Kendrick Lamar's 'To Pimp a Butterfly' is mandatory listening

Top Dawg

By Adam Theisen, Senior Arts Editor
Published March 16, 2015

All of us have voices in our heads that tell us we’re not good enough. They feed into our insecurities, saying we’re not strong enough, smart enough, talented enough, rich enough, determined enough, sane enough to be successful, to do what we need to do. Kendrick Lamar hears these voices, too — probably much louder than most of us. But these voices don’t stop Lamar. Instead, they’ve fueled him, providing the unrelenting engine that has created To Pimp a Butterfly, an album that will never be forgotten by anyone who listens to it.

To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar
Top Dawg

You could compare To Pimp a Butterfly to other anti-fame albums, ones that express the dangers of celebrity. You could compare it to other records that seem to capture mental breakdowns on tape. You could even compare it to other trippy, paranoid masterpieces that have been produced in studios. But you won’t, because while there’s other music that tries to capture some of To Pimp a Butterfly’s essence, Kendrick Lamar’s latest work is so strong and singular, grabbing you by the collar and dragging you into its world from the opening seconds, that your mind won’t be able to focus on anything except what Lamar wants you to hear.

The trajectory of the album can be summarized by a poem repeated and expanded upon by Lamar throughout the tracklist. Lamar’s self-doubt and conflict leaves him “screaming in the hotel room,” surrounded by evil. So he goes home (to Compton? To Africa? To his true inner self? All are possible interpretations). “But that didn’t stop the survivor’s guilt,” Lamar says, so he realizes he needs to teach others about his message of respect, unity and love.

The biggest reveal of To Pimp a Butterfly is just how deep Lamar’s post-fame depressive spiral was. Opener “Wesley’s Theory” recalls Kendrick’s early dreams of hitting it big and reminds him that the rise is the easy part — it’s staying on top that’ll stress you to the point of insanity. Next, on “For Free?” Lamar is berated by women who attack his insecurities over a classic jazz beat. Additionally, “u” simulates a true breakdown in a hotel room, as Lamar hears a drunk former friend from his neighborhood tear him to shreds for abandoning where he came from. Lamar raps these verses with theatrical pathos that he’s brought before on songs like “Sing About Me,” and these tracks are just as intense. But Lamar saves his sharpest barbs for celebrity, record companies and the culture of fame. The album’s character of Lucy (possibly short for Lucifer?) tempts Lamar on “For Sale?” Lucy promises to move Lamar’s mother out of Compton and into a mansion — all she wants in return is trust, loyalty and a signed contract.

Considering how wide in scope the album is, it’s incredible that the songs of To Pimp a Butterfly are somehow even more cohesive than the songs of the good kid, m.A.A.d city. Good Kid’s subtitle, “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar,” was well-deserved — when you closed your eyes, you really could see Compton — but the singularity of Lamar’s creative vision is even more mature and more intense on this latest release. Every song plays a very specific role in the overall statement that To Pimp a Butterfly’s narrative makes. While on its own, “The Blacker the Berry” may have sounded like a complete indictment of the streets Lamar comes from, in context, it’s presented as one of many aspects of the Black experience. Lamar sweats blood through his verses, alternating between proud and self-hating as he spits lyrics so deep that even Michael Chabon could only scratch the surface when he annotated them for Genius.

Lamar fans who got angry and disappointed every time dozens of drunk people sung along to “Swimming Pools” at house parties, have no fear: While To Pimp a Butterfly is far too dense and layered for every part of Lamar’s message to be immediately and completely understood, there’s no way that any of these tracks will be mistaken for commercial turn-up party anthems. Lamar unequivocally eschews anything that would even remotely sound like a Mike Will Made It or DJ Mustard joint, even messing with previous single “i” enough that none of these songs will be played on the radio. Instead, he brings in artists like Thundercat and Terrace Martin, who ground the disorienting trippiness of songs like “Wesley’s Theory” and “King Kunta” with strong bass, jazz instruments and afro-centric beats. The only credited A-list cameo comes from Snoop Dogg on “Institutionalized,” but even he is raspy, nearly unrecognizable and gone in a flash of smoke. In fact, there’s not even a Black Hippy member to be found — a very noticeable omission that doesn’t bode well for the future of rap’s best collective. The most non-Lamar bars actually go to the little-known Rapsody, who delivers a verse of pride and love on “Complexion.”

