To Pimp a Butterfly: Kendrick Lamar's Epic, Sprawling Masterpiece

Kendrick Lamar’s newest album, the hotly anticipated To Pimp a Butterfly was just released a week early. This is good news for hip hop fans, as 2015 continues to spoil us with new material, and good news for those of us who love excellent music, as the album simply is exceptional.

Initially I was going to attempt to get a review out the day of the release. I sat down, pen in hand, headphones on, ready to crank out my first listen, gut reaction. But then I hit play, and the jazzy beats (more subdued than his previous Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City), impeccable rhyming, complicated lyrics and focused, political anger began to filter into my brain. I quickly realized that one listen wasn’t going to cut it. This is a sprawling, intense, angry, hopeful, conflicted, inward looking and above all ambitious album that is unafraid of it’s internal and external complexities. Not exactly the list of adjectives typically thrown at mainstream rap albums, but then again,  Kendrick Lamar is hardly a typical rap artist.

At first glance this album is a lot to comprehend, and I have heard a lot of feedback saying that it is too long, too complicated, and too much to handle. But that line of thinking is is inherently flawed because it limits our experience of an artists work. Kendrick is among the smartest rappers in hip hop today and is fully aware of what he is asking from his audience when he puts together an album of this magnitude. The question is whether or not we, as listeners, shy away from the complexities Kendrick puts in front of us simply because they are subjects (race, politics, violence, gender) that are uncomfortable. These are the thematic cornerstones with which Kendrick builds his newest album. I for one am encouraged to see hip hop, which does have systemic issues with gender, sex, money and violence, engage in a dialogue about such subjects, even if it is a difficult one.

Butterfly, more than anything, seems to display Kendrick Lamar’s willingness to explore his new found fame, his place in the annals of hip hop, and the place of black culture in both politics and music. This maturity has long be absent from mainstream hip hop, even if the anger and vitriol have been there. What Kendrick does is focus that anger and frustration through a productive lens wherein he is unafraid of the complexities of the discussion and the his perhaps contradictory place in it. Never is this clearer than on the second single released from Butterfly, “The Blacker the Berry”, but it is present throughout the album.

On the track Kendrick calls himself the “biggest hypocrite of 2015”, and it’s clear that in some sense he means it. Large parts of the album, but in particular this track, seem almost obsessed with the impact that Kendrick has on culture, specifically black culture. Is what he is doing a good thing, it seems to ask, and how does one cope with having to answer that question and the contradictory answers that come with it?

If nothing else, Butterfly proves that Kendrick Lamar is without a doubt the best lyricist in hip hop today. And on Butterfly Kendrick does what he seemed poised do from the beginning of his career: embrace and fully take control of the discursive, political potential of hip hop as a musical genre and a cultural movement.

This is extraordinarily clear late in the album on the reimagined version of “i”, the first single released. The single version is poppy, funky, and a whole lot of fun and was a wild departure from the heaviness of Kendrick’s last album. On To Pimp A Butterfly however, “i” is stripped down and presented to the listener as if it’s a live version, complete with crowd noise echoing in the background. The crowd noise is a particularly interesting addition. They sound almost disinterested in what is going on in the song that is being presented to them. Lamar struggles with the microphone volume, begs the crowd to come forward toward the stage, yearning for attention, all the while telling everyone that he loves himself. But where the crowd sees a self interested hip hop artist talking about how great he is, the listener is asked to see Kendrick Lamar as talking about himself in a larger sense of community, of race, and of politics. “i” is not about Kendrick as an individual, which seems antithetical at first glance, and is further chased out throughout the album.

This line of thinking seems validated when Kendrick stops “i” halfway through, finally gets the attention of the disinterested crowd and gives a long winded speech about the origins of the N word, race, and the politicizing of race in modernity. It’s powerful, it’s captivating, and it’s completely unexpected, but it is a microcosm of what he is trying to do with the entire album.

There are parts of this album that are difficult to listen to as well, and I would argue that it is an intentional effort by Kendrick Lamar. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Kendrick has never seemed content to put out a series of crowd pleasing tracks and fill the rest of the album with garbage. He is much too intelligent, too focused, and too artistic for that. Rather, Kenrick seems to ask us to evaluate the album as a whole and as a sum of it’s parts. This was true for Good Kid and it seems doubly true for Butterfly.

Bearing that in mind, it makes the difficult tracks (such as the inward looking “u”) all the more interesting. The fact that “u” is so difficult to listen to, with Kendrick nearly wailing the lyrics out incoherently, suggests something altogether deeper is happening inside the album. If “u” is a reflection of what the artist sees in himself, then the fact that it appears on the album is a dead giveaway about how Kendrick feels about himself and his audience. Honesty, above all, is the message, even if that means exposing rougher parts or contradictions of the artist. That Kendrick makes and shares these kinds of tracks as well as crowd pleasing, jazzy beat laden, endlessly listenable tracks is a gift.

One of my least favorite tracks is also one of the most interesting on the album, and that is the final entry called “Mortal Man”. This, I think is a testament to how talented Kendrick Lamar really is; that even at his worst, it is still a conversation starter, still a thought provoking piece, still better than most others out there. What is most notable about the track is the interview with Tupac that Kendrick inserts himself into, making it sound like he is asking Tupac the questions. This is a vital part of what the album is trying to accomplish. Kendrick seems to be asking Tupac, regarded as one of the pioneers of hiphop, what his place is in the new racial and political landscape and music’s place in it.

It is no coincidence that Kendrick singled out Tupac for inclusion on his album. Tupac’s shadow looms large over the entirety of hip hop today, and that includes Kendrick Lamar. Moreover, Tupac is among just a handful of rappers, including Kendrick, that seemed fully capable and willing to push hip hop as far as it could go both musically and culturally.

To make listenable, fun, catchy rap tracks is one thing. To make academically relevant, discursively thought provoking rap about culture and race is another. To combine both into a hip hop masterpiece like To Pimp a Butterfly, well, that is something only the greats can do.

Robert Grange