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Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly Review

March 20, 2015 | Posted by David Hayter
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Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly Review  

1. “Wesley’s Theory” featuring George Clinton & Thundercat
2. “For Free? (Interlude)”

3. “King Kunta”
4. “Institutionalized” featuring Bilal, Anna Wise, & Snoop Dogg
5. “These Walls” featuring Bilal, Anna Wise, & Thundercat
6. “u”
7. “Alright”
8. “For Sale? (Interlude)”
9. “Momma”
10. “Hood Politics”
11. “How Much A Dollar Cost” featuring James Fauntleroy & Ronald Isley

12. “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” featuring Rapsody

13. “The Blacker The Berry”
14. “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”

15. “i”
16. “Mortal Man”

Kendrick Lamar has been sending out mixed messages ever since good kid, M.A.A.d city turned Section.80’s best rapper alive hype into a near tangible reality. On his incendiary “Control” verse Kendrick turned a tired macho pissing contest trope on its head. He refused to diss his worthy rivals, instead opting to challenge the hottest names in hip hop to elevate their game: “I’m trying to raise the bar high, who tryna jump and get it?”

Reframing the rap game as a quest for supreme artistry rather than endless riches is welcome, and Kendrick is quick to mock hypocrites who yearn for a return to the golden age on To Pimp A Butterfly: “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin’. Motherfucker if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum”. Unfortunately, Kendrick’s commitment to artistic integrity would be easier to swallow if he wasn’t to be found recycling punchlines on A$AP Rocky’s shallow, but addictive, misogynist jam “Fuckin’ Problems”. So who is Kendrick Lamar exactly? Is he bastion of old school values, a hyper talented hypocrite or perhaps he’s an arch modernist hiding in plain sight?

To Pimp A Butterfly doesn’t necessarily answer this question, but it does suggest, perhaps too transparently, where Kendrick would like to be positioned. Opener “Welsey’s Theory” drops the listener into a world of intergalactic funk laced with bad acid and soothed by dilated soul. Backed up by a jazz trope and with George Clinton and Thundercat in tow, Kendrick is very transparently tapping into a lineage of black artistry that has existed alongside, while remaining unpolluted by, the mainstream.

The touchstones are clear enough and a historic thread can be traced from Dorothy Ashby’s Afro-Harping through Funkadelic, Sly Stond and the drug addled 70s into and beyond the 90s revivalists (Q-Tip, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu), right up to Andre 3000’s The Love Below. In other words, this is black culture that defies appropriation. There may be some hipster nods, but you’ll be confronted by the yelping, half-screeched slam poetry of the oppressed before you hear the throbbing alien sounds of modern race-neutral electronica.


The Roots or Mos Def might provide a welcome rap game comparison, but Erykah Badu is Kendrick’s most apparent peer. Badu wove the rich historic sounds of black innovation and alienation into a beautiful modern form which (like D’Angelo’s Voodoo) sounded both of and against it era. Kendrick’s willfully wonky soundscapes certainly reject vibrant maximalism, Kanye’s paranoid minimalism and today’s hyper accented regionalism, instead Kendrick appears to be broadcasting directly from 1999. This leads to a certain originality deficit. Kendrick isn’t contributing anywhere near the innovation of Andre 3000, instead, his production choices revitalize rather than reimagine the past. Therefor, just as Badu’s soul set her apart, Kendrick’s lyricism is trusted with turning these heady historical references and densely layered jazz odysseys into something vital and timely.

Kendrick is more than up for the task. He flies out of the gate with a fearsome three-punch combination. “Wesley’s Theory” is a gloriously trippy destabilizing jam that sees Kendrick powering relentless onwards beneath an onslaught of skull crushing funk. The results is a modern fable that sees a bright young talent corrupted by a world that indoctrinates wildly unsustainable and wholly irresponsible consumption. “For Free?” takes the woman’s perspective and finds the fairer sex stuck in the same no win cycle, chasing perpetual unhappiness when presented with a never-ending parade of unattainable comparisons. If it’s all getting a little bleak and suffocatingly high minded, “King Kunta’s” effortless walking braggadocio adds a welcome does of buoyancy to Kendrick’s implausibly dense word play. The track rides such irrepressibly good vibes that it creates the image of Kendrick Lamar strolling from hood to hood and block to boulevard with his head held high, setting the world to rights one street at a time, with a bad ass beat in back.

