Much has already been said about Kendrick Lamar’s highly anticipated third studio album, To Pimp A Butterfly. It has been analysed and deconstructed over and over again, in an attempt to pinpoint the core of its message. The album’s brilliance isn’t really in the hard won wisdom it tries to share but instead in the vividness with which Lamar describes his journey of self-discovery and self-realization. The album’s message, for all its political charge and social consciousness, is a fairly simple one – rise beyond your environment to become the best you can be. The specifics of how that message is conveyed complicate the album, but not to its detriment. Kendrick describes the effects that modern capitalism has had on him and his peers, using himself as a cautionary tale to keep them from the evils of ‘Uncle Sam and Lucy’ while using the metaphor of the butterfly to compare those who were able to overcome their environments to those who weren’t. The album’s title, a new take on Lee Harper’s classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird, reveals Lamar’s lofty creative ambitions. To Pimp A Butterfly is not quite as literary as its iconic inspiration, but given the difference in medium, it’s impressively close; with its mix of jazz, spoken word and hip-hop, the album is concerned less with being definitively hip-hop and more with getting its message across.
In the transition from good kid, m.A.A.d City to To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick has discarded the essence of what made the former a modern hip hop classic. Fans who loved his first two efforts will struggle to find songs that showcase Kendrick just diving in into a song and killing verses like he is wont to do. This is not to say that the album is any less lyrical in any way. If anything, its lyricism has only become more elaborate, though at times Kendrick’s slower, more emotive delivery doesn’t feel quite like hip-hop. The more deliberate delivery is, of course, a way for him to focus on presenting his carefully crafted metaphors better – but therein lays a potential minefield for the album as a whole. It is nigh impossible to separate the music from the message at this point – it would be entirely understandable for a more casual listener to give the album a skip because he or she is more interested in the music than in what Kendrick has to say about the society. It’s truly a shame because even if the message and metaphors fly over your head, Kendrick’s variety of flows, his talent and his intelligence all make this album thoroughly enjoyable.
It’s odd but To Pimp A Butterfly is a binary album; you either listen to all of it, or none of it. Some of the tracks, a very select few really, can stand alone but the majority need the album’s context to make them as enjoyable and meaningful. This isn’t just limited to the album’s lyrical layer either – even musically, there are tracks that are enhanced several times over by listening to the tracks that preceded them. A great example of this would be ‘Alright’, a religious reassurance that things will work out for the album’s protagonist, that comes right after the incredibly depressing ‘u’. The jump from negative to positive gives the latter a vibrancy that it would lack without the former to provide contrast. The entire album really, is excellently arranged and despite featuring a whole host of techniques and instruments from a variety of genres, executive producer and Lamar himself have worked hard to give the album a coherence that is absolutely critical in making it the musical success that it is. From the ‘lava-lamp’ like drums on the opening track to the ‘live’ performance of ‘i’, the album features a range of sound as diverse as the emotion of the tracks that they appear on. In hip-hop, it is common for the beat to play a secondary role at best in an album’s theme but this is an exception; the album’s sound is as critical to the story being told as the words themselves.
To Pimp A Butterfly doesn’t make for the lightest listening; a superficial reading of the album will let you absorb the music without the meaning but conversely, inquiring too closely into each individual track and its poetry will keep the listener from truly appreciating the value that the music provides to the project as a whole. Despite the plethora of departures from conventional hip-hop techniques, the album doesn’t really feel experimental and perhaps that’s a testament to Kendrick’s conviction in its delivery. An album as charged and conscious as this one always walks the line between incisive insight and hyperbole, and there are certainly times when Kendrick lays it on a little thick but by centring the album on himself, he avoids coming across as too critical of those he is trying to redeem. To Pimp A Butterfly will probably never see the kind of commercial success forecast for it but hopefully Kendrick’s mainstream appeal and the album’s sheer quality will be enough to get it the attention it deserves.
Stand out tracks:
- King Kunta
- How Does A Dollar Cost?