To Pimp a Butterfly is Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album, following his 2012 critically acclaimed album good kid, m.A.A.d city. It’s been 3 years. 3 years since the world learned of the art of peer pressure, 3 years since the world found shade under the money trees, and 3 years since the world learned the best recipe. good kid was a milestone, not only for Kendrick, but for the rap game that exists in the 2010’s. A concept album like no other, good kid was showered with praise upon release, but as I said, it has been 3 years; a lot can change in that time and a lot has changed.
Kendrick made his claim for the throne when he shook up the game with his “Control” verse. On top of that he had a bunch of great features for the past few years, that continually showed us why we should pay attention to Kendrick. But none of that mattered, because when Kendrick dropped “i”, we all knew what time it was, it was time to listen with undivided focus to Kendrick and no one else. Few months later “i” won some well deserved Grammys and a few days after that Kendrick dropped “Blacker the Berry”, a song that seemed to show Kendrick’s Black pride, but also served as a biting criticism by Kendrick towards, in his eyes, the hypocritical nature of many Black communities today. The song was a lot more somber than “i”, but Kendrick has always covered a wide subject matter and this was no exception. Then last week “King Kunta” dropped, a funky semi diss to those who disregarded him before his fame, now wanting to hang and get buddy buddy with him. It received much praise as well. Then on Tuesday March 16th, the time was upon us. What many consider the most hyped album of 2015, dropped a week earlier than everyone thought, which brings me to right now writing this review. So without further ado lets see if To Pimp a Butterfly lives up to the world’s lofty expectations.
1. Wesley’s Theory Featuring George Clinton & Thundercat; Produced by Flying Lotus, Ronald “Flippa” Colson, Sounwave, & Thundercat
Wesley’s Theory starts the album off with a nice intro from none other than George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic, and it’s a great intro. Then comes Kendrick, singing what appears to be a poem in the form of a hook. It’s pretty surreal and the beat only adds to that. With Flying Lotus at the helm, this track has his signature sound in spades, it’s trippy. A voicemail from Dr. Dre, breaks it up for a few seconds, reminding Kendrick that anyone can make it, (see Trinidad James, Rae Sremmurd, and Riff Raff), but that the hardest part is remaining, not only relevant, but more importantly artistically free to follow their own sound, and make good music that they want to make. This song is more about success than anything and how Kendrick is handling it, trying not to get “pimped” by a record label.
2. For Free? (Interlude) Produced by Terrace Martin
In the words of Kendrick” This. Dick, Ain’t. Free. That is really the point this song articulates. All his life Kendrick has settled for less, while those more fortunate than him didn’t have to compromise happiness for what they get. Kendrick refuses to adhere to the social structure of modern America, where the poor are exploited by the rich, what the rich want is for sale, what the poor get is for free. Besides the interesting spoken word verse Kendrick delivers, the beat introduces us to the wonderful production talents of none other than Terrace Martin, with frantic saxophone chords echoing through the track, only being matched by the rapid fire piano trills. This song set’s up what will be the production style for the album, more jazzy and funky than anything Kendrick’s ever touched.
3. King Kunta Produced by Sounwave & Terrace Martin
This track starts with an intro that seems like it may be a continuation of the poem from “Wesley’s Theory”. Basically Kendrick is pissed that people who disregarded him before, now fuck with him, that ain’t cool in his eyes. Kendrick then proceeds to shit on ghostwriters, in a similar way to those who hated on him before. This song sums up the feeling of change that happens when one becomes famous, one may pick up a drug habit, find new fair weathered friends, and many other shitty occurrences (Thankfully Kendrick seems to have found true friends in Black Hippy). Not only that but the title shows Kendricks conundrum how can he be oppressed like the famous slave Kunta Kinte (Who had his foot cut off, cut the legs off him, you get it), but simultaneously hailed as a king, and a savior of the rap game. Where were you guy’s when Kendrick was poor, walking his way through life? Cause everyone wants some now that he’s running the game. In terms of the beat, Sounwave and Terrace create a neo-funk song never before heard in a Kendrick joint. It almost sounds like the theme song to a blaxploitation film or something, I could see John Shaft grooving to this song. I had to warm up to this song, but it fits in very well with the album.
