Album Review: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

This album blows every other concept album I’ve pithily regarded as “great,” “excellent,” or “amazing,” straight out of the water. Kendrick unleashes his oddities and creativity, holding back nothing like never before.

Artists like Kanye West have rapped about the grandiose and depressing life in his greatest album yet, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which explicitly states just what it’s about: a personal and selfish account of his fantasies and the darkness that troubled him. Kendrick may have also released his greatest album with even greater force and power that could generate a whole new perspective for young people all around the world. Kendrick raps about things universal, concerning not only himself, but also a whole stratum of people and the issues that prey on them. Kendrick turns topics like love, loss, hate, and racism, and transfigures them into a fresh perspective by intertwining them into a powerful work of art wherein no track is short of tremendous.

What makes this album so amazing is its poeticism, making excellent use of every single word Kendrick writes to give meaning to the whole of the album. Kendrick ties words from the latter half of songs to their former parts, he weaves phrases throughout every song, and ultimately building upon a spoken-word poem that most definitely pays off in the end.

The first track of To Pimp a Butterfly is “Wesley’s Theory,” signalling us to Wesley Snipe’s fiasco with tax evasion, which the U.S. government refer to as the “tax evasion theory.” The track opens with Jamaican singer/songwriter Boris Gardiner’s incanting “Every Nigger Is a Star,” cutting to a nineties-esque hip-hop beat with a strange twist. This song talks about Kendrick starting out as nothing until he breaks out of the hood, as symbolized by the cocoon. But he questions the idolizing of the violent stories that rap and hip-hop artists tell, asking if that is any better than the naïve hoodlums idolizing pimps, gangs, and drug dealers. Listen as Kendrick first personifies his relationship with success, then personifies the capitalist ethos of America.

It’s tracks like “For Free? (Interlude)” that gain that much more meaning on a second listening with the collective themes in mind. With its quick jazzy music playing in the background the song begins with the voice of a reproachful woman, to which Kendrick retorts in jazzy spoken-word. Like the classic English poet, Lord Byron, who would incorporate humour into his tragic epics in the rhyming scheme of ottava rima, Kendrick mixes his clever quips while rapping about serious social issues in the realm of a jazzy and poetic hip-hop style.

Kendrick is really good at tricking us of what he is talking about until the last verse. What initially sounds like a sensual jam on “These Walls” is later revealed to also be talking about what those walls really are to him: a confinement. A whole new meaning emerges if you go back and listen to track of double entendre a second time. Kendrick can’t escape the ghosts that haunt him after his friend was killed in a drive-by, and so Kendrick lashes out in revenge by sleeping with this woman, which he so thoroughly describes.

The latest single, “The Blacker the Berry”, is the most aggressive track on the album as Kendrick readies us every verse on why he’s “the biggest hypocrite” holding off any explanation until the last verse. This final verse reveals a whole new meaning when the beats ceases, and the powerful lyrics ring in your ears to give you something to think about. The first single “i,” is the most upbeat track of the entire album, proclaiming self-love as the solution to the problems that pervade our society, countering the angry and howling track, “u,” which deals with self-hate and depression.

Kendrick makes a ton of allusions to Black historical figures and even references his own songs from previous albums. In “King Kunta,” Kendrick references Kunta Kinte, a slave from the eighteenth century who had his foot cut off for trying to escape a plantation. Kendrick uses this as an oxymoron to express his situation as a successful Black man.

One of the most influential figures for Kendrick on this album is Tupac Shakur, to whom Kendrick recites his entire poem in an interview style on the final track “Mortal Man.” The 12-minute track includes several verses by Kendrick on laid-back tempo, and a made up interview between Kendrick Lamar and Tupac Shakur using excerpts from a Swedish radio show P3 Soul, discussing the influence Tupac had on such a large social stratum and his potential to create social change. Tupac admits these people only have a limited time to make a change. The last words spoken by Tupac are calculated and purposeful: “Because the spirits, we ain’t even really rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us.” Dumfounded, Kendrick reads him something a friend wrote describing his world. With his newfound power and influence on such a large group of people Kendrick is aware of the potential he possesses for change. An apprehensive Kendrick looks to Tupac for advice. But there is no response. There is only the weight of the last words spoken by Tupac.

I have to say this is probably one of the best albums I have ever heard for its sheer lyrical performance. Listen to this album, and when you finish, think about everything you just heard when Kendrick asks you, “What’s your perspective on that?”

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