Engrave this into stone. Kendrick Lamar’s third album To Pimp A Butterfly is one of the great hip-hop albums. He has risen from the anticipation and pressure heaped on him since his 2012 sophomore good kid M.A.A.D city, with a resolute focus and strict mandate to deliver something equally essential. Butterfly is dark and twisted, far from a joyous occasion, as he channels a convoluted frustration with fame, family, government, and prejudice into sixteen tracks.
Lamar is at his purest – often self deprecating and brutally honest – on Butterfly. There are no corners or shadows for him to hide in, shedding light on his creative and ingenious flare. There is an undercurrent of underwater 70s funk throughout, with splats of jazz, soul and rock fusioned into a jam that Kendrick can rock to. He owes much of this production to Thundercat and Flying Lotus for fashioning this feel. It picks up where Mark Ronson left off with Uptown Special, with less glitter (and less Bruno Mars).
Whilst he does spawn subplots, black oppression drives Kendrick’s purpose on this album. He uses the power of different mediums; rap, poem, interview, and the speech he gives on ‘i’ saturate the listener with his intention. He articulates his frustration with a world where black men are institutionalised, victims of their microcosm and unable to expand their horizons.
“I remember you was conflicted” is the opening line of the poem that recurs throughout the album, each time Kendrick adding a line, before reciting the whole piece on ‘Mortal Man’. His message is distilled down to respect being imperative, within oneself and others, in order to effect change. He then elaborates on these concepts with a fictionalised interview with Tupac, using clips lifted from interviews dating back to 1994. Lamar seems giddy to be in the presence of his idol; able to live out some kind of teenage fantasy. Rather than trying to inspire revolt, he tries to spread peace and positive reinforcement.
He shakes off that unwanted commercial collar he has attracted with sections that make listeners squirm, including a crying drunken rap he delivers on the second half of ‘u’, as well as the sex noises on the intro to ‘These Walls’. There are no glossy turn-up tracks equivalent to ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’ on Butterfly. Last September’s single ‘i’, was torn down by some K.Dot supporters for being too cheerful and commercial, so he promptly dismantled and redelivered it to a mock live audience on Butterfly. Throughout the whole ‘performance’ he calls out: “mic get turned up”, and pleads with his audience to “get to the front”, as he gets drowned out by crowd noise, representing how he felt when the rap world shunned it on release.
Picking out an album highlight is difficult; they shift on a daily basis, which is testament to the strength of Butterfly. I’ll lock in ‘These Walls’ as my pick. The West Coast beat sees Kendrick in his element, sliding into his verses a beat earlier than anticipated. The tension and angst in his voice relaxes giving way to an easy, deft flow, well complemented by sweetened guitar licks. Don’t be fooled by ‘For Free?’, being labelled as an interlude. It provides comic relief with Kendrick launching a blistering assault over jazz spasms – proving he could keep up with Busta Rhymes; all in 2 minutes, 11 seconds.
Butterfly is the album Kendrick needed to write. He snatches back the reigns of hip-hop from his peers, offers the social commentary he was urged to vocalise, and packages it in a narrative as compelling as his first two offerings.
Originally posted for Grok Magazine