Lamar’s music touches on subjects including racial identity, the plight of inmates, Black beauty, the trials of fame, gang violence, police brutality, personal depression, the need for love and unity among all races and many more. Lamar spends To Pimp a Butterfly’s 80 minutes sharing almost all of his thoughts, and what he has to say is fascinating, a little schizophrenic and scattered, and incredibly smart. The combination of the sheer power of Lamar’s rapping with the hypnotic jazz fusion production makes it impossible to tear yourself away from the record and commands an endless number of listens. Lamar’s talent makes it feel like you’re pulled entirely into his own separate world, but everything his says has relevance in our own.

The most perfect, beautiful moment on To Pimp a Butterfly comes on “i.” After the confusion, anger and heavy, heavy darkness of the first 14 tracks, we hear the familiar voice of the same pastor who began this track when it was released six months ago. Except on that old release, the pastor said “He’s not a rapper; he’s a writer!” On this proper album track, he introduces Lamar as “the number-one rapper in the world.” It’s hard to understate exactly how important that difference is. For a while, it seemed like Kendrick Lamar was maybe too good for hip hop, preferring to be talked of in the company of dead white guys instead of 2Pac, Nas or Kanye. But that change, coupled with the faux-live setting that places Lamar right in the heart of his neighborhood and disarms any accusations of selling out for radio play, confirms the emergence of Lamar’s true inner self, the Lamar we’ve been waiting the whole record to hear. “i” ’s catharsis of self-acceptance, of putting the gun down and embracing love, creates a truly glorious moment.

However, as the song goes on, Lamar’s audience doesn’t necessarily accept his message of love with open ears, and Lamar doesn’t exactly take their mixed reaction kindly. The unified clarity of the album doesn’t last long. An argument breaks out between fans, and Lamar stops the music, admonishing his crowd to “save that shit for the streets” and proceeding to deliver an a capella lecture/verse on the word “Negus.” On To Pimp a Butterfly we hear a certain kind of militancy in Kendrick Lamar — not militancy in the traditional Black Panther sense, but an indestructible conviction in his message that refuses to allow dissent.

12 years ago, Jay-Z released his “final” album, titled The Black Album. If Hov hadn’t taken that name, it would’ve been an appropriate descriptor for To Pimp a Butterfly, a release that overflows with knowledge of Black history, attempts to cover as many parts of the Black American experience as it can and name-checks everyone from Moses to the Black Panthers to Malcolm X, MLK, Nelson Mandela and 2Pac. Nowhere is this more apparent than the album’s closer, “Mortal Man.” 12 minutes long and dedicated to Nelson Mandela, “Mortal Man” ’s verses deal with Lamar’s fear of being abandoned by his fans. “When the shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?” he asks. The actions-speak-louder-than-words message and the line “How many leaders you said you needed then left ’em for dead?” ring true, but Lamar might be a little too paranoid about the public’s potential betrayal. Of Michael Jackson, he says, “That nigga gave us Billie Jean, you say he touched those kids?” Hm.

“Mortal Man” ’s lengthy outro that closes To Pimp a Butterfly is a conversation between Lamar and 2Pac, who’s recreated from old interview tapes. They discuss the future of Lamar’s generation, and Lamar explains a metaphor that “a good friend” wrote describing Lamar’s world. In the metaphor, which gives the album its title, there are enlightened “butterflies” and bitter “caterpillars” who are trapped in cocoons of their own environments and try to “pimp” the butterflies. The mission of the butterfly, Kendrick says, is to shed light on the caterpillars in order to end the “eternal struggle.” “What’s your perspective on that?” Lamar asks 2Pac. Pac doesn’t answer, and thus ends To Pimp a Butterfly. After taking in the whole album, you may be ready to follow Lamar to the ends of the earth, or you may dismiss him as an overdramatic egotist, but one thing is indisputable: To Pimp a Butterfly is mandatory listening from a rapper whose trials, tribulations and immeasurable ambition have helped create a once-in-a-lifetime record, one whose words, if their creator achieves his goal, will inspire and endure for generations.