This past week, Kendrick Lamar released his long awaited follow up to Good Kid M.A.A.D. City. Like many fans, I found myself questioning if he would ever top his critically acclaimed major label debut album. The doubters were silenced when To Pimp A Butterfly dropped a week ahead of it’s scheduled date, 2 days after the 20th anniversary of 2Pac’s Me Against The World. After over a week of listening to nothing but this album on repeat, let me say that it’s not an album for everybody, especially not one for your average radio listener. This is an album for those who love all types of music and especially those who love listening to a beautifully crafted concept album. Kendrick could have gone the easy route and put together an album easier to digest with more typical radio singles, but that’s just not who he is as an artist. Instead, he developed yet another concept album which serves as therapy for the pressures of his new found fame, as well as a podium to speak from. This is, in my opinion, hip hop’s answer to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. Much the same way Gilmour & Waters tied together concepts involving insanity, greed and death while experimenting with different sound effects that molded together with their psychedelic element, on this album Lamar interlaced the subjects of race, depression, religion and temptation along with hip hop, jazz and funk instrumentals.
“It’s obvious to me that Kendrick Lamar not only exceeded what he set out to do but truly crafted his magnum opus.”
To Pimp A Butterfly starts off with the George Clinton featured Wesley’s Theory, which is a reference to Wesley Snipes, who served prison time for tax evasion in 2010. This track has Lamar initially rapping over a new age G-Funk instrumental (produced by Flying Lotus) about what he will do with the money earned from his lucrative record deal, “When I get signed, homie I’mma act a fool/ Hit the dance floor, strobe lights in the room.” The 2nd verse is told from the perspective of “Uncle Sam” who serves as a metaphor for societal temptations. Uncle Sam tells Kendrick to splurge and not worry about the financial implications this will bring in the future and the verse is closed out with Uncle Sam saying “But remember, you ain’t pass economics in school/ And everything you buy, taxes will deny/ I’ll Wesley Snipe your ass before thirty-five.” It’s this type of social commentary and duality within the verses that breathe life into the album.
A majority of this album has a “call & response” presentation, with recurring themes and characters that compliment other tracks. This is immediately seen on the album’s second track, For Free? (Interlude). Kendrick’s rapping style completely changes to match Terrace Martin’s live jazz production and turns into a near spoken word attack, reminiscent of The Last Poets, on Uncle Sam’s temptations boldly claiming “This dick ain’t free/ I need forty acres and a mule/ Not a forty ounce and a pitbull.”
Terrace Martin once again switches gears, this time accompanied by long time Kendrick collaborator Sounwave, on the funky bass heavy King Kunta. Lamar perfectly rides the beat while taking shots at the industry and rappers who use ghost writers. Institutionalized is another track that presents dueling view points within it’s verses. Dealing with the theme of self responsibility, Kendrick speaks on his success being based on his personal work ethic: “Be all you can be, true, but the problem is/ Dream only a dream if work don’t follow it,” while following with an anecdote of taking a friend who had a similar upbringing to an award show. Snoop briefly guest stars in between verses and serves as the narrator of the story. The 2nd verse details his friend’s crime-filled thoughts of jealousy while at the award show and Snoop summarizes the track with “you can take your boy out the hood but you can’t take the hood out the homie”.
The most obvious radio single (aside from the Grammy Award winning i ) is These Walls. Over an extremely smooth instrumental laced by Terrace Martin, Sounwave & 1500 Or Nothin, Kendrick speaks about a particular woman he’s been sleeping with, claiming that “These walls happier when I’m here/ These walls never could hold up/ Every time I come around demolition might crush.” With the first two verses this would be a very good “love” song for the radio, although it’s the third verse that truly makes this song. Kendrick switches his “walls” metaphor for that of prison walls and reveals that the woman he’s speaking about is the girlfriend of the man who murdered his friend on Sing About Me, one of the stand out tracks on Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, and tells the man in jail: “So when you play this song, rewind the first verse/ About me abusing my power so you can hurt/ About me and her in the shower whenever she horny/ About me and her in the after hours of the morning.”
It is at this point where the album takes a dark turn with u, the polar opposite of his hit single i. Disappointed with his actions, the pressure and the temptation of his newfound fame, Kendrick’s insecurities take a hold of his conscience and thrashes his confidence while screaming “Loving you is complicated!”. The song breaks and it’s followed by a 2nd section where an inebriated Lamar raps over a beat that sounds about as drunk as he is while spewing self hate. With scratchy tear filled vocals he lets loose all the negative thoughts that have been on his mind, similar to those of the Notorious B.I.G’s Suicidal Thoughts.
On the Pharrell Williams produced Alright, Kendrick gives into his vices to deal with his depression: “Let me tell you ’bout my life/ Painkillers only put me in the twilight/ Where pretty pussy and Benjamin is the highlight.” Once again, the song switches to a different character on it’s second verse where Lucy is introduced. The obvious metaphor for Lucifer lets Kendrick know that what he’s doing is perfectly fine. Lucy is further characterized on the following track, For Sale (interlude) where Lucy makes Kendrick false promises and even mocks his faith: “I loosely heard prayers on your first album, truly, Lucy don’t mind cause at the end of the day you’ll pursue me.”