Unfortunately, not every track is so effortless. Kendrick’s new penchant for poetry and his habit of screwing is vocal into increasingly knotted (and unintentionally comic) tones does him few favours. “Mortal Man” the album’s closer which sees Kendrick interview Tupac is, well, as portentous and leaden as it sounds. It’s impact, unlike the vast majority of To Pimp A Butterfly, is only diminished with multiple listens. The central point; addressing the contradiction between the ghetto superstar living his dreams, outgrowing his demons and turning a social conscience into positive change is better expressed elsewhere on an album that struggles to find the line between lecturing, hectoring and inspiring.

“Complexion (A Zulu Love)” toes this line with grace. The arrangement allows plenty of breathing room (a rarity on this record) as Kendrick calmly critiques colorism and the beauty myth. This is a key lesson that is hard for many social activists to learn: as tempting as it may be to read the opposition the riot act, this plays into their hands. They want to paint black beauty activists into a no-fun, humorless box and, by creating a sensual and easy going effort, Kendrick preempts this rebuttal and sets the stage for a great admission of his own guilt: “Beauty is what you make it, I used to be so mistaken”.


“u” suggests that Kendrick is keenly aware how painfully illusive true social betterment can be. Fame, wealth and riches reap marginal rewards: what’s one rescued soul compared to an ocean of slowly drowning bodies? Still, where should the line be drawn between playing the blame game and refusing to help the helpless? Or Kendrick might ask, who deserves to be saved when everybody is made complicit? If this sounds like too much of a downer, then be warned, Kendrick dives headlong into the abyss revisiting alcoholism and detailing the bloody death of friend. But fear not, K. Dot is still capable of playing the macabre tour guide. He walks his listeners through the streets of Compton on “Hood Politics” illustrating the grand machinations seeping down from Capitol Hill to the blood stained streets of LA. To top it of, Kendrick rides a beat that feels like an unnerving alien variation of a Californian classic.

Kendrick’s crafty knack for curation comes to the fore as the album’s breeziest jams, “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” and “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”, buttress the earth scorching tour de force “The Blacker The Berry” (a vital critique that leaves no face or race blameless) and “i”, a bombastic assertion of love and self belief. Kendrick’s conclusion is the only one that can emerge from an album of recrimination and re-education. After bringing up the bodies and exposing every unhelpful tool of suppression and source of depression riddling the black community, Kendrick could only have ended with a unifying gesture. In the context of To Pimp A Butterfly, “i” appears more complex than ever. The lead single is not a way to dismiss hypocrisy, alleviate guilt or forget past wrongs: it is the only possible solution, say it loud and say it proud: “I love myself!”

Is To Pimp A Butterfly a worthy air to Erykah, D’Angelo and Andre 3000’s throne? Yes and no. Kendrick is an eager standard bearer for a rich tapestry of black sonic innovation that has survived from the jazz age through funk and into 90s world of warped neo-soul. To Pimp A Butterfly does not add anything significantly new to this lineage (aside from stellar wordplay of course), this isn’t an Andre 3000 moment of demented originality, nor a Shabazz Palaces style dimension shift. Instead, Kendrick drapes himself in the garb of pioneer to give a pointed dissection of oppression – both of society and the self.

He’s got a bone to pick and Kendrick is not going to bend or offer the slightest concession to the mainstream until he’s delivered this vital, no stone-unturned treatise. In a quest to detail the struggle, Kendrick occasionally loses sight of his own fundamentally optimistic message: be the (good) person you want to be, each and every day. To Pimp A Butterfly may be labored, but it is also a dizzying, dislocating listen that challenges and astounds with incredible frequency.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Records this bold invite dissection. Kendrick packs such a depth of reflection, recrimination and misery into 78 densely layered minutes that fanatics and detractors will spend a lifetime unpicking his every choked syllable. It’s tempting to get lost in the minutiae of an album that lays everything (the funk, the thought, the wordplay) on so thick, that stepping back and viewing the album as a whole appears impossible – like looking up from the base of a mountain and expecting to see the peak. What can be said is this: Kendrick is attempting to position himself within a broader legacy of starkly black sonic innovation and social recrimination. Kendrick’s wild and unpredictable tracts serve to modernize the latter, but do little to reimagine the former. This is not a grand departure, nor is a lurch towards raps conservatism; instead, To Pimp A Butterfly is an invitation to listen closely and be moved by tales of woe, suppression, hypocrisy and – when he strikes the right balance – optimism.

article topics :

Kendrick Lamar, David Hayter