Kendrick Lamar dropped Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City three years ago and ever since we’ve been talking about what he would do next, how could he possibly follow that up? Well this week we got our answer with the ambitious To Pimp A Butterfly.
The expectations could not have been higher and it was strange to realize after listening to it almost exclusively this past week that somehow Kendrick blew way past anything I could have expected, both sonically and thematically — not to mention the cover art and title
(we’ll get there).
No one should be surprised that we have To Pimp A Butterfly a week before everyone expected (Big Sean’s Dark Sky Paradise wasn’t not leaked a week early on purpose), but being able to get it guilt free was a unexpected surprise. While Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late was a complete surprise and set the internet on fire, Kendrick doesn’t quite have the same social media reach, so priming everyone by setting a physical release date then releasing it digitally even sooner seems to be the way this should go from now on. As a result, Kendrick broke Drake’s Spotify streaming record when To Pimp A Butterfly was streamed in full 9.6 million times globally on Monday.
Kendrick takes that, with rap, and incorporates so much jazz; no rules jazz, manic, next level jazz fusion made by mixing modern electronic elements to form exactly the kind of music I’m into. Sultry horns are sometimes in complete control and other times contribute to utter chaos; without a bass, or when there’s not some sort of jazz piano, songs get extra psychedelic. Sometimes it’s all of the above, and sometimes none, preferring to isolate the spoken word.
I normally don’t get down on jazz fusion, either. I like a beat or a piano to keep the pace or the rhythm even if it’s minimal. But there’s balance here. When the music gets out of control Kendrick’s lyrics; still frantic, but full of social relevance and personal purpose, keep it all together, keep you locked in. That is, To Pimp A Butterfly is a much more nuanced foray into other genres by Kendrick than Kanye’s headlong dive into electronic grime that is Yeezus, but similarly takes some getting used to. Late in the album, via a voicemail (classic Kendrick), a voice pleads, “don’t tell me they got you on some weirdo rap shit.” This can definitely be called that in the best possible, forward thinking way.
I’m also on board with Kendrick thematically. To Pimp A Butterfly manages to be allegorical, personal, and political, and equally effective at executing all three.
So, about that title… I remember when I first heard it could possibly be titled To Pimp A Butterfly I simply didn’t believe it. I very much wanted to wait until it was announced. Then it was announced along with the cover art and I was taken aback, not sure what to think, but figured Kendrick must have a reason, or that the album would explain.
After you get over the shock of how Kendrick decides to introduce his new sound and set the tone for what’s to come, George Clinton provides the intonation on “Wesley’s Theory” asking, “are you really who they idolize?” Then Kendrick catches us up on the last few years of his life and probes the pitfalls of fame and the things you get to buy with it. From there we get an early break in the action but “For Free? – Interlude” sets the poetic mood, making Kendrick’s poetry as important as his raps. “King Kunta”, the most recent single, and a pair of slower, but still intriguing, tunes in “Institutionalized” and “These Walls” bring the raps back.
Those are followed by a top (impossible to pick just one) favorite, “u”, which starts off sounding as if you’re falling into Kendrick’s nightmare. It’s is full of exasperated raps with “loving you is complicated” a constant refrain; part of the hook in act one, and ingrained within the beat in act two, all shape shifting in each. As down and out and wasted “u” feels, the album literally bounces back with “Alright”, which might be the first jazz fusion banger and I’m here for it. (Loving you is complicated mentioned once more on that outro).
The album continues on in that manner; each track informing the next as he did on GKMC, but here To Pimp A Butterfly keeps building on itself through to the end. I could do a full track-by-track highlighting late favorites like “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” but this is already longer than I wanted; there’s just so much to unpack. The “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence” poem, which began on the “King Kunta” outro and is revealed piece by piece at the end of certain songs, is presented in full at the end in “Modern Man”. It ties the album together thematically and presents Kendrick’s collected thoughts one last time leading into a lovely conversation with 2Pac via the magic of editing.
After listening to the last song I asked aloud: are black people butterflies and is Kendrick imploring that we not allow ourselves to be pimped? By money, or fame, or the government? Or not succumb to society, or drugs, or suicide? Is Kendrick (and all rappers) the butterfly being pimped by the music industry as he describes on the first track? Somehow it manages to be all of those things, making To Pimp A Butterfly a cautionary tale of sorts. In the end the title is as weighted, striking, and unforgettable as the album it represents.