Album Reviews

To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

Final Rating: 9.6/10

To Kill a Mockingbird is timeless. It describes the shattering of a child’s perception of a delightful world. When Scout Finch discovered something as hateful as racism, America was never the same. A mockingbird sings a peaceful tune. A butterfly shows off its proud colours. To pimp one out, you are taking advantage of its pride. That is how Kendrick Lamar feels about the state of African American culture in the United States. The confidence is there, and it is being abused.

To Pimp a Butterfly goes through African culture, both in America and back home. The identity this album has is strong, and you may not see it immediately. You will recognize the many styles it covers, which range from funk to r&b, from jazz to spoken word and then some. You see the foundations of hip hop piled on top of one another. These blueprints make a strong fort where you are barked at when you stand outside. Once you climb in, this house makes a lot of sense. There is no linear story here and no evolution of sound. Every era, timbre, strum and hit has circled, fused together and collided against one another. Culture is permanent, and it shall never die; Even with its head on the chopping block for the world to see.

Lamar is isolated here. He has many friends backing him up, but he has a statement he wishes to take full responsibility for. He questions what it means to be African American, and he asks this again and again with both a satisfied nod and throat tugging risk. With moments on the album being repeated again and again, it’s something he can’t find a singular answer for. He is both as optimistic and pessimistic as possible, because even he knows something as deeply rooted as culture cannot be figured out by one person.

It isn’t easy to label either. On good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lamar told a tale about maturity and life through the events of an evolving rap artist in the streets. To Pimp a Butterfly is far too intricate to display a story. There’s an idea that is approached from many ideas. These are the thoughts a bright hip hop poet has during times when racial crimes have been heavily prevalent on the television. In the 80’s, Public Enemy, NWA and their contemporaries had to be loud and vocal to get their views heard. We have loud rappers now. We have had them ever since. We needed someone to approach this discussion with vulnerability and self exhile, not as a sole leader. Kendrick Lamar is as bold as the aforementioned artists, and he has painted a large mural that will be impossible to fully digest even after ten listens. That is how you stay memorable in a world where social media has let everyone be loud.

There are courageous strategies here that show that Lamar has either had this album in his head for years or that he truly can create great concepts out of thin air. The mashed together song segments are as schizophrenic as the narrator in The Blacker the Berry. Some songs step into new regions like a rebellion ducking to hide while still being heard.  These protests will not be stopped no matter how the point is being delivered. With the large palette of music, so many instruments and rhythms are smudged together; You’ll sometimes find it difficult to split sounds apart. The boldest move was having Lamar have a “conversation” with the late rapper Tupac on the final track Mortal Man. Lamar got a chance to talk to his idol in this spherical album where time does not exist. As the album ends, his hero has disappeared. When Lamar asks us if we will still be a fan of those we are influenced by once “shit hits the fan”, we know fully well that Lamar still loves Tupac. After all, the album is free to be replayed after the final sound (Lamar calling out for Tupac) is played. Life ends, but both history and music are forever.

Lamar feels pressed to find an identity, but To Pimp a Butterfly has none. It has an ever evolving mask that continuously morphs like the body concealing suit in A Scanner Darkly. Lamar keeps up with jazz ensembles like his voice is a rhythm-centered instrument like he did on Flying Lotus’s song Never Gonna Catch Me last year. He tries open word in front of an audience without sounds behind him. He tackles what wordplay can be even outside of what music means historically. He studied American life on the album before, but here Lamar has gone above and beyond what he already knew.

To Pimp a Butterfly is one of the most contextual albums in years. This is the kind of release that will never serve as a similar listening experience. The amount of ambition here is difficult to parallel. Had this experiment failed, at least the efforts would be commendable. This works, though, and it works strongly. The title To Pimp a Butterfly is full of disgrace and shame, but the album itself won’t feel anything but steady. In an internet heavy world like us where almost every big site is a forum, To Pimp a Butterfly is as open as any political album can be. Enter, enjoy, and be transported again and again, because Kendrick Lamar has done it: It’s all here.

About author

Former Film Editor & Music Writer at Live in Limbo. Co-host of the Capsule Podcast. A Greek/South African film enthusiast. He has recently earned a BFA honours degree in Cinema Studies at York University. He is also heavily into music, as he can play a number of instruments and was even in a few bands. He writes about both films and music constantly. You should follow him on Twitter @Andreasbabs.