To Pimp A Butterfly (released March 16, 2015)
While it’s a genre that was birthed from creativity and originality, hip-hop sure loves to celebrate complacency.
Turn on your radio and in the span of 30 minutes, you’ll hear five different tracks from five different artists that all sound exactly the same. Yet we’ll all consider them “hits” because, well, that’s what we’re used to hearing.
We were told that this is a hot sound, so anything with that sound is automatically a success.
A few months back, when rap’s new kingpin Kendrick Lamar dropped “i,” the highly-anticipated single from his third album, many fans were downright confused. The overpowering Isley Bros. sample and messages of empowerment didn’t sound like earlier hits “Money Trees” or “Don’t Kill My Vibe.” And it certainly didn’t sound like anything on the radio.
But as issues of racial injustice began to flood social media timelines and a new generation was powered by the spirit of protest, Kendrick proved to be pretty clairvoyant.
“i” might not have been the record some fans wanted but it’s the record that hip hop needed.
And that’s the story of “To Pimp A Butterfly,” an almost cinematic story of a young man achieving rap fame, yet still trying to find himself.
First thing’s first: If you’re looking for a rehash of K. Dot’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, you’re gonna be pretty disappointed. This album tells a different story, and requires a different melodic backdrop. Kendrick’s a bit like OutKast, artists who reinvent their style with every album yet never losing their artistic touch. And just like Kast has in the past, Kendrick’s album relies on jazzy, soulful production as he weaves his tapestry.
“When I get signed, homie I’mma act a fool/Hit the dance floor, strobe lights in the room,” a joyous Kendrick yells on “Wesley’s Theory,” a cautionary tale for those new to success. In the second verse, he steps into the role of Uncle Sam, putting on the top hat, grabbing optimism by the ankles, turning him upside down and shaking all the loose change from his pockets: “When you get the White House, do you/But remember, you ain’t pass economics in school.”
Fame, of course, is more than extra spending money. On “These Walls” Kendrick is overcome by lust — but here’s what separates him from his peers. While most rappers would boast about the sex that comes with fame, Kendrick shows us the other side of those hookups. Sure, he brags about his woman’s infatuation with him, but Kendrick also notes the woman’s incarcerated baby’s father and how her selfish actions continue to fracture her home.
It’s those high-level concepts that put Kendrick in a league of his own.
Those concepts are always powerful, but it’s K. Dot’s hallmark — his insane lyricism — that is vividly displayed here. He rampages through “Institutionalized” like a warlord drunk with power:
Oh s***, flow’s so sick, don’t you swallow it
Bitin’ my style, you’re salmonella poison positive
I can just alleviate the rap industry politics
Milk the game up, never lactose intolerant
The last remainder of real s***, you know the obvious
Me scholarship? No, streets put me through colleges
And is bursting with braggadocio on “King Kunta”:
I was gonna kill a couple rappers but they did it to themselves
Everybody’s suicidal they don’t even need my help
This s*** is elementary, I’ll probably go to jail
If I shoot at your identity and bounce to the left
Stuck a flag in my city, everybody’s screamin’ “Compton”
I should probably run for mayor when I’m done, to be honest
And I put that on my mama and my baby boo too
20 million walkin’ out the court buildin’, woo woo!
But those boasts quickly turn to introspection on the second half of the album. I know dummies will only focus on the “boo boo” chorus of “Hood Politics,” but there are real treasures to be found if you dig deep enough: “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin’/Motherf***** if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum.” It’s the perfect pimp slap to rap fans too lazy to want more from their music.
To Pimp A Butterfly’s real victory is as an ode to black culture. K. Dot deftly tackles colorism in “Complexion” (with guest Rapsody proudly proclaiming that “The new James Bond is gonna be black as me”) and generational hatred in “The Blacker The Berry.” (“why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?/When gang banging make me kill a n***a blacker than me? Hypocrite!”)
Even the much-maligned “i” works in greater context within the album. The earlier track “u” is a drunken ode to a woman, but “i” finds stronger love in himself.
It’s yet another lesson hip-hop needs to hear.
I won’t spoil the closer “Mortal Man” for you if you haven’t heard it yet. Essentially, K. Dot is suffering from survivor’s guilt — enjoying success while his neighborhood still suffers. So, he turns to one of his forefathers for advice, and it becomes a chilling narrative of the evolution of hip hop. The road to success, we learn, is filled with casualties.
To Pimp A Butterfly is not an album you blast 20 minutes before hitting the club. Instead, it’s a depiction of black America and its constant tug-of-war between excess and awareness. Besides “Hood Politics” and maybe the catchy “Alright” nothing here sounds like a radio single. But that’s irrelevant — this is Kendrick’s pulpit, and he has the world’s ear.
Trust me, you need to hear this.
Best tracks: “Institutionalized,” “Hood Politics,” “Mortal Man,” “King Kunta”
4.5 stars out of 5