The introspective rap star Kendrick Lamar is back with what could be understood as his third high exposure album, “To Pimp A Butterfly.” Based on the first single released, “Blacker the Berry,” it could have been assumed that the album would be filled with aggressive race anthems in the vein of Kanye West’s “Yeezus,” which it is in part, but it is also an anecdotal cultural commentary like his 2012 “good kid, m.A.A.d city” album. Lamar is not sugarcoating on “To Pimp a Butterfly.” What is different about his new album is that he is using his visibility to expose political, cultural and social issues while also commenting on the ins and outs of the famous life – but Compton, California, where Lamar spent most of his life, is a constant throughout the album.
The opening track has George Clinton crooning out the album title while Lamar goes into a rap commentary about a lost love, angry lust, the music industry and U.S. political and class issues. Lamar does this while simultaneously integrating the image of the metamorphosis of the caterpillar, from the cocoon to the butterfly. The sound of Thundercat adds a wild bass to Lamar’s almost screeching rap.
The next track at first reads as superficial due to the use of a monologue from a goldiggeresque woman. Then Lamar goes into the verse and although it is under the guise of another materialistic anthem, to add to the many available in the world of rap and hip-hop today, it is clear he is being sarcastic and making a comment on capitalism, with lines like “I need forty acres and a mule/ Not a forty once and a pitbull.” This track allows for a kind of playful integration into the more serious tracks that are to come on the album.
The third track is “King Kunta,” where Lamar literally says he has “got a bone to pick.” In this song, he is expressing that he is aware that he is now a popular artist, which gives him power, but it also makes him a target for jealousy and fake friendships.
The next song on the album is the closest to the sound of “good kid m.A.A.d city.” This is due to the retrospective nature of the song. At the end of the first verse of the song, Lamar raps, “I’m trapped inside the ghetto and I ain’t proud to admit it/ Institutionalized, I could still kill me a nigga, so what.” If the songs on “good kid m.A.A.d city,” were meant to be a description of Lamar’s past life in Compton, “Institutionalized” is a look back on how it was then, but more of a confession that his past is always with him. Lamar details how he wishes life could be, but the reality of greed and corrupt culture seeps in. The song ends with an outro performed by Snoop Dogg. The final lines are an ode to Compton and a description of Lamar’s life there. The connection of the old hood and new fame comes full circle by incorporating Snoop Dog’s voice, because there are not many other living embodiments of legendary California rap that can deliver such poignant verses.
“These Walls” is a direct comparison to Frank Ocean, with the lyrics “If these walls could talk they’d tell him to swim good/ No boat, I float better than he would.” Because Ocean had a single titled “Swim Good” it can be assumed Lamar is making a comment on both Ocean’s sexual prowess as well as his music talent. It seems suspect to go after one of the openly non-straight black hip-hop musicians sexuality, but as far as being a crooner goes, Lamar cannot compare to Ocean. Yet in terms of commenting on political and cultural issues, Lamar is the clear leader. Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” and “Crack Rock” are ear-pleasing songs, but Lamar comes with an anger and ability to call out anyone and anybody he feels could use a reality check.
The next song is “u” and it starts out with Lamar screaming, “Loving you is complicated.” Lamar is here to show it to “u” how it is but not explain it for “u.” The song is an accusation set to a dizzying trumpet reminiscent of Miles Davis. Though a listener might think they are hearing a repeat of the opening song, there is a desperation in the delivery and the content of the song is much more intense than the first. Lines in “u” include, “And if I told your secrets/ The world’ll know money can’t stop a suicidal weakness.” Although this song is about “u,” it is about Lamar, it is about me, it is about everyone.
The beginning of “Alright” is a direct reference to the lines Oprah Winfrey performs in the 1985 film “The Color Purple.” This song is the weakest on the album. It feels like a lot of leftover lyrics. But the lines, “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence/ Sometimes, I did the same” are repeated at this point in the middle of the album, which helps move the production forward.
“Do not buy it when critics will inevitably try to sell you that [Lamar’s] work is rough or unbridled, the magic work of a hood savant,” Carvell Wallace wrote for PitchFork. “It is precise and skilled, as perfect in technical execution as it is uninhibited in content […] It is not fake, it is not afraid, and it is not accidental.”
With the second interlude – “For Sale?” – the advancement comes quick. It is an ode to The Beatles “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” since it is a kind of dreamy imagination of a love interest, but this song also brings back some lyrics from past songs like the ever-present “I remember you was conflicted/misusing your influence.” This interlude is faster than the one at the beginning of the album and a bit more romantic, although from this song the listener is immediately thrown in to the track “Momma.” “Momma” is a fast description of all the things Lamar has learned in his life, and for a while it reads like he is being arrogant or braggadocios, but he ends his second verse with the confession that he does not know anymore than he did the day he left home. Something he only realizes by coming back and seeing familiar sights, feeling old feelings, and being welcomed home.
“Hood Politics” is the most intense commentary on the album. There are multiple direct references to politics, the president, the LAPD and Congress. Lamar also comments on the media as being corrupt. “How much does a dollar cost” is a continuation of “Hood Politics,” because of a focus on serious issues, such as capitalism, oppression and suffering, but this song is more of an individual story and carries the weight of anecdote that has become a part of Lamar’s legacy.
“Complexion (A Zulu Love)” is a rap about being blind to color. This is surprising due to the weight Lamar puts into color in his other songs, and as far as experiences in his songs go, they are most commonly matched with being black or experiencing blackness. “Complexion” is less an ode to color blindness as a realistic possibility, but more as a cultural goal.
Although “The Blacker the Berry” was toward the end of the album it was the first single that was released. Lines such as, “How can I tell you I’m making a killin’? You made me a killer, emancipation of a real nigga,” prepare the listener for what “To Pimp a Butterfly” was going to be. “You ain’t gotta Lie (Momma Said)” is a song that gives the listener a break from the hard beats, if not in content at least in flow. There is a “Gin and Juice” kind of smoothness to the song that allows the listener to blank out a bit and relax.
“I” similarly is at least more digestible than the other more intense songs. There is a live performance aspect to the song that makes it very easy to sing along to. The “I love myself” hook is classic hip-hop hubris, but Lamar backs it up with a rap so fast and consistent that if you follow it the fist time you deserve a boost of confidence. Although Lamar is quick to clarify that “Everybody lacks confidence.”
The last song on the album is different from “I,” since Lamar is self-conscious and hoping he can follow in the feet of great rights activists such as Mandela. The similar “Mortal Man” ends with a created conversation with Lamar and 2pac. It could be cliché, but it feels genuine. “By my faith in God, by my faith in the game, and by my faith in all good things come to those that stay true.” Carefully selected lines such as this make it clear that Lamar is not going for effect alone, the lines are truly emotional.
This album is a cycle, as the title suggests, it is caterpillar, cocoon and butterfly. Lamar first consumes culture, politics and references like a hungry caterpillar, then lets the ideas resonate and be protected within his mind, then, when the ideas are ready to be released, he bursts out of the cocoon and shows his work to the world. As stated previously, this is not a smooth listen like “good kid, m.A.A.d city” and it is not just random commentary mixed with cool kid rap. “To Pimp a Butterfly” is a deliberate and unsettling compilation meant to be absorbed as an entity.