After refusing to acknowledge Lucy, Kendrick goes back home on the track Momma which is one of the most layered songs on the record. Kendrick goes from verse to verse expressing his gratitude to his talent and his hard work for he’s able to be in a better position now. He follows this by listing things he “knows” but at the end of the verse he grounds himself: “I know what I know and I know it well/ Not to ever forget until I realized I didn’t know shit/ The day I came home.” The third verse starts off with Lamar meeting “a little boy that resembled my features”, who then goes on to teach him a few lessons of his own and reminds him not to let fame go to his head and always “come back home”. The track ends with Kendrick reciting over and over that he’s looking for something without ever stating what it is, “I been looking for you my whole life, an appetite/ For the feeling I can barely describe, where you reside?/ Is it in a woman, is it in money, or mankind?” and admitting he’s been depressed and suicidal over not knowing what’s missing.
Continuing with his “coming home” theme, Hood Politics finds Kendrick reliving what it’s like to belong in the environment where he was raised, “Everythin’ is everythin’, it’s scandalous/ Slow motion for the ambulance, the project filled with cameras/ The LAPD gamblin’, scramblin’, football numbers slanderin’.” Hands down, the best line of this song is the comparison between gangs and politics, “From Compton to Congress/ Set trippin’ all around/ Ain’t nothin’ new but a flu of new DemoCrips and ReBloodlicans/ Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’?” which really gives the title its true meaning.
How Much A Dollar Cost finds our main character at odds with a homeless man who just asked for a dollar. Lamar refuses to do so for reasons most of us have thought about, “I never understood someone beggin’ for goods/ Askin’ for handouts, takin’ it if they could,” the track reaches its conclusion when the homeless man reveals himself to be God, leaving Kendrick to question himself. Ronald Isley, of the legendary Isley Brothers, closes the track out asking for redemption, “Shades of grey will never change if I condone/ Turn this page, help me change, so right my wrongs.”
After that encounter the conscious side of the record begins, Complexion (Zulu Love) is the most positive track on the album, Serving as a call to arms for people to end ignorance and racism, specially within his own people he asks to “Let the Willie Lynch theory reverse a million times.” This is not a new subject for Kendrick as he had touched a similar topic on Section 80’s Fuck Your Ethnicity. The one guest with a full verse on this album, Rapsody (9th Wonder’s artist), sounds right at home proclaiming her pride in being black and struggles because of it on the track’s final verse, “12 years of age, thinkin’ my shade too dark/ I love myself, I no longer need Cupid/ Enforcin’ my dark side like a young George Lucas/ Light don’t mean you smart, bein’ dark don’t make you stupid.” What follows is one of the most racially brutal tracks in recent memory, invoking the anger of an early Ice Cube, Kendrick Lamar lets his viewpoints loose on The Blacker The Berry, with Boi1da and Terrace Martin behind the boards. Starting every verse with “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015/ Once I finish this witnesses will convey just what I mean,” he goes on a verbal onslaught of racism that happens on a daily basis, “it’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society/ That’s what you’re telling me, penitentiary would only hire me.” The track’s climax are the final lines where Lamar unveils the reason for his hypocrisy, “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!” A bold and powerful statement.
Producer LoveDragon mellows the mood back down with You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said). where Kendrick shares a lesson his mother taught him. The song asks his listeners not to lie to gain respect or impress others because at the end of the day “Circus acts only attract those that entertain.” Next up, the album’s lead single, the award winning i, makes its mark but as a different version that sounds like a live performance. The single sums up the struggle displayed on the rest of the album and triumphs over the depression he suffered at the start of his journey. The album’s version also differentiates in it’s abrupt cut off in the middle of the third verse where a fight occurs during the performance. Kendrick breaks up the turmoil and delivers an accapella verse, not heard on the original recording, where he delivers one last call for unity in the black community.
TPAB’s last track is Mortal Man, where Kendrick pays his respect to Nelson Mandela and other great leaders while explaining his desire to get his message across and help out his community without being sacrificed, “See I got to question it all, family, friends, fans, cats, dogs/ Trees, plants, grass, how the wind blow/ Murphy’s Law, generation X, will I ever be your X?” But he’s very aware that such attempts at leadership comes with a great price, so he asks his friends and fans “if shit hits the fan…” to love him unconditionally the same way the people of South Africa loved Mandela while he was incarcerated.
By now you may have noticed that at the very end of a few tracks, starting with King Kunta, Kendrick seems to start a poem and adds a line or two after a few more tracks. At the conclusion of Mortal Man, he recites the entire poem he’s slowly been building up. This piece summarizes the entire album and all its struggles and glories in a single verse. At the conclusion it’s revealed that he’s reading it to 2Pac while chatting with him. Pac’s excerpts are taken from a 1994 interview with Swedish radio host Mats Nileskar. This segment is so carefully crafted around Pac’s answers that it feels completely legit, as if Lamar is actually living the dream of interviewing his hero. This serves as a sort of “passing of the torch” of Pac’s crown to hip hop’s lead artist of this generation. Before Kendrick wakes up he reads a 2nd poem where he explains the deeper meaning behind the album’s title as Pac fades away.
It’s obvious to me that Kendrick Lamar not only exceeded what he set out to do but truly crafted his magnum opus. If Good Kid M.A..A.D. City was his coming of age “from boy to a man” story, then To Pimp A Butterfly is his way of giving his fans an insight to a rapper becoming an artist without sacrificing his voice or integrity. Pay very close attention and listen to the full record yourself.