By now we’ve all heard about the surprise release of this album, as it was made available on iTunes more than a week before physical copies would hit stores everywhere (which should be today as of this posting). We’ve seen many reviews come out mere days after this release, but I’ve decided to live with the album for at least a week before doing my own review. This is generally good practice when reviewing most music in order to form a solid opinion, but I think it’s especially necessary for To Pimp A Butterfly, as Kendrick Lamar has so much to say on this album.
When breaking down this album, it actually makes some sense to start at the end, as the last song “Mortal Man” features Kendrick Lamar reading a poem/story to the late Tupac Shakur before interviewing him. The poem is one that Tupac would have been able to relate to; as it’s about Kendrick adapting to his new fame and feeling conflicted about being a cultural icon. He struggles with accepting his newfound power, abusing it at first, but also feels a responsibility to inspire positive change. The reason we start here is because this poem is recited incrementally throughout the album. The album, in turn, ends up being an expansion of the poem, as the songs dive deep into the themes Kendrick touches on in each line.
The album starts with “Wesley’s Theory”, where Kendrick shows the conflict of a typical rapper who sees sudden exponential success and doesn’t know how to deal with it (with a quick voicemail from billionaire Dr. Dre saying it’s harder keeping a house like his than getting it). The first few songs feel like you’re watching musical theatre, with the live, jazzy instrumentation and the introduction of various characters (Kendrick, Uncle Sam, and a gold-digger girlfriend). The “For Free?” interlude is the first of many times you’ll hear a heavy Andre 3000/OutKast influence, as the slam-poetry sounds like something that would fit nicely on The Love Below. There’s a heavy funk influence on “King Kunta”, as Kendrick claims his Hip-Hop throne, before we get the first line from the poem: “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence.”
This conflict is reflected on “Institutionalized”, as Kendrick realizes he (or perhaps Hip-Hop in general) needs to make changes if his/its influence is to be positive. The poem is repeated and another line is revealed: “sometimes I did the same”, before “These Walls” gets into Kendrick using his fame to sleep with women. We’re about a third of the way through the album at this point, and Kendrick is just starting to dive deep into his own mind, as the poem continues: “abusing my power full of resentment. Resentment that turned into a deep depression…found myself screaming in a hotel room.” This leads into “u”, which starts with Kendrick literally screaming at his mirror. This song sees him reflecting on his personal failures, putting on a crying voice similar to The Game’s “Start From Scratch”.
After the emotional breakdown on “u”, Kendrick quickly neutralizes the mood with “Alright”, and the album begins to move away from the theatrical sound with the traditional Hip-Hop sampling in this song. The poem is then recited again, with the additional lines: “I didn’t wanna self-destruct. The evils of Lucy was all around me, so I went running for answers” (Lucy is a personification of Lucifer, in this case). This leads into another interlude that could have easily been performed by Andre 3000 on any of OutKast’s post-ATLiensalbums, before the poem takes Kendrick home to “Momma”, a more positive song where Kendrick reflects on his growth. The album slowly takes a more negative turn after this, as “Hood Politics” is a critique on Hip-Hop and the “hood” mentality, and we hear the poem for the last time before the end of the album.
The final third of the album is made up of individual songs with important messages. “How Much A Dollar Cost” sees Kendrick have a religious revelation after an interaction with a homeless man. “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” is about loving yourself no matter what colour or shade your skin is, and also has a standout guest verse from Rapsody (the only guest MC with a full verse). “The Blacker The Berry” is the controversial single that deals with the idea that black-on-black violence and related behaviours contribute to racism, as Kendrick jumps into the different mentalities black men have. “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” is a song filled with wisdom, while the Grammy award-winning single “i” is remade into a live rendition, with a fight breaking out in the audience, intentionally taking away from the positive vibe of the song.
The final song serves as a summary of the album, as the song “Mortal Man” sees Kendrick come to terms with his place in society, and the poem is then read in full, giving the full picture the album is meant to paint. This leads into a brilliantly staged interview with 2Pac, which was made by sampling a real interview he did in 1994 and is followed by yet another poem that summarizes the ideology of To Pimp A Butterfly. We’ve already discussed the significance of Kendrick Lamar, and I think the impact and importance of this album is what deserves the most praise. In a time where racial tensions are high in America and fingers are being pointed at everyone from the police, to gangs, to politicians, to Hip-Hop itself, To Pimp A Butterfly is a necessary commentary that can hopefully bring everyone together.
While the message and impact of this album may make this a masterpiece, I’m not giving it the perfect 10/10 rating because of the music itself. It’s great to see Kendrick filling a void OutKast left open when they stopped making music, with his funk, jazz, and gospel influences and his wide vocal range, but some of these songs just don’t appeal to my personal taste. Despite the strong message behind these songs, I don’t see myself listening to some of these a year from now. I’m one of those guys that will always argue that Biggie was better than 2Pac whenever there’s that classic Hip-Hop debate, and that’s purely because I enjoy the aspects of lyricism Biggie focused on more than those that Pac focused on. With Kendrick’s obvious 2Pac influence, I understand there’s no place for fun, wordplay-filled songs like “Rigamortis” or “Backseat Freestyle” on this album, and I’m sure Kendrick will return to that in the future, but the reliance on emotional appeal doesn’t always fit my style. Regardless of how much I like or don’t like these songs, the cultural impact is what’s going to make this album a Hip-Hop classic.