There’s a break in the first song of To Pimp a Butterfly where we hear Dr. Dre leaving a voicemail on Kendrick’s phone. Dre says this:
“Yo what’s up? It’s Dre. Remember the first time you came out to the house? You said you wanted a spot like mine. But remember, anybody can get it. The hard part is keeping it, motherfucker.”
The last sentence, “The hard part is keeping it”, is a theme that runs through the entirety of To Pimp a Butterfly. Kendrick Lamar, a Compton rapper, made waves with his debut album Section.80 in 2011. In 2012, Kendrick released good kid, m.A.A.d city to universal acclaim, and solidified his reputation as the contemporary rapper to watch. GKMC is doubtless one of the best albums of the past decade, but it wasn’t long before people began to wonder what was next for Kendrick.
When you release an album at the caliber of GKMC, is it possible to release something that can hold up? Even if it doesn’t surpass GKMC, can the next album be anything more than a footnote on the decline of a one-hit wonder?
If you’re reading this review because you want an answer to that question, because you want to know whether or not To Pimp a Butterfly is a good album, let me save you the trouble: Yes. You can live up to it. To Pimp a Butterfly is a good album, a great album, and if you care about music at all, it should be considered essential listening. It is the best hip-hop release of 2015 so far, and has set the bar so high, I would be stunned if even Kanye’s upcoming So Help Me God can top it. So there. I have a few problems with To Pimp a Butterfly – it’s not flawless, nothing is – but if you honestly just want to know how good it is, there you go. Go listen to it.
An essential part of To Pimp a Butterfly’s success is that it doesn’t try to be good kid m.A.A.d city part 2. To Pimp a Butterfly is thoroughly self-contained, and there are songs on here that would sound completely out of place on GKMC. If I had to pick an album that was similar, I would say that Flying Lotus’ jazz/hip-hop/funk/soul/something 2014 release You’re Dead! is pretty close (in fact, I would bet big money on FlyLo having a major influence, considering that he and Kendrick have worked together before, notably on “Never Catch Me” from You’re Dead!). Part of the genius of GKMC is just how hip-hop the whole thing sounds. Listen to “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”, “Poetic Justice”, or “Swimming Pools (Drank)”. Those are rap songs with rap instrumentals. Very good rap songs with very good rap instrumentals. But, in terms of genre, they don’t experiment too much. On the other hand, To Pimp a Butterfly is dripping with soul, jazz, and funk to a level that GKMC and Section.80 didn’t even begin to approach.
Take, for example, the fifth song on To Pimp a Butterfly, “These Walls”. It starts with a short spoken word segment from Kendrick. Then, an ominous moaning picks up, a dissonant piano, the moaning becomes a disturbingly erotic “oooh, aaah” while Kendrick chants “If these walls could talk”. These opening thirty seconds are weird. They’re jarring. But then, as the chanting picks up, everything vanishes and we hear a sultry female voice say one word – “Sex”. Then, there’s an eruption of sound, the song really begins. “These Walls” is unapologetically a jazz/soul fusion song. The instrumental honestly sounds like it was pulled straight out of the 70s in all the best ways, and Kendrick flows over it effortlessly. This is a perfect example of To Pimp a Butterfly choosing to not sound like a standard hip-hop album, deciding instead to look back to the roots of black music in the US while also inflecting it with Flying Lotus-style experimentation, all anchored by Kendrick’s uniformly excellent flow. Even the song “Alright”, which has a very hip-hop bass and drum, has saxophone noodling in the background and what sounds like a digitized chorus of male singers. The third song, “King Kunta”, is practically a funk song and would stick out like a sore thumb on GKMC.
In short, if you’re looking for good kid, m.A.A.d city 2, this isn’t it. To Pimp a Butterfly is entirely its own thing, and is a million times stronger for it.
It’s difficult for me to even go song-by-song and critique the album, both because the songs flow from one to the next in such an amazingly smooth way but also because each song just sounds so good. The opening track, “Wesley’s Theme”, is a FlyLo-produced trip with a funk bassline (played on this song and most others by frequent FlyLo collaborator and Suicidal Tendencies alumni Thundercat) with Kendrick’s trademark thin but powerful voice easily riding it. This flows through the 100% jazz/spoken word “For Free – Interlude” and into the 100% funk “King Kunta”, which is my favorite track on the album. “Institutionalized” is slow and atmospheric, featuring two short but well-done Snoop Dogg verses. This leads into “These Walls”, and then to the chaotic and claustrophobic “u”, showcasing the fact that Kendrick can also go seriously hard, rather than always sounding relaxed. His voice on “u” cracks, he shouts, he whispers, he cries, and the lyrics are absolutely heart-wrenching.
