Kendrick Lamar takes stock of his own power on the funky, layered, and brilliant ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’

Before you embark on the rewarding musical experience that is Kendrick Lamar’s new album To Pimp a Butterfly, leave all expectations at the door. Forget the landmark rap opera Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Forget that Kendrick called out nearly every prominent artist in the game and in turn made rap as whole more interesting. To Pimp a Butterfly, which I’ll refer to simply as “Pimp”, is an entirely different animal than anything we’ve ever heard from Lamar or any other rapper. The album is about Kendrick’s fame and the power that comes with it. Kendrick openly addressed how he, even more so than God or any teachers, has an influence on the minds of the youth given the position he’s now in. It’s a with great power comes great responsibility dynamic. Luckily for all of us, rather than name-drop other rappers or brands of cognac, Kendrick uses his highly-anticipated album as on outlet through which to comment on race, relationships, and truth itself.

The racial component within this album cannot be ignored, no matter how hard some will try to do so. Much like D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, a better recent comparison for Pimp than anything in rap, it feels like an album that is coming out at the perfect time given the stories that have been dominating the news lately. Pimp is unapologetically black (to quote Kendrick himself); everything from the sample choices to the viscous lyrics of “The Blacker the Berry” to the eerily-prophetic 2pac interview at the end. Rather than get overly political or point fingers, Kendrick takes an honest look at race relations in this era and surrounds those ideas with thoughts of iconoclasticism and mans inherent obsession with what they don’t have.

kendrick-lamar-0001This all sounds very heavy, very dense, very ambitious. And it is. But it never gets boring. The music and Kendrick’s versatile vocal ability don’t allow for that. Even if one doesn’t think about it, Pimp can still be enjoyed because it just sounds so dope.

The opening track “Wesley’s Theory” samples Boris Gardiner crooning “every n***er is star” and quickly transitions into a funky, OutKast-esque sound that features contributions from George Clinton, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat. Not exactly your typical guestlist. In fact, other than a brief 8 bars from a Snoop Dogg who seems to have found the fountain of youth on the standout track “Institutionalized”, none of the features here are what you would expect. With the exception of a great verse from Rapsody, the guests are here for production and for hooks. Much like on his prior work, Kendrick doesn’t let an over-crowded group of collaborators clout the fact that this is his album.

There’s so much intricacy to every track and I’ll surely discover more sounds as I continue to listen to the album. There’s no “Backseat Freestyle” or “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” on Pimp. No beats so accessible and banging that they’ll inspire countless remixes. The instrumentals on Pimp, heavily contributed to by the aforementioned Thundercat as well as in-house TDE producer Sounwave and saxophonist/producer Terrace Martin, are based in both funk and jazz, often at the same time. The strings don’t carry much distortion at all. Sounwave’s drums are tight and mixed in a way that doesn’t allow them to overpower Kendrick’s voice. The basslines that Thundercat provides at points are danceable on their own. Kendrick channelled elements of historically “black music” to help re-define what that terms means in the 2010’s.

TDE execs have said that nearly every big time producer sent in beats trying to get on Pimp but none of them were really able to capture the sound Kendrick was going for. Pharrell, who helps with the track “Alright”, is the only A-lister to get behinds the boards on the album.

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Kendrick’s flow and lyrics aren’t as tight as those on GKMC or Section.80, but I think that’s what he’s going for here. He often finds himself trying to sing, shrieking, and fumbling his own verses. It adds to the feeling of pressure he’s under. On “u”, the albums thematic turning point, the beats switches into a smooth melancholy groove that finds Kendrick, in a broken voice, spitting perhaps the darkest rhymes on the album.

It remains miraculous how effortlessly Kendrick can pack serious diction and double entendres into a verse that sits so comfortably on a beat. There are certainly more to the lyrics than I understand at this point, but even if you’re just a fan of flowing, there are few better than Kendrick. He plays around with words and drops both multi-syllabic and internal rhymes that are reminiscent of Eminem or Nas in their primes.

To nobody’s surprise given the lead single “i”, Pimp is a more positive album than most rap that preaches self-love as one of its main teaching points. It’s a bold move in an industry that seems to feed off negativity. And it works on Pimp because Kendrick never lets his street cred come into question. The album doesn’t deal with gang life as explicitly as his prior music, but a track like “Hood Politics” doesn’t let listeners forget that Kendrick is rooted in west coast gangsta rap. From the same track, “booboo” will probably become the new “ya bish”.

It’s hard to pick standout tracks this early on when we’re talking about an album of this quality, but if I had to, I’d point to the aforementioned “u”, “Hood Politics”, and “The Blacker the Berry” for their importance to the albums narrative as well as the intro “Wesley’s Groove” and “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” on a sheerly sonic level.

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On the closing track “Mortal Man” we get some nice bars over a sparse soundscape. That’s followed by the producers intercutting Kendrick asking questions to 2pac (quotes from a ’94 interview). It’s so well-done. It truly does sound as of Kendrick is talking to Pac. If you’re familiar with Kendrick you know that he idolizes Pac. You can hear Pac’s influence on nearly every Kendrick song. This “interview”, that mainly focuses on the power musicians have as well as the growing racial tensions in the streets, is a straight up epic moment in rap history.

I’m scared that Pimp will anger some Kendrick fans expecting a different album. GKMC was great, a classic, but an album like that can only happen once in any given artists career. We already heard Kendrick’s upbringing story. It’s more important to hear about where he’s at right now. In 2015, Kendrick is an incredibly aware artist in-tune with reality. He understands his place within the culture. He realizes that every time he speaks, whether into a mic or to a reporter, loads of people are going to heed his words as scripture. Kendrick might not be comfortable with that position, but he’s doing his best to use his power to say what needs to be said.

I don’t like putting stars or a number on albums, especially before we really get to see their staying power and ultimate importance. But I know good hip-hop when I hear it. And this is great hip-hop. Is it better than Kendrick’s older music? I’m not sure, but that doesn’t even matter. It pushes him and his sound forward. Rather than spitting the same flows about the same subjects over similar sounding beats, Kendrick is evolving. He’s trying to create something new, trying to push the genre forward (again). Even if the album was a miss, the ambition is admirable.

But To Pimp a Butterfly is not a miss. It features some of the most brilliant production ever heard in rap topped off by Kendrick doing what he does best; hitting you with unexpected rhyme patterns and lyrics. Is Kendrick Lamar the greatest rap artist of his generation? Mehhh. That’s an opinion. You can probably argue that Drake is.

But is Kendrick Lamar the most important rap artist of his generation?

Yes. He is, and To Pimp a Butterfly proves it.

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