Read Dan’s predication of To Pimp A Butterfly here.
“I remember you was conflicted using your influence. Sometimes, I did the same.” The oft-repeated words by Kendrick Lamar on his third album, To Pimp A Butterfly, set the tone for the most-bizarre post-fame rap album ever. The mission statement is simple and quite similar to its predecessor, the hastily canonized, good kid m.A.A.d. city: man has complicated relationship with the community he comes from, which doesn’t even begin to delve into his relationship with the world at large. Kendrick is simultaneously a king and a slave on To Pimp A Butterfly, reconciling that dichotomy and evaluating his performance as a person on single and deep cut alike. This isn’t new in rap, even recently, as those well versed in parts of Watch The Throne, Yeezus, or YC the Cynic’s GNK would tell you. But where YC the Cynic’s outstanding 2013 album does an excellent job setting the conceptual fabric that eventually comes up on To Pimp A Butterfly (to the point where it should be a prerequisite to hearing this latest offering from Kendrick Lamar), Kendrick Lamar presents a character that goes through hell to realize that he can be a lot of things by simply being himself.
It stands to be insinuated that the production of the To Pimp A Butterfly is a reflection of the music Kendrick Lamar listened to, perhaps attempting to put you in the studio this album was birthed in to provide further insight into his thought matrices. And while the vast majority of the beats Flying Lotus sent Kendrick Lamar didn’t make the album (he only produced “Wesley’s Theory”, despite having submitted an entire folder of beats), To Pimp A Butterfly’s production surely invites a lazy, but effective tag of You’re Dead!-lite. Funks P and G rear their occasional head (“King Kunta”, “Wesley’s Theory”, “Momma”), lounge jazz permeates the overall aesthetic, there’s a few straightforward hip-hop numbers (“Hood Politics”, “Complexion (A Zulu Love)”) and Thundercat’s bass is virtually everywhere. But even ignoring the differences in concept between the two albums, turning To Pimp A Butterfly into a You’re Dead! conceit negates all of the backseat driving that Kendrick did regarding the beats.
However, the music Kendrick Lamar has claimed to listen to inform To Pimp A Butterfly more than any one credit on the album that doesn’t read K. Duckworth. As such, despite all of the talk of this being Kendrick Lamar’s funky jazz album, the instrumentals aren’t always as wild as the various flows employed by Kendrick Lamar from his Quasimoto-flow to his scream-loud-enough-that-you-don’t-notice-any-deficiencies-in-his-lyrics flow to the Suga Free karaoke at the end of “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” to the queasy sob of the second verse on “u”. There’s not much room for guest rappers, nor would the inclusion of a guest, say Lupe Fiasco, on a track like “Alright” have much more to add to all of the emotional baggage that Kendrick Lamar unleashes. Snoop Dogg being the smooth street storyteller and Rapsody’s fiery verse serving as the female counterpoint on the melanin love letter “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” suffice.
So it goes on an album that clamors for the funk are responded to significantly less than the standout, George Clinton-featuring “Wesley’s Theory” forecasts, ponders the cost of a dollar, and appropriates a November 1994 2Pac interview with P3 into a conversation between Kendrick Lamar and his dead idol, in which the final question that is based off of a poem from which the album gets its title is left unanswered by the poltergeist he asks. Answers never come easy on To Pimp A Butterfly. Not for the audience and definitely not for Kendrick. Forget Drake, J. Cole, and the game of thrones that is definitely acknowledged by Dr. Dre’s part of “Wesley’s Theory,” because while Kendrick takes time to chide the peanut gallery for wanting real rap album when Killer Mike hasn’t gone platinum, his attention is turned to his earning of his metaphorical 40 acres and a mule and his dissatisfaction with how he’s used that status. This is Kendrick Lamar with the yams, still driven to speculate what the walls would say if they could talk and scared of what the bottle would say in the same position. Eventually, Kendrick resolves his mental diagnostic test with a self-love that grows more emphatic as the tracklist moves from “u” to “i”.
The track directly after “u”, the Pharrell-assisted “Alright,” is least triumphant of any of the songs after Kendrick’s alcohol fueled explosion on “u,” sporting Pharrell’s refrain of “we gon’ be alright,” that sounds like “Happy” refracted through Kendrick Lamar’s gloomy disposition. It’s as if Pharrell is not sure of the words he’s saying and trying too hard be convincing. By “Complexion,” Kendrick has sold himself. “i,” the album’s polarizing lead single, is Kendrick presenting his findings to the people. But Moses he is not, despite Kendrick Lamar acknowledging his own potential to part the Red Sea.
