“I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same.” This phrase pops up periodically throughout Kendrick Lamar’s latest album To Pimp A Butterfly. Each time it is expanded upon and leaves off at a certain point in order to set up the upcoming track. It’s a very unique way to tie the album together, and while Butterfly is not as cinematic as Lamar’s last project Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, it’s not intended to be. This new album allows the listener to piece the project together, and for many this may seem like a daunting task considering the albums near 80 minute runtime, its dense lyrical content, and experimental production. However, for those who give the album a chance, they will surely be rewarded with a truly amazing experience. To Pimp A Butterfly is one of the best hip-hop albums in recent years as well as one of the most important for society today. While Lamar’s last project was a near perfect hip hop classic, his latest goes beyond hip hop and maybe even music and seeks to bring about change rather than merely an enjoyable listen.
The most noticeable change between Butterfly and Good Kid is the far more adventurous and experimental production. In fact, this album has much more in common with Lamar’s 2011 effort Section.80 than Good Kid in that both projects are far less appealing to the mainstream. But where Section.80 had its share of hits and more accessible tracks, Lamar’s latest is far less accessible. Take the track “For Free”, which features a chaotic jazz instrumental and an equally chaotic verse from Lamar. His flow is varied and fast paced, but also incorporates slam poetry and spoken word styles into something very unique. The dark, eerie track “u”, which offers an interesting antithesis to his self-praising single “I”, begins with a scream and then features Lamar’s insane-sounding refrain “Loving you is complicated” which is both muttered and screamed. The tracks beat is incredibly dark and subtle, with heavy synths and splashes of jazz instrumentation. Like many of the tracks on Buttefly, the song changes up halfway through, turning into a hazy, warped jazz track with Lamar rapping about not being there for a friend in a time of loss. He raps from the perspective of a friend and uses a vocal inflection that sounds as though he is crying; the second verse features the same flow, but adds drinking and bottle clinking sounds to give the impression that this character is calling out Lamar while intoxicated. It’s a truly heart-breaking track, but is executed perfectly.
However, much of the album is rather bright, mixing jazz, funk, and soul music for an album that is rather smooth. The opening track “Wesley’s Theory” has a funky, jazz fusion instrumental courtesy of producer Flying Lotus, which is far from surprising as the track sounds very similar to his 2014 solo effort You’re Dead. The track also boasts an incredibly catchy bass line from Thundercat and psychedelic vocals from soul singer George Clinton. However, the lyrical content is dense as usual and takes multiple listens to grasp Lamar’s message, much like the rest of the album. The track “Institutionalized” is a mellow, laid back featuring a catchy, syncopated rhythm and a high pitched flow from Lamar. The song discusses the power that money has over people as Lamar applies this idea to his own life and his current success and power.
Much of the album deals with Lamar’s coping with his new fame and fortune, relating back to the poem that Kendrick repeats throughout the album. The emcee takes us through his journey as of late, beginning with the reformed kid seen at the end of his last album. Since then, we’ve seen Lamar rise through the ranks of the rap game and claiming his position at the top with his verse on the 2013 track “Control”. This track saw Kendrick rapping ferociously and declaring himself the current best rapper out. To Pimp A Butterfly could have very easily been a victory lap for King Kendrick. Instead, the album is far less focused on Lamar as a rapper, but more as an icon for social change. The album’s mix of personal anecdotes and calls for social change makes it a truly unique experience. It’s as much about cultural reformation as it is about Lamar’s personal journey through his recent success.
It’s foreseeable that Butterfly will not be the commercial smash the Good Kid was. Casual listeners will be turned off by the album’s lack of hits and oddball production. However, Lamar’s message goes beyond just mere album sales or success; his intent is to make a statement with his music rather than make money or earn fame. The album’s closing track “Mortal Man” sums the album perfectly. The tracks refrain “When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?” displays Lamar’s desire to be much more than a musician. He isn’t concerned with keeping his fans happy with radio hits, but instead wants to inspire his listeners and bring about much needed change. The track then breaks into an interview between Lamar and 2pac, featuring clips taken from an interview recorded in the 90s. Rather than feeling awkward or forced, the segment feels as though the two were actually conversing. It’s an interesting way to end an album, but definitely a memorable one.
There is a lot to unpack on Butterfly and this review has only skimmed the surface of the many details and intricacies of the project, but the album is better left to be deciphered by the listener rather than a reviewer. To Pimp A Butterfly is a journey that allows the listener to reflect on society as well as themselves. The album may seem like a daunting listen, but it’s definitely worth the experience and the wisdom it displays. Lamar’s intent is to change the world we live in, and with this release, he’s on the right track to actually make a difference. While Good Kid is undoubtedly a more enjoyable album, mainly due to its more straightforward concept and catchy production, Lamar has cemented his place in rap history with another amazing project. Not only is To Pimp A Butterfly one of best rap albums in recent memory, it’s one of the best albums to be released this decade.
Standout Tracks: “The Blacker the Berry”, “Hood Politics”, “Institutionalized”, “How Much a Dollar Cost”