Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly Review

Where exactly does Kendrick Lamar go from good kid, m.A.A.d city? What's taken him a lifetime to construct, hypothesize, and experience has now been whittled down to two years, with the inevitable sophomore slump hanging in the balance. Whereas his mainstream classic debut focused on his evolution from K.Dot to the man he is now, To Pimp A Butterfly aims at detailing just who that man is now that he's in the starlight. But, in reality, it's much more than that. Much, much more. Previously Lamar has focused on concrete stories or issues, but here, it's about it all, everything he's encountered since escaping his cocoon. Just see his second verse on 'Momma' where the Compton emcee recites his enlightenment in vivid detail, following each line with "I know everything." And really, To Pimp A Butterfly is about everything. It's about political strife, racial conflict, black righteousness, vanity, fame, fortune, depression, acceptance, self-pity, self-worth, self-reliance, and, above all else, loving one another to overcome injustice. All of it, in typical Lamar style, wrapped up in two poems weaved throughout explaining the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, draped in the utmost roots of black excellence; jazz, funk, and soul.

When tackling a review of this magnitude it's incredibly difficult to find a declarative starting place, one can dissect it from half a dozen positions, all providing a new context others hadn't experienced. So, let's start with that. The fact that an artist can record a litany of discussions in just over an hour to send every social media platform into a frenzy. Even before the release fans were in copious quarrels over the title, a corny phrase with a beautiful bug, and the cover, a pejorative display of stereotypical blacks rising up. But, above all else, what truly matters is the music and the messages behind it. To Pimp A Butterfly, in essence, is good kid m.A.A.d city's antithesis, the latter a true coming-of-age story escaping the troubled streets, the former an enlightened return. The contradictions between past and present couldn't be more prevalent, just take 'Wesley's Theory,' with Kendrick's first verse from the perspective of his arrogant, materialistic self while the latter comes from Uncle Sam and his mischievous ways of pimping. Or the immaculately honest 'u,' interrogating an artist at his lowest, versus 'i,' that same emcee at his pinnacle. What about 'Blacker The Berry' and its hypocritical stance on police brutality and black oppression, blaming whites for the actions but relying on blacks for the answers.

The most important contradiction however comes at the end, on 'Mortal Man,' where Kendrick envisions an interview with his idol Tupac. The moment is as astounding as it could have been cliche, but it works in striking fashion. The interview, intertwined with improvised jazz sessions, veers into directions polar opposite Kendrick's beliefs of self-respect and peace when Tupac states his creed of the bloody racial uprising he soon expects. Regardless of either's belief, they both recognize any action is better than remaining stagnant, and that's exactly what To Pimp A Butterfly is about, breaking free of the ritualistic chains white leaders force down upon the minorities. Numerous times Kendrick confronts these chains attempting to fight back against their existence. 'For Free?' and 'For Sale?' both explicitly discuss the temptations of selling your soul to the devil, criticizing those who believe Hip-Hop's only about the fame and wealth when it can be used as a means to inspire. 'How Much A Dollar Cost' explores guilt and selfishness through an egotistical persona as Kendrick returns home to sit down with a homeless man who reveals himself to be God, forcing Kendrick to rethink his success. And 'Mortal Man' looks at changing the world through his lyrics, not being another in a chain of black artists to become the butterfly only to be pimped. 

This thematic concept is entwined by Lamar's poem, a poem he slowly builds upon starting with the phrase "I remember you was conflicted." Each part he adds leads into the next song, an expanded description of that segment of the story. It's a genius model that's use only starts to wane when the repetition becomes elongated towards the end. Regardless, without a narrative backbone to rely on like good kid, Lamar does a flawless job at executing unity despite all the varying societal topics he aims at exposing. Songs seep into one another just as much as they dramatically impede progress, like on 'u' where a screaming Lamar echoes through the hotel room brought up in the poem. Few tracks here finish in the same place they started, constantly evolving, morphing, and changing. The crowning example of this is 'King Kunta,' a rowdy funk masterpiece that jerks, jumps, and leans adding instrumentation at every corner before plummeting it all with a declaration of its known funkiness, before bringing it all back. Bountiful beat switches occur too, leaving listeners without a foot to stand on in terms of expectations. 'Institutionalized' begins by connecting the sound of its predecessors, before it radically cuts the power out to return with rousing beat that's half charm and half grit. And 'Hood Politics' emphasizes this switch twice, initially with a light romp of glossy sounds before a gritty street anthem arrives only to be cut off by "Obama say what it do" to transform into a psychedelic collage.