4. Institutionalized Featuring Anna Wise, Snoop Dogg, & Bilal; Produced by Rahki & Tommy Black
The song further expands on Kendrick’s long running poem that will continue throughout the album, this time concerning money and it’s power to corrupt even the strongest men and women. This song shows how Kendrick views the institution that is money, hence the title, and how the brainwashing effect of getting rich causes violence and greed. A beautifully sung chorus by Bilal, illustrates the thoughts of Kendrick’s Grand Ma:
Shit don’t change until you get up and wash your ass nigga Shit don’t change until you get up and wash your ass Shit don’t change until you get up and wash your ass nigga Oh now, slow down
Basically if you don’t get up and try to change something actively it will not change, like how if you don’t wipe your ass, that shit ain’t gonna change. But relating back to the money theme, Kendrick uses this to show how someone needs to put work in if they want to change themselves, and in this case, their view of money. A great instrumental courtesy of Rahki, gives the whole song a somber mood, as it should considering the only “feel good” song on this album is “i”. Kendrick murders the beat, and hell, Snoop’s contribution even feels warranted, he doesn’t rap or anything, he kinda just sings a catchy hook and it works real well.
5. These Walls Featuring Bilal, Anna Wise, & Thundercat; Produced by Terrace Martin, Larrance Dopson, & Sounwave
Strap in this ones a doozy. So the subject matter of this song is still up to interpretation, but i’ll tell it the way I see it. So the song starts with a girl moaning loudly. That’s odd, but it shows the one of the themes of this song, sex. That is only one of the many themes of this song, which I may even call Kendrick’s most complex, it’s up there with “Sing About Me”, and “Maad City”.
So here it goes: the first verse is about a certain type of walls, Kendrick spits a crazy nice verse, but what type of walls is he rapping about? Well for this one it’s vaginal walls. This vagina belongs to a certain girl that ties a lot together, the first verse shows that if her vaginal walls could talk they would scream in lust, and reflect Kendrick’s lust, since walls can’t actually talk, they reflect, they don’t respond, but they remind us and cause us to think because they help us reflect on the walls of not just our lives, but the walls of our minds and hearts.
The second verse is basically the same thing, but where it gets complicated is the third verse. The walls have now shifted to darker walls, the walls of a prison cell, the worst kind. On the other side of the “wall” the baby daddy of Kendrick’s side girl, reflects on his own life. Turns out this guy in prison is the one who killed David, aka the brother of Kendrick’s friend who had his point of view shown in the first verse of “Sing about me, I’m Dying of Thirst”. See how Kendrick connects it all; pretty cool. But it doesn’t stop there, this man in prison regrets it all, but Kendrick represents the self doubting part of this guys conscious, saying how could God take Kendrick’s homie but leave this douche alive. So now he worries what his girl is doing on the outside, and Kendrick takes solace in knowing this guy hates it, but Kendrick loves consoling this guy’s girl, regardless. Still with me? That was a lot to take in. Oh yeah, and the beat is so damn good, possibly my favorite on the album, and that’s saying a bunch considering some of the great shit on this album. The beat is light and soulful, but jazzy with some shimmering noises on the chorus and funk inspired drums this beat is an instant classic with a great chorus. And speaking of the chorus, Bilal and Mrs. Wise kill it. All of that makes for a great contender for best song on the album.
