Kendrick Lamar Pimps the Hell Out of a Butterfly [ALBUM REVIEW]

Kendrick Lamar’s new LP, To Pimp a Butterfly, isn’t the usual rap album. Yes, there is gratuitous use of the “n-word.” And the heavy use of expletives more than earned the album’s parental advisory label. But there is an artistry there that you just can’t find on a Drake, Big Sean, or even Kanye record. With his debut, Lamar was crowned hip-hop’s savior; on To Pimp a Butterfly he is seeking to prove that he deserves that distinction.

After being thrown praise from every corner of the rap world, Lamar was famously beat out by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for best rap album at the Grammys last year, though the general consensus was that he should have been the clear victor. That experience (and much more) clearly affected him, and now he stands a changed man with nothing and everything to prove all at once. That’s a tall order.

Kendrick Lamar Pitchfork 2012In many ways, Lamar is Tupac’s successor. A California kid that reps his city (Compton) to the fullest, he has straddled the line between music for the streets and more poetic, intellectual flows. Here, instead of straddling he mashes those personas together, forming a singular beautifully flawed MC. Somewhat departing from the rapid-fire, beat-by-beat delivery that put him on the map, he often chooses a complex off-beat flow instead. This album is not easy listening; it’s engaged listening.

Track two, “For Free? – Interlude,” is reminiscent of Mo’ Better Blues with its freestyle jazz ensemble and Lamar’s deft slam-poet delivery. He uses a fictional sexual relationship between a man and woman to illustrate the dynamic between the United States and Black America. It’s somewhat revolutionary, proclaiming that the government can’t get all the spoils for free anymore.

On “u,” Lamar embodies that voice in your head that speaks to all of your faults, insecurities, and failures. And Kendrick goes there, emotionally sharing his innermost demons in almost heart-wrenching fashion.

“Alright” has the bounce that is a prerequisite for a Drake track, but despite its carefree feel, it gets to very serious topics, discussing the lifestyle that Blacks face on a daily basis. The chorus is an aspirational refrain that, despite those ills, we’ll be alright. On a heady, heavy, and forward-thinking album like this, “Alright” stands out as the a track you’d blow out of open windows on a summer day.

Lamar takes on homelessness and the price of greed through a fictional homeless man who turns out to be God on “How Much A Dollar Cost.” He flexes superior storytelling skills, dropping gems like

“Your potential is bittersweet”

that cut right to the core. In contrast, “The Blacker The Berry” unbridles Lamar’s fire with the rapper employing a rage-voice verging on DMX territory to create a new-age Black Power anthem. He takes a creative approach, exposing the hypocrisies within Black culture.

“It’s funny how Zulu and Xhosa might go to war
Two tribal armies that want to build and destroy
Remind me of these Compton Crip gangs that live next door
Beefin’ with Pirus, only death settle the score”

Curiously, the studio version of “i” that was the lead single for the album is not included. In its place is a live performance, including an improvised talk at the end centered on the loss of Black life that has been so prevalent in the news and our responsibility to do better in spite of. He even goes so far as to give his own rationale for using the n-word, citing the Ethiopian word “negus”.

“N-E-G-U-S definition: royalty; King royalty – wait listen
N-E-G-U-S description: Black emperor, King, ruler, now let me finish”

Kendrick Lamar would kill a spoken word stage.

Closing out the album, “Mortal Man” is its true centerpiece, Lamar’s deliberate effort to humanize himself. He speaks openly about the trappings of celebrity and how they lead to self-destruction. He speaks on how a trip to Robin Island and Nelson Mandela’s cell changed his thinking. In essence, this is his The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill moment. Lucky for us, he kept his sanity, only flirting with crazy. You might see his closing conversation with Tupac as just that if not for the explanation of the “pimp a butterfly” reference.

And on that note, Lamar comes to a clear resolution of the turmoil that envelops him for most of the album. He has accepted the mantle that was already his. Enlightened, he is a prophet sharing new concepts and ideas with the masses.

This is not good kid, m.A.A.d. city. That album focused on Lamar’s raw lyricism, jumping back and forth between common rap themes and conscious material. To Pimp a Butterfly is about much more. It’s about power and its many faces, especially in the form of respect. It is the thoughts and conclusions of a person exposed to the vastness and diversity of the world, bringing it back and trying to synthesize and share it with those that haven’t been fortunate to have that same experience.

I’m no rap head (my interest died with The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac), but then again, this is no mere rap album. It speaks to what is happening in the world right now. Incredibly introspective, Lamar opens your mind and makes you think. The musicality is impressive. It’s fun. It’s tragic. It’s elevated. It’s imperfect. To Pimp a Butterfly, gets back to what hip-hop is supposed to, used to, and should always be.

Watch Kendrick Lamar’s video for “i” and stream the album below!

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Daren W. Jackson

Daren is one half of the Water Cooler Convos team. He's a writer, music connoisseur, and comic book geek who spends his free time working on his novel and other short stories.