All this leads me to To Pimp A Butterfly's biggest critique amongst listeners; the sound. Beginning with Boris Gardiner's 1973 positive soul yelp 'Every Nigga Is A Star,' the sound of Lamar's latest is sonically abrasive in that it deeply appreciates the roots of Hip-Hop's origins. For those unfamiliar with the sound of Funk and Jazz it's a startling detachment from good kid's radio-embracing frolic. To others, it's a masterful medley of respecting a craft long since lost. The entirety of Butterfly, apart from the viciously agitated 'Blacker The Berry,' sounds collaboratively produced by Flying Lotus and J Dilla, dominated by the political open-mindedness of The Roots swelled into a frenzied package reminiscent of Stankonia. In other words, it's overwhelmingly stunning. Down to the minute details like the constant stop-go sonic and vocal flare-ups, Lamar never fails to evade Funk's conventional sounds, as horns, strings, saxophones, trumpets, pianos, flutes, soul singers, and Thundercat's bass fill its four walls. Nothing feels forced either, Lamar's mastery of the genres yet another exclamation to his overall genius. From the likes of George Clinton to Ronald Isley to Anna Wise, each vocal piece deserving of placement on Butterfly reeks of a nostalgic trip Lamar's parents "could step to." 

Fans of Lamar's looking for bangers or current sounds will undoubtedly be let down, as the album lacks anything that could associate itself from the stereotypes displayed on the cover. And while the content few can deny is 100% on point there are times when their cries manifest truthfully into subtle droughts of sonic boredom. Mind you, this isn't because of a definite lack in quality but merely a set back in curiosity that dominates the front half being put on the back burner for songs like 'Complexion' and 'You Ain't Gotta Lie,' that hamper themselves by failing to expand past a set beat. But when Butterfly attempts to illicit a reaction, it prospers. The two interludes free flow like spoken word over improvised jazz, a definite nod to Outkast's most experimental moments as sparkling vibrations rattle with the inherent weirdness of their partnered synthesizers. 'These Walls,' along with a few others here, are highly reminiscent of D'Angelo's work, including his latest, Black Messiah. The soul present seeps into more modern tracks with stuttered vocal effects, like 'Alright,' which is the closest thing to a banger sporting a ferocious bass that initializes in the chorus during Pharrell's continuation of positivity. 

To Pimp A Butterfly is Hip-Hop without borders, content on reliving the roots of the genre so insistent on moving away from it. The depth it sports is unheard of in Hip-Hop, arguably period, but at least since My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy. Nothing attempts so much without tripping over itself, the messages and metaphors contained within exist in the same spectrum flawlessly. With his concept being spoken to Tupac acting as the final resolution, his deathly lack of response a clear indicator that Kendrick needs to take the reigns, the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into the butterfly is a welcomed breath of fresh air for the genre incongruously hellbent on aggression, pushing daises to revitalize the D.A.I.S.Y. Age is Kendrick's way of combating the turmoil. And while this statement certainly isn't true in its entirety, each verse presented on here brings the conscious mind present on 'Sing About Me' with the audacity to battle a litany of issues. The gleaming beacon of 'u' only helps to fuel the fire lit under Lamar on 'i,' where a scattered crowd pays his upbeat song no mind, causing a fight to break out that's only stopped by Kendrick's eye-opening, acapella words. "N-E-G-U-S" he spells out, returning to the black roots of royalty. His latest masterpiece is more than music, it's a rallying cry for a group endlessly disavowed their privileges of humans to reclaim that ownership through a positive means they've never been treated to. 


  1. Solid review! Really digging your blog! I'm trying to get my feet wet in music criticism and blogging too, and your blog is really professional looking!

  2. Thanks man. Glad to see you enjoy my stuff, and good luck to you with your efforts!