6. u Produced by Taz Arnold, Whoarei, & Sounwave
Wow, just wow. This is possibly the saddest thing to ever come out of Kendrick’s mouth; it’s downright depressing. It toys with your emotions and I love it. Kendrick’s never been this somber and that is reason enough to mention this song. Kendrick starts the song off with screams, of frustration, of joy, no one can say for sure. This song is a juxtaposition of “i”, a ballad about self love and respect. This song is none of that, it’s self loathing in a reflective sense that turns almost scary fast, because by the last verse you can hear Kendrick intoxicated, clinking bottles around as he contemplates suicide, ala Biggie. Kendrick is focusing on himself, the “u” in this song is Kendrick, as he begins to develop two sides to himself, over an issue that is very sad.
Kendrick’s friend, who was like a little brother to him, was shot in a drive-by and instead of going to see him, he skyped him, thinking he was gonna be alright. Well sadly he wasn’t because he later passed due to complications from the shooting. This scarred Kendrick so much so that he is developing split personalities. His conscience begins beating him up, saying no one should call him friend, you left the hood for money leaving behind those who care about you in spite of what they have done for you. He even goes as far to say God himself would say Kendrick was a failure (Damn). The song ends with Kendrick’s conscience saying he should have killed u a long time ago, the you being Kendrick’s other personality, and life, and by killing that Kendrick would literally die. And you thought your life was fucked up. The beat fits the lyrics perfectly and with their somber tone, they deliver the most emotional rap song I have heard in a very very long time.
7. Alright Produced by Pharrell Williams & Sounwave
So here the poem continues, with Kendrick saying and hoping that shit gonna be “Alright”, hence the title. Since “u” explores and details Kendrick’s struggles, it is fitting that “Alright” comes in next, detailing some of the ways he can go forward. But mostly Kendrick says that he finds it hard to believe that someone as fucked up as him can be loved by anyone, yet people love him, and because of this Kendrick refuses to give up. In this case giving up would be death, but he would rather die than break his promise to those that love him so much. A cool change of pace, even if it was a small one. And the beat, oh lord, the beat. Let me just say that Pharrell came through in a big way; this shit is real.
8. For Sale? (Interlude) Produced by Taz Arnold, Sounwave, & Terrace Martin
Notice something? “For Free?”. “For Sale?”. Yes, Kendrick is making a habit of juxtaposition, this is not the only case, because you see this with “u” and “i’. But this song details a character introduced in “Alright”. Someone named Lucy. Lucy = Lucifer. Anyone? Well here’s my spin on it: This Lucy loves Kendrick, it want’s Kendrick to sell him something, his soul, his life, and in return Lucy would make Kendrick happy, or so Lucy says. You need to listen to this song for yourself, it is riddled with religious wordplay, among other clever things. Like many of the songs off this album, it has to be experienced, from its cool spoken word verse, to it’s almost ethereal and cloudy beat; this track pleases the ear and the soul.
9. Momma Produced by Knxwledge & Taz Arnold
This song is interesting as it represents Kendricks return to Compton, thus the title “Momma” (Motherland thus leading many to believe he wants to return to Africa to humble himself). Is the home he’s speaking of Africa or the City of Compton? I can’t say for sure, but Kendrick kills it yet again. He says that you can never appreciate all your success if you never go back home to see how you got there, and that’s a nice heartfelt message. The beat is slow, methodical and cool, which only adds to Kendricks new upbeat infliction especially when he learns of how he has positively affected the community that made him. It lifted my spirits after the earlier parts of the album carried a lot of heavy subject matter; I kinda needed a song like this.
10. Hood Politics Produced by Tae Beast, Sounwave, & Thundercat
AWWWW shit time for some bars! But these bars don’t come without a heavy handed meaning. The title is literal, the politics of the hood, things being separated into red and blue, turning us against each other, making it impossible to love each other. But Kendrick raises the question how is this any different from our own government. They are red and blue to, but instead of Bloods, and Crips, it’s Democrats and Republicans, making it impossible to better us all, instead they bicker about stupid shit never getting anything done. This song is rapped in a higher pitch showing that Kendrick is doing this from the view of a younger Kendrick, when all he knew was Compton with gangs and all, therefore continuing the theme of juxtaposition. Since in the last song it was from the point of modern Kendrick, with what he knows now, returning to the hood. “Outward bound Kendrick” vs. “Inward bound Kendrick”. And like always Kendrick paints this picture perfectly with crazy lines like this:
The streets don’t fail me now, they want to put the game in town From Compton to Congress, it’s set trippin’ all around Ain’t nothin’ new but a flow of new DemoCrips and ReBloodlicans Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’?
