Album Review: Kendrick Lamar, ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’

Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly
(Aftermath/Interscope – March 16, 2015)
(Rap, West Coast Rap, Hip/Hop)
Review by Rob Leonard


The burgeoning hunger for direction and implementation by the societal return to the civil rights movement has put Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly at the helm. Kendrick’s zeitgest appeal comes at a time when street-beat-media-makers and social platforms Twitter and Tumblr directly foster accountability within the judicial system. People, humanities greatest asset, are exploited with zeal and to take it a step further (if you haven’t looked around) African Americans and other minorities are exploited at a systemic level. Culturally, African Americans experience an appropriation of their fashion, art, music, and more than likely much more, that as a white male I couldn’t necessarily begin to grasp. This ability to be removed from such issues is exactly why To Pimp a Butterfly is more than just a creatively dense masterpiece but is a message aiming to inspire and to educate. On the surface, you may hear one liners that sound atypical to modern rap’s materialistic frame of mind, “I’mma buy a brand new Caddy on fours” but these occurrences are direct points of contrast to Kendrick’s narrative, indicated by a multitude of running themes but notably, “I need 40 acres and mule not a forty ounce and pit bull.” The “40 acres and a mule” reoccurrence casts multiple meanings – It is a practical response to materialism and how Kendrick would much rather focus on necessity as opposed to excess – The theme is also a reference to the well documented broken promise by the US government to provide freed slaves with land and resources, as well as, the promise that the islands of Charleston and further south where to be governed by African Americans – ironically with the most recent tell-tell video being that of a North Charleston police officer killing an unarmed black man. Here the album distinctly seeks to change the plaguing status quo of rap lyrics and to also bring light to the ill-fated promises of our culture pertaining to African Americans.

Rarely does conscious theme, creativity, and relevance come in such an accessible package but that’s the hallmark of a great album. Butterfly’s delivery incorporates 90’s hip/hop production, beat poetry, and deliberate forms of funk, especially on the Sounwave produced “King Kunta,” with the west coast feel being rounded out on “These Walls.” The immaculate production is curated by notable acts Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Pharrell, Sounwave, and there is even a sample appearance by indie-folkster Sufjan Stevens. Outside of the direct influence of such distinct producers it’s hard to shake the relevance of D’Angelo’s latest, the consciousness of 2Pac whom inspired the title, and confrontational aspects of Vince Staples. Contrast is just as important as comparison – Kendrick’s maturity and clairvoyance are on point as he talks about subjects that were forgotten by the likes of Kanye, Lil Wayne, and Drake in their efforts to fit comfortably in white middle american iPods. Kendrick Lamar refuses to play that game; he intends to educate and could care less if it makes you uncomfortable. Putting Kendrick in the same sentence as someone as prominent as Kanye West speaks directly about his ability and the impact he has had in such a small period of time. Kanye’s take on these same subjects via Yeezus come off more individualistic where as Kendrick’s narrative on the dangers of consumerism and capitalism is much more believable and sincere, “Wesley’s Theory,””For Free,” and “How Much a Dollar Cost.”

Not every angle of To Pimp a Butterfly is super serious, Kendrick lets us peer at his more lighthearted side in the hyperbolic, satirical “For Free” and the early 90’s children’s show intro (at about the thirty-four second mark) on “For Sale? (Interlude)”. Beyond comedic relief, Kendrick reaches deeper and projects self realization and hope with, “I know morality, spirituality, good and bad health.” on “Momma” which ends with an Ornette Coleman free-jazz feel – and “Do you hear me, do you feel me? we gon’ be alright.” in “Alright.” The album concludes on a very heavy moment including 70’s jazz track “I No Get Eye for Back” and a rare interview with 2Pac from 1994, here Kendrick manipulates the perception of time and interviews his idol posthumously, the idea is engaging and not theatric, insanely sincere and possibly revelatory of where Kendrick has his sights set.



Notable Tracks:
“King Kunta”
“Wesley’s Theory”
“These Walls”
“How Much a Dollar Cost”



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