Although we are only three months into 2015, I believe that many hip hop fans would agree with me when I say this is shaping up to be the best year of rap performances in a very long time. It feels like there’s a battle going on among artists and we are getting to hear the best they have to offer as a result. J.Cole set the tone late last year when he dropped off an unusually candid album with very little promotion. In the past month, we’ve received works from Drake and Big Sean that are also more content than glamour. I credit Kendrick Lamar with this current surge of artistry among his peers. When he was featured on Big Sean’s single, Control, Lamar sent shock waves through the industry by calling his fellow chart-toppers to action. There were of course countless responses via remixes, but the fruits of retaliation are just now being shown through artists’ original material.
50 Cent is a prime example of stirring the pot and confronting the backlash with a solid body of work. I don’t know of any current superstars who have been able to do the same successfully, so I’ve been eager to hear if this socially conscious kid from the West could nail it. To Pimp a Butterfly is Kendrick Lamar’s third album but only his second major label release. The overall vibe and subject matter is nearly too eclectic to properly explain, so reviewing it isn’t as simple as discussing your typical cookie cutter project. To prepare yourself for this listening experience, I definitely wouldn’t recommend listening to any of his previous work first. If anything, you’d want to put this in rotation with albums from artists like The Roots, Ralphael Saadiq, Talib Kweli, and Common.
The cover art of To Pimp a Butterfly displays a group of young black men posing in front of The White House. Lying beneath them, is a politician who appears to either be dead or unconscious. So needless to say, this album touches subject matter that does not get play in mainstream media outlets. The lead single, I, earned Lamar Grammy wins this year. The track is about loving self despite numerous obstacles and influences. I admittedly do not like the song. The hook is corny to me and the instrumental is just too sample heavy for my liking. Of course, I have no qualms with the subject matter, but I didn’t truly feel it’s importance until hearing the album version. Lamar makes a genius decision by placing a live performance on the track list. Halfway through the song, a group of people begin to fight in the audience. Lamar stops the music and addresses the fans with a word of self-respect. He then goes directly into an a capella freestyle about the true origin of the increasingly controversial “N word”. The absolute perfect timing and emotional drive behind this moment causes an extremely rare feeling of victorious enlightenment in hip hop.
King Kunta is the second and latest single from To Pimp a Butterfly. The track is about the closest Lamar gets to trash talking on the entire project. It’s produced by Sounwave who is most known for producing the Kendrick Lamar hit Don’t Kill My Vibe. The entire song screams West coast and Dr. Dre influence. This is another one that has grown on me after a few plays, but still isn’t a track I will listen to much in the future. In my opinion, it seems Lamar released the two only lackluster songs before the album’s release. The real fire is in the remainder of the project. The album comes in on a wave of funk with Wesley’s Theory. An unruly guitar riff accompanied by a raw drum set lay the groundwork for a great sound. Add the help of the legendary George Clinton and you have a beautifully surreal rap intro.
On Institutionalized, Lamar brings in Bilal and Snoop Dogg, magnifying the G-funk tone set by the intro. The lyrics address the feeling of leaving one’s comfort zone in order to make positive change. Having Snoop carry this track turns out to be a great idea as he sets up an old school storytelling flow. The track then transitions seamlessly into one of my favorite cuts on the project, These Walls. Bilal is featured again on this metaphoric love song. The track initially sounds like your typical bedroom banter, but gradually evolves into something deeper. Lamar ends by talking about how lust and desire can so easily lead to resentment. As this occurs, he masterfully transitions into the following track, U. The composition of U switches to a neo-soul vibe as Lamar digs deeper into the despair and resentment one may experience internally post relationship.
Another one of my favorite tracks is Alright. The Pharrell Williams produced cut is a laid back anthem of optimism. “I’m at the preacher’s door. My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow but we gon’ be alright.”. Like the majority of the project, the song is metaphor heavy but it’s undeniably a motivating tune. The Thundercat produced track, Hood Politics, is one of the hardest hitting beats on To Pimp a Butterfly. Lamar wisely utilizes it to illustrate the hood as an independent society with plenty of unique politics. He allows the listener to see a different aspect of what many people only see on the news. I especially like that Lamar ends the song by reminding critics and listeners that appreciation for true hip hop isn’t shown, despite the constant cries for such.
Continuing the barrage of edgy subject matter, Lamar uses Complexion(A Zulu Love) to address the touchy conversation of skin tone within the black American community. I feel he manages to do so without sounding too preachy or condescending. Lamar attacks a relentlessly brutal instrumental by addressing hypocrisy pertaining to racism on The Blacker the Berry. I caught myself applauding a few lines as he juggles between addressing government officials and gang members alike. The project ends with an awesome conversation about class wars in America and what the future holds for all involved.
It’s not often that an album of any genre feels like educational material set to background music these days. As a result, I honestly don’t believe most fans will truly appreciate To Pimp a Butterfly for many years. It will take more national news stories to draw attention to just how much of a real life soundtrack Lamar has created. Many listeners have already said the album is too preachy and political. That, of course, is a matter of opinion. I personally don’t think that is an unfair assessment, however I do happen to believe it’s necessary for any artist who manages to capture the ears of multiple demographics. I think doing such definitely sacrifices radio play and club scene promotion, but it’s a brave risk that must be taken in order to have an album that may be considered a classic in the future. I think it’s much too early for anyone to label To Pimp a Butterfly.
With new releases from Action Bronson, Drake, Big Sean, Earl Sweatshirt, Kanye West, and J. Cole in the mix, it’s extremely important that each artist releases work of purpose. As I’ve said before, there is a beautiful shift happening in the hip hop world and I’m very grateful for the effort. I believe we as listeners should be sure to take a break from complaining and take some time to acknowledge the great work being put in by artists such as Kendrick Lamar. If you check out To Pimp a Butterfly with an open mind and attentive ear, you will surely understand that the project is something special.