So Black, So Strong: Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly

There were doubters -- myself included. How do you follow up your own story with more narrative substance? And more assertively, how do you follow up one of the best releases of the 21st Century? Kendrick, in good kid, m.A.A.d. city, had so thoroughly covered his origin story with such gusto, it was logical to think he may struggle to produce something equally expressive in clarity and intent. Of course, it is an absurd notion to suggest that narratives dried up for Kendrick since GKMC’s 2012 release. This was a man who quickly became hailed as the best (or close to it) in his craft within a month. His ascent wasn’t rapid--it was meteoric. His life totally changed in a short period, and he was left to process that. When things explode, it is usually tough to pick the pieces back up.

Well, things definitely exploded for Kendrick. Pressures within, pressures without. America once again tragically demonstrating its inherent disdain for black bodies and black lives. GKMC demonstrates Kendrick’s extraordinary capacity to absorb, observe, and express his surrounding world. With all the chaos and tumult that came as a result of his newly-Messianic status in hip-hop, Kendrick keenly felt the pain that these changes brought with them. Everyone wanted a piece of Kendrick, and he felt himself so stretched that depression and fear took hold.

To Pimp A Butterfly is the soundtrack of Kendrick’s confusion, conflict, anger, fear, and finding love within himself. It is aggressive, tetchy, dense, and at many points snarling with two middle fingers defiantly held up. By addressing the maelstrom and confusion around, it offers overwhelming clarity from one of the greatest rappers of all time.

That assessment may seem overblown and premature, but this album demands it. Following up an all-time classic with an all-time classic tends to do that. Technically, Kendrick does things that most rappers simply cannot conceive. The first time I listened to this album, I thought about my own feeble attempts to write rhymes freshman year of college (because, of course I did), and simply laughed to myself. This stuff is HARD. But, this is a man that manipulates language with automatic ease--Kendrick breathes, Kendrick raps; it’s all the same. He is capable of doing anything at any point. The variety of his flows, deliveries, and the sheer lyrical force throughout the album comprises a gobsmacking masterclass. He bobs and weaves, sometimes delivering words with the force of a speeding train, other times letting words dribble out of his mouth like mashed carrots out of the mouth of a baby. He restrains at the right moments throughout the album. Kendrick has always had an ear for the hook and the one-liner that is “windows-down driving while rapping along” amazing, and they are littered throughout the album.

The album is thematically huge and imagining another rapper (except 3 Stacks or ‘Ye) attempting it is just humorous. In our unfortunate age of hashtag rap, the line, “I was feeling sad…. DEPRESSION”, is unfortunately conceivable (and if you dug in SoundCloud, you could probably find it). R.I.P. Drake. Never say you are the best in the game again. You aren’t even on the same planet. Although -- right now -- no one is.

Musically, the album is dense and complex, taking its largest cues from 70s P-Funk and psychedelic jazz. Like some of the greatest music, it strikes a perfect balance between referentiality and progress. Much of this is due to Kendrick expanding his horizons and seeking out the leaders of the Los Angeles vanguard of electronic music, Flying Lotus and Thundercat. This is a new West Coast sound. One that pummels with overdriven bass and softens the blow with sultry sax croons. FlyLo is undeniably brilliant and visionary, but most emcees would never dream of trying to conquer one of his beats (which Kendrick did last year with consummate ease), much less make an album with his fingerprints all over it. But when your technical ability has no limits, it is amazing how far you can take the music behind it. It is no coincidence that in these times of racial distress and tension, Kendrick leaned on two of the more subversive and insular black musical traditions for this album, funk and jazz. The music is unapologetically black--even afrocentric--while seeking to incorporate past sounds into the music of the present.

