Review: To Get Into Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, Drop All Your Expectations

Album Reviews

Kendrick Lamar’s deviation from the norm and pulling from the past may be off-putting for some, but it’s ultimately what’ll elevate To Pimp A Butterfly’s “classic” candidacy.

Before we start talking about anything, wipe your mind clean of whatever Kendrick Lamar you think you know. Un-feel the wave of chills from his good kid, M.A.A.D city—fraught with its barbed lyrics and frantic professions against an orchestra of beats—as it described a youth coming up in Compton to a tee. Disregard the spitter that (respectfully) smoked every compadre standing beside him during TDE’s 2013 BET Honors cypher. Ignore the man whose name was tatted on tongues for months following the annihilation that was his guest verse on Big Sean’s “Control.” Forget everything you thought you knew about that Kendrick Lamar before approaching his left-steering musical backtrack, To Pimp A Butterfly.

Kendrick’s long awaited sophomore LP arrived without warning in the wee hours of the morning, one full week ahead of its March 23 release date. Aside from the dropped bomb nature of its release—listeners up past bedtime were forced into a FOMO-driven part two of the Black Messiah listening session D’Angelo caused back in December—TPAB was an even bigger surprise than listeners were bargaining for. Instead of thumping beats and Cali-saturated soundscapes, Butterfly swaps in jazz horns and G-Funk overtones, forcing us to redefine what the sound of hip hop is right now. Based on Twitter chatter alone, the masses are split. Many professed their love for it instantly, praising its nostalgic elements and crediting it for prompting an hour-long two-step. Others voiced their desire for more of the Kendrick they felt they were robbed of. To Pimp A Butterfly may or may not be exactly what people “wanted” or “expected” to hear, but it’s definitely something we needed.

Buried within the album are valuable lessons in patience and slowing down when it comes to listening to music. Existing as a minority amongst hip hop’s pit of empty-caloried fast-food music, TPAB requires layered listening. Careful chewing. Savoring. Digesting. Being a lazy consumer and putting it down after one quick listen leads to missing all the assorted flavors present on the plate. Like the conversation starters present on the fiery and militant “The Blacker The Berry” and introspective “Complexion.” The diversity of funk and soul samples like Boris Gardiner’s “Every N***** Is A Star” for “Wesley’s Theory,” “Momma” borrowing Lalah Hathaway’s “On Your Own” and The Isley Brothers’ “Who’s That Lady” for “i.” The spoken word pieces scattered throughout, manifested as a cheeky “For Free?” interlude, a soapbox speech in the middle of an “i” performance and during a wide-eyed interview with immortal rap royalty on “Mortal Man.” Butterfly shouldn’t be rushed through in search of a song to blast at ig’nant levels in the car (although “King Kunta” and “Alright” are strong contenders). There’s just too much to marinate on.

In addition to Kendrick’s consistent lyrical acrobatics and detailed taletelling methods (a must listen for this is “How Much A Dollar Cost”), Butterfly’s biggest strength lies in its feels. It’s an ambience album full of aural color and emotional depth. K. Dot, his production crew (our hats are tipped to Flying Lotus, Sounwave, Terrace Martin and Thundercat) and his perked ears for musicality use sophisticated instrumentation and meticulous sonics to create surround sound moods. Take the groovy yet sensual “These Walls.” The intimacy is palpable with its exasperated moans, wailing wind instruments, deep melodies and free styling electric keys. The tenor coos, faint scatting horns, drowsy background vocals and driving percussion of the upbeat “Alright” sends the body into a state of celebratory release without so much as having to think about it.

The album’s not all sweet smiles and uplifting moments, though. It gets dark. On Butterfly, Kendrick treads into the side of his mind that depression once clouded. Hearing the painfully descriptive “u” is reminiscent to feeling an old wound slowly open up again. “Where’s your antennas, where is the influence you speak of?” he sobs, harsh words slurring between glass clinks and audible gulps of liquor. “You preached in front of 100,000 but never reached her/I fuckin’ tell you, you fuckin’ failure you ain’t no leader/I never liked you, forever despise you I don’t need you.” During the self-deprecation session, he’s cooped up in a hotel room gasping with the kind of breathlessness that comes after a long cry when the body is tired of tears but the heart isn’t.

The beauty of To Pimp A Butterfly being the followup to good kid, M.A.A.D city is that they’re more alike than you think. Sonically, Kendrick continues to utilize the voices on his album for more than just the verses. In both albums, he builds each song from the ground level up, using voices primarily as colors and instruments (Rapsody lends the only guest verse on the new project). On Butterfly, Anna Wise, Bilal, James Fauntleroy, Taz Arnold aka Ti$a and others paint the rich blues, purples and blacks on the backgrounds of his songs, setting the deep tone. The same goes for his own vocal chords. At times it’s tough and gravely (for both “Backstreet Freestyle” and “The Blacker The Berry,” and at others it’s in a higher register, nymphy and introspective (for both “Swimming Pools” and the “For Sale?” interlude).

Although the sonic differences are immediately audible decade-wise, he hasn’t compromised the complexity of his storytelling on Butterfly. good kid, M.A.A.D city was a concept album showing us what a single day in the crazy city of Compton looked like from behind his eyes, from harmless shenanigans with the homies and hating his grandfather’s alcoholism to witnessing the shooting death of a friend and feeling the need to sing about those who have passed. In To Pimp A Butterfly, the themes are more broad but still touch on the things that Kendrick has absorbed during his matriculation through life. He speaks on the dynamic that he has with society both as a celebrity and as a black man. The hate and skewed relationships he’s experienced during his ascent. The tough love and encouragement he gives back to his community whenever he can. Inner battles between pride and accountability when it comes to racial identity and creativity. Picking apart and appreciating the different quirks of the black experience.

Within months of its release, good kid, M.A.A.D city was quickly stamped a classic and, for the most part, it was undisputed. It’s far too early to dole out such weighty accolades for To Pimp A Butterfly, but only a fool would profess that it isn’t an important piece of work, especially for our time. For some, it’ll be hard to appreciate Butterfly for what it is because, unfortunately, pointless inquiries like “Where’s old Kendrick?” are still being thrown into the discussion. Not bothering to look beyond the rapper to see the artist expanding his craft and paving the way for others to do the same. Seeing these sonic alterations as shortcomings instead of the path to evolving into something even greater. Someone potentially legendary. Judging by the title and the poems stitched throughout the LP, all Kendrick wants to do is stretch the wings that have been cramped up under him for a while. Guys, the good kid is clearly a man now. Let him grow. —Stacy-Ann Ellis