Where on good kid, m.A.A.d. city, the album’s moment of clarity, “Real,” was easily the album’s weakest cut, its counter part on his latest release, “Momma” is To Pimp A Butterfly‘s strongest track, giving a glimpse into Kendrick’s more settled outlook, disappearing back into the music of his mind before he directs his rhymes outward for the track’s final verse before keeping the focus there the rest of the album.
Having unpacked some of what Kendrick Lamar put forth on To Pimp A Butterfly, there is a reality that occasionally crosses paths with what the public saw from the point they crowned good kid, m.A.A.d. city to Sunday night’s surprise release of its follow up. It’s a road dotted with features brilliant and awful, one of the least exceptional, his feature on Big Sean’s “Control” managed to shake up the game as Kendrick decreed that he wanted to be the king, calling what he perceived as his competition by name before showing up to a cypher, where he “tucked [Drake] back into his pajama clothes.” There was also the brouhaha over the rap categories in last year’s GRAMMY awards that included Macklemore texting Kendrick that the Compton MC should have awards that instead went to “Thrift Shop” and The Heist. This isn’t to mention the things occurring within the TDE imprint that seem small compared to the last two Kendrick albums: The Oxymoron rollout, SZA, and Isaiah Rashad becoming the imprint’s latest talent, Ab-Soul’s occasional hints at label trouble and abhorrent album, These Days….
What we’re left with in the wake of all of those things is a new Kendrick Lamar album, which is a valiant effort at correcting some flaws in good kid, m.A.A.d. city that could been seen as nagging to those that found the album to be less than perfect, or even tepid. For one, beats and rhymes do more of the heavy lifting on To Pimp A Butterfly, as the skits are less overpowering than the cast of young Kendrick, his friends, and his family. The most overlong skit/intro/outro might be at the beginning of “For Free? (Interlude)”, in which the female berating a cocky Kendrick Lamar works as a woman’s echo to Doughboyz Cashout’s “Don’t Exist”, which is to suggest that it’s hard to believe Kendrick is moving units in a pair of Nike Cortez. Considering how “i” was reworked from single to the album’s penultimate track, the pop radio pandering is less obvious on To Pimp A Butterfly than “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”, “Poetic Justice” or even “Swimming Pools”, the latter doing the least out of the three to disrupt good kid, m.A.A.d. city’s non-linear narrative structure. That’s a credit to Kendrick Lamar picking a concept that’s less rigid for To Pimp A Butterfly, in which it is the production that is overambitious, rather than the conceptual framework.
I cannot provide a take that answers “better than good kid, m.A.A.d. city question”, which should speak to how well Kendrick Lamar followed up his vaunted sophomore album. Fans will come to their own conclusions in the coming weeks, months, and years, but To Pimp A Butterfly is surely fallible. The jazzy production is not nearly as adventurous to ears that have tuned in to the latest Kamasi Washington single (Washington handled string arrangements for this album), as opposed to the colorful funk employed by the tracks that go in that direction. The backup singers on “King Kunta”, Kendrick’s patchwork Tupac conversation, all of “i” and Kendrick’s bark of “this dick ain’t free” on “For Free? (Interlude)” are all fair game to be cited by detractors as corny, and therefore “boo boo.” For those willing to tolerate, or even embrace all of those things, listening to Kendrick work through his emotions is a treat.
While a lot of his production is handled by in-house stalwarts Sounwave and Terrace Martin, there’s much to be read from Kendrick Lamar’s embrace of the L.A. beat scene. While many an-L.A. rapper has demonstrated more than a working knowledge of the terms Low End Theory, Brainfeeder, and Stone’s Throw, Kendrick’s input into To Pimp A Butterfly’s production is the likely cause of Flying Lotus and Stone’s Throw producer Knxwledge getting tapped to produce what turns out to be the album’s two best songs. Fledgling rappers who have enjoyed at least a morsel of mainstream popularity can learn a thing or two from this. Hell, Nas never quite learned how to pick out beats.
But it’s not Nas, but another rap legend that To Pimp A Butterfly invokes, but the words of Yasiin Bey (f.k.a. Mos Def) on “Fear Not of Man” from his 1999 classic, Black On Both Sides, which implores those asking about how hip-hop’s doing to ask how they are doing, where they are going, where are we going until a clear idea is reached. Kendrick’s last two albums come up with partial answers to those questions, but it is To Pimp A Butterfly that is a true incorporation of the direction of u and i, picking up where good kid left off, evaluating how he has honored what his mother said in the phone call at the end of “Real,” self-destructing, and rebuilding again. Kendrick’s most important finding is that even if he feels off-brand or disappointed in himself, that he doesn’t have to lie to kick it. So it’s assumed that Kendrick Lamar is telling no lies on To Pimp A Butterfly: an album that confounds his audience with its production, asks questions with its lyrics, and is undoubtedly every bit as L.A. as his portrait of the artist as a Compton teenager.