The album opener is fantastic. “Wesley’s Theory”, starts with the laid-back 70’s horn-based groove playing over the crackle of vinyl with the lyrics, “Every n** is a star” sung with loving care. Kendrick had only briefly exposed his ideology regarding race and it too closely mirrored pull-your-pants-up Cosbyism for comfort. This album thankfully clarified Kendrick’s stance and it is found in the album title, To Pimp A Butterfly. He communicates the deep distrust for American institutions that black people feel and demands that they look within for power, strength, and social mobility. America provides a terrible “cocoon” of urban ails, poverty, and incarceration for the majority of our black residents. With disinterest, the system exploits you if you are exceptional enough to rise out. It is a sad but needed sentiment by a luminary clearly interested in becoming more than music. As stated later in the album, he feels the ghosts of Mandela and 2Pac.

Then, the beat drops in “Wesley’s Theory” and you are tumbling in a time machine helmed by an acid-addled Flying Lotus headed straight for a 70’s Parliament concert. The synthesizer bounces throughout, its strange tones cutting through the rapid drum kit, chimes, and horns that surround it. The song speaks of the rightful indignation Kendrick feels at being forced to pay into a system that does nothing for him, citing Wesley Snipes’ “tax protester theory” to speak of how successful black artists are “pimped” by the American government. When considering the hegemonic force that is American culture throughout the world and how much black culture has contributed to this, this sentiment has particular merit. This also clarifies the satirical album cover. While hordes of young black men swarming the White House may be America’s worst fear, it is a deeper commentary on how America continues to curb racial progress. Using Obama’s election or the presence of wealthy blacks to supplement the absurd notion that we exist in a post-racial society, Kendrick lambasts those notions with barbed-wire critiques such as, “Imma put the Compton swap meet by the White House / Republican, run up, get socked out / Hit the Pres with a Cuban link on my neck / Uneducated but I got a million dollar check, like that”. He is interested in change, no matter how terrifying that may look.

“King Kunta” is the most radio-friendly song on the album and it isn’t that radio-friendly. It is a swaggering, middle-fingers raised, funked-out stomp with Kendrick perched at the throne, taking aim at those beneath him. He is one of the most talented musicians alive, is black as night, and is gonna let you know how proud he is of both. It is a victory lap after the hip-hop axis tilting verse on “Control.” The hook is triumphant and Big Boi-amazing in its infectiousness. “Bitch where were you when I was walkin’? / Now I run the game got the whole world talkin’, King Kunta / Everybody wanna cut the legs off him, Kunta / Black man taking no losses”. The hypnotic guitar notes throughout the song are so Dr. Dre referential you would think this was a beat made for Eminem in the early 2000s.

“Hood Politics” is another triumph presented with “dog lifting a leg” disdain. The Steely Dan-like intro gives way to a ferocious, woozy beat of a more orthodox hip-hop variety. It is unmistakably West-Coast and gives proper deference to the off-kilter, Dr. Dre-championed sound of yore. It features one of my favorite lines, if nothing else because it shouts out a massively underrated rapper, “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin’ / Motherfucker if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum.” The song also contains one of the most quotable nuggets on the album with the interlude, “OBAMA SAY WHAT IT DO”.

Although released months previously, the track “i” takes on such a new shape and flavor at the end of the album, and the new form is staggering. A celebration of self-love, it means everything when taken in the context of an entire album of Kendrick at war with himself and the world around him. This is a man that has battled tirelessly over the last few years to be able to boldly declare “ I LOVE MYSELF” (and win a Grammy for it!), and his triumph is positively soul-elevating. The dark journey through his psyche is tied together beautifully with the culmination being clarity and self-worth. A victory of human spirit.

To Pimp A Butterfly belongs in the canon of landmark albums. It is a singular work of genius artistic expression. Kendrick exposes every one of his fears, vulnerabilities, and concerns over our concerning world to convey his incredible strength and talent. While feeling stretched in every emotional sense, he dug within to continue to tell his story. As listeners, we are privileged that a star would choose to share so much of himself with us. Since he is one of the greatest technicians and storytellers rap has ever seen, it comes as no surprise that in the process of exposing so much of himself and his thoughts, he has released another classic.

All hail King Kendrick.

9.8/10 -- Own it. Listen to it 5 times consecutively. GKMC cemented Kendrick as one of the best -- To Pimp A Butterfly makes Kendrick an icon.