The next song is “Alright”, followed by the dreamlike “For Sale – Interlude” (which showcases the Flying Lotus influence more than maybe any other song, excluding “Wesley’s Theme”). “Momma” is punctuated by what I think id be banging pots and pans, and then “Hood Politics” starts up with what sounds like a g-funk instrumental (and also has a Killer Mike shoutout, which made me smile), before an eerie spoken word outro. “How Much a Dollar Cost” features Ronald Isley and has a lush piano-driven beat, which segues into “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” which is another soul track and features Rapsody with a seriously well-done verse. “Complexion” is a calm but groovy song, until the beat falls away and Kendrick comes back with an a capella verse, and then the discordant intro to “The Blacker the Berry” swells up, another song featuring Kendrick’s more aggressive delivery. Slowly, the driving beat behind “The Blacker the Berry” falls away and leads to a jazzy outro, before picking up as “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”, another funky and soulful track. As the smooth beat behind “You Ain’t Gotta Lie” dies down, we hear a swelling chorus of conversation, like what you would hear at a party. Then we’re introduced to “the number one rapper in the world” (Kendrick, of course), and then “i” starts. But this isn’t the “i” that we heard last fall, this one is faster, and if it wasn’t recorded live, it sure sounds like it. Kendrick’s voice is less controlled than in the single release, and is interrupted about halfway through by the audience. Kendrick lectures for a minute, then the crowd dies away and he does an a capella verse that wasn’t on the single version of “i”, a verse that’s much more racially charged than the radio-friendly “i” we all know and love.
The final song on To Pimp a Butterfly is a twelve-minute excursion into famous black leaders, from Nelson Mandela to MLK to Tupac, and Kendrick repeatedly questions how long-lasting his fame will be. Going back to that line from “Wesley’s Theme” – “The hard part is keeping it, motherfucker” – we start to see some of the anxiety that Kendrick is experiencing. Fame is taking a toll on Kendrick, and that pain is present in every track of Butterfly, up until the spoken word outro of “Mortal Man”, which ends with Kendrick having a conversation with Tupac. At this point, we realize that the spoken word and a capella segments littered through Butterfly are all part of a monologue or a poem that Kendrick has been reading to Tupac, a monologue about responsibility, about what to do with his fame and his power. Of course, it’s not a real conversation, it’s Kendrick asking questions and Tupac replying with audio taken from a 1994 interview (an intrepid reddit user pulled together all the audio from this interview, and you can check it out here). This could have been corny, but I think that it works, and really humbles Kendrick in the face of his idol. The album ends on a quiet and emotional note, with Kendrick calling out for Tupac, before cutting suddenly to silence.
The experience of sitting through an entire 80-minute album can be daunting, but in the case of To Pimp a Butterfly, I think it’s worthwhile.
I spent a moment on each song here to illustrate the impeccable flow and construction of Butterfly as a whole, and also to comment shortly on the consistently amazing production. It’s essential that you understand how many different things, sonically, are happening across Butterfly, from the jazz to the soul to the funk to the hip-hop, this album has so many moving parts and yet sounds thoroughly cohesive and unified. If this album was only instrumentals, it would still be an amazing release, but Kendrick’s flow and voice make Butterfly what it is.
However – as I said above, this album is not flawless. Most notably, for an album that is so in dialogue with race relations in the US today, what it means to be black, and the struggles we’ve faced over the past several months, Kendrick’s lyrics can be a bit lacking. Butterfly is a deeply personal album (as mentioned above), dealing with love, loss, fame, and so on. But on songs like “The Blacker the Berry”, “Hood Politics”, and “Institutionalized”, Kendrick is rapping about racially charged problems, and hits the mark slightly. Take the hook on “Institutionalized” – “Shit don’t change until you get up and wash your ass”. Kendrick seems to be saying that black youth in the ghetto will be able to get out if they pull their life together, which is deeply problematic. Despite the title, a lot of this song (and a lot of Butterfly as a whole) ignores the rampant institutionalized racism in the United States.
Even with that in mind, is it Kendrick’s responsibility to rap about institutional racism? Is it his responsibility to be a revolutionary? Certainly in some of the other songs on Butterfly, he’s embodying racial anger and tension, and acknowledges inequality. Honestly, I don’t know. On one hand, I like to see popular artists making an effort to right wrongs, but on the other hand, who am I to insist that this album is bad just because it isn’t revolutionary? I want to make one thing clear – this minor problem I have with the lyrical content not matching up to my political stance in no way affects how much I love this album. This is because, before it all, before the politics, before the lyrics, To Pimp a Butterfly just sounds so good. Listening to it, even if you hardly pay attention to Kendrick’s lyrics, is hypnotic and hugely enjoyable. I can’t say that enough.
Every rapper has two sides. There’s the artist, and there’s the entertainer. While Kendrick’s music is hugely enjoyable, listenable, and entertaining, I think that he perfectly embodies the rapper as an artist. To Pimp a Butterfly was obviously constructed with great care, and every little thing was tightened down to ensure it sounded just right. And god damn, it just does. I picked up To Pimp a Butterfly with huge expectations, which were met or even surpassed. Not only is this a worthwhile followup to good kid, m.A.A.d city, it may in time prove to be even better. I’m rarely one to give universal praise to something, but besides some minor problems with the lyrics, I see no reason to hold back. I don’t want this come off as giving in to the hype, and I don’t want it to sound like hyperbole. To Pimp a Butterfly is emotional, soulful, groovy, and personal. The sound, more so than GKMC ever was, is that of an instant classic. To Pimp a Butterfly is a masterpiece. It deserves these accolades, and it deserves to be heard.
We'll be talking about this one for a while.10
Lyrics score 9
Production score 10
Composition score 10