You can’t tell me that ain’t smart. In fact I would go as far to call it genius. But this song ain’t all lyrics, like every song so far it brings it in the instrumental department, yet another jazzy tune i’ll be humming for years to come.
11. How Much a Dollar Cost Featuring James Fauntleroy & Ronald Isley; Produced by LoveDragon
This song is really damn interesting. It goes like this: Kendrick runs into a homeless man, who asks for little more than a buck, but Kendrick denies him in a very selfish way, especially since Kendrick is a successful rapper, how could he not spare a dollar? How much does his dollar cost? This homeless man doesn’t give up easily he starts to drop biblical references on Kendrick, this confuses Kendrick, but Kendrick is adamant; it’s his money, so he is gonna keep it. Well the homeless man doesn’t take kindly to this and through a strange turn of events, this man reveals himself to be God, yes the almighty one, and says that Kendrick failed by refusing to give up something as simple as a dollar. He has failed not only god, but himself, by being unwilling to give to the poor what God gave to him he has forsaken his place in heaven and with that God vanishes. This blew my mind the first time I heard it, just like Common’s classic song “I Used to Love H.E.R.”. And the beat seems to drone whenever money is mentioned, it is somber, showing how Kendrick is being Selfish and Greedy, even towaydoterds god himself. This song is an experience in every sense of the word.
12. Complexion (A Zulu Love) Featuring Rapsody; Produced by Thundercat, Sounwave, Terrace Martin, & Antydote
Sadly I can’t really speak on this, since I am not Black (I’m half Hispanic, half White), I have never experienced something like the events this song portrays, so I’ll try my best to analyze this song. Basically it seems that Kendrick wants everyone to know that no matter what your complexion, from very dark, to “bright as the morning sun”, we are all brothers and sisters. This song is one of the heights of the pro-Black (not anti-White mind you) themes throughout the album. Light skinned or not it does not matter, this so called colorism is a problem and Kendrick thinks it should stop. This is a great song. Kendrick raps his heart out on every track and this is no exception. And The Rapsody feature is pretty great to and only adds to this already great track.
13. The Blacker The Berry Featuring Assassin; Produced by Boi-1da, KOZ, & Terrace Martin
Well here it is, the second single off this album, if “i” was Martin Luther King, this song would be Malcom X. Instead of taking a stance of non violence and self love shown in “i”, this song is a bit more angry, probably the most hardcore song on the whole album. This is backed up by Boi-1da’s banging beat. The thing that really drove this song home for me though, was the last few lines of the song,
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!
In the same fashion as Common in “I Used to love H.E.R.”, Kendrick reveals his problem at the last second, with the hypocrite, in his eyes being the Black race, the whole Black race, how can you cry for Trayvon or Michael Brown, when gangs still exist and black people kill each other everyday? He thinks we should first look at ourselves, thats a bigger problem in his eyes. I’ll keep my opinion on this to myself, but I like the song; it’s a great banger, after a so far laid back album.
14. You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said) Produced by LoveDragon
This song is for all the fools on Instagram, flexing lies that don’t really portray who they really are. You don’t have to lie to be successful; look at Kendrick, he became a huge success by selling us his life story in the form of awe inspiring music. Not much more to it, but there doesn’t have to be. The beat is soulful and on point as usual.
