chance at publishing another book. To that end, he succeeds, in that this album sounds nothing like any other hip hop project in 2015 thus far; hell, it doesn't sound like any other hip hop project in the past ten years, easily, and it damn sure doesn't sound like any follow-up to good kid, m.A.A.d. city that anyone would have imagined. That's a difficult accomplishment for anyone, so for that Kendrick Lamar should be commended.
But is To Pimp A Butterfly enjoyable as an actual piece of entertainment? For the most part, hell fucking no. It's work to sit through this: you should be awarded college credit or a pension once "Mortal Man" winds its way down. There are bits and pieces of certain tracks that I loved, and the more I hear "The Blacker The Berry" on the radio, the better, but as a cohesive whole, To Pimp A Butterfly isn't designed for its songs to be listened to outside of their intended context. There are no real singles on here (which isn't a complaint), and everything is so tied together that you miss out on an entire experience if you're cherry-picking tracks like we all tend to do. Kendrick Lamar has crafted a narrative that demands to be acknowledged as such, but that makes it even more difficult to justify attempting to listen to any of the tracks from here for "fun", because this is simply not a "fun" album. You won't blast this in your car, it won't propel you through your next workout, and it literally cannot be played at parties. To Pimp A Butterfly is designed for single-person consumption with headphones and a full-blown attention span, and whether you're ready for that kind of commitment with a piece of entertainment is up to you.
So, since this is already too long, To Pimp A Butterfly is mostly good, with some suck-ass moments, like most rap albums, but the entertainment value is nil and its replay value is damn near nonexistent, except for "The Blacker The Berry" and perhaps "How Much A Dollar Cost", which I did truly love. Everything else on here is a four-hour art house film while the majority of people who would normally be interested in Kendrick (because of the Grammy win or because of his last project) would prefer to go see Furious 7. It's a frustrating listen, but never because it's bad; it's just overwhelming and inaccessible to a fault. I'll probably be the only blogger out there willing to say that, but it is what it is.
There's a little bit more about Kendrick Lamar to be found here.