15. i Produced by Rahki
This song was the first thing anyone heard of this album, but the version on the album is a little different than the video with Kendrick doing that little dance (Although I dig it). In an interesting turn of eventsm Kendrick chose to use a live version of “i”. Now I won’t go into all the deep meaning behind “i” like I have for other songs, because it is pretty straight forward, but the reason he chose this live version is simple. At the end of it, you hear Kendrick dealing with a heckler, in possibly the best way i’ve ever heard. People were shitting on this song because it had a good message but what’s wrong with a good message? Anyway I digress, Kendrick tells the heckler straight up that he needs to do this not during Kendrick’s concert, Kendrick loves all of his fans, and he thinks they need this song. He cites how many people we’ve lost this year to tragedy that could be prevented with love and acceptance, so this shuts the heckler up real good. And the live version makes this song human; it has Kendrick’s mannerisms, it feels like you’re at a concert, and that’s amazing. I almost prefer this version to the studio one. It’s great. And the beat is a great throwback to the Isley Brothers; hell one of em even does the intro and outro. Great song. When the biggest rapper in the world has us screaming “I love myself”, you know Hip-Hop is doing something right.
16. Mortal Men Produced by Sounwave
This song is super interesting, Kendrick wants to become rap’s Mandela, pushing social justice as a necessity rather than a privilege, and through this album, Kendrick hopes to further that cause. He wants to use fame for more than money and power. He want’s fame to use as a platform to push love and respect amongst us all. Isn’t that awesome? I sure as hell think so. I’m tired of rappers wanting fame for nothing more than money and bitches, Kendrick’s breaking the mold by being a positive force for the world, and he does this by starting from within and moving outward once he has changed himself. It’s beautiful on paper, and I hope Kendrick can do it.
But the real reason this song is eye opening is the outro. Kendrick finishes his poem and we find out who he is reading it to: None other than the King of the West Coast, Tupac. Holy shit, this blew my damn mind; it was a torch passing in every sense of the word. Kendrick was so influenced by Pac and his message and struggle, that it help him improve. Kendrick ends the poem with a metaphor about caterpillars, and how the world shuns them. So the cocoon institutionalized it, only those that break the cocoon can shine light on the rest of the caterpillars trying to break out, into a beautiful butterfly. Kendrick asks Pacs thoughts, but gets no response, because this album was the response. Are we the butterfly to be pimped, or are we one to break free, like Kendrick ? If Pac is in a way living through Kendrick, we don’t need a response from him, Kendrick has already did it for us.
People were afraid that after good kid, m.A.A.d city he might fall off, but he not only met my expectation, he shattered it. good kid gave Kendrick the means to make this album. It gave him the audience he needed, it opened people’s minds, so that To Pimp a Butterfly could walk through the door and blow peoples’ minds. He had to compromise on good kid; make radio hits so people would know his name, but now that people know him, he can do whatever he wants to do artistically and people will listen, and that artistic freedom is what makes this album amazing.
I have never heard this Kendrick before, he’s more reflective and political than he was on good kid, and that’s a good thing. True art should have a deep meaning, as such this album had one. We are a product of our surroundings, but what you do with that product is up to you; don’t let others pimp you out, because then you have been beaten.
The production of this album was nothing short of amazing, every song a perfect tune, each more memorable than the last. The lyrics were filled with quotables that I will remember for a very long time.
So what do I think of this album? Well to be blunt I think it is better than good kid, but not only that, I would argue that it might be the best album I have heard in the last 5 years or even more. But it is so much more than an album, it is something to be experienced (Something rare in this day and age); listening to it in one sitting is one of the most musically satisfying things I’ve done in awhile. So where does this leave Kendrick? Is he what he wants to be, a rapper with a voice, that goes beyond the studio, and into our hearts and minds? I sure as hell think so, yet again the ball is in Kendrick’s court, but this time I think it is going to stay there for a long long time. People were afraid that after good kid he might fall off, but he not only met my expectations, he shattered it. That is why I give this album nappyafro’s 4th ever classic rating: To Pimp A Butterfly rightfully earns itself a 5 out of 5. Now I think I’m gonna go give this classic another listen.