Now considered one of the most exciting rappers, Kendrick Lamar’s new album was highly anticipated. Its predecessor good kid, m.a.a.d city was released in 2012 to huge rounds of critical acclaim and sold almost 250,000 copies in its first two weeks. To Pimp A Butterfly was introduced by singles The Blacker The Berry and i, which won Kendrick two Grammys this year -Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song.
The sixteen track album is full of outbursts on black culture and references to oppression. Kendrick has never been one to hold back and the new album is certainly no different. However, there is a beautiful lyrical poetry embedded within the fierceness and the title of the album all comes to a head at the very end with an unforgettable closing track.
It opens with Wesley’s Theory, a song about Wesley Snipes’ stint in jail for tax evasion and how black celebrities are “pimped” by the media -“every nigger is a star”. A jazz influence sounds in the back and this becomes ever-present throughout the album. Kendrick’s rap flows smoothly over the calming sax and gentle blues symphonies that accompany it, giving a trippy experience for the listener. An early big anthem on the album is King Kunta, which has a funky bass and a summer feel to it. The whining female voices contrast the deep, angry male and the catchy chorus make it a stand-out track. It’s inspired by an 18th century slave called Kunta Kinte who was known to be rebellious and the song is Kendrick’s homage to black resistance.
One of the sexiest songs is These Walls, which refers to both physical and mental walls. There is a chilled R&B feel to it and a quirky synth as it explores sex, emotions and the human mind. A melodic hook “if these walls could talk” that shows off singer Anna Wise’s voice, which also appeared on good kid, m.a.a.d city. It’s also the first time we hear a fragment of the main poem in the album, which isn’t fully revealed into the end. The first two lines “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same” are said at the beginning and it sets up the rest of the record.
The upbeat lead single i has an evil twin in u. Here, Kendrick explores all his insecurities and darkest thoughts and feelings. The hook “loving you is complicated” is a mantra that many people with low self-esteem tell themselves daily and it seems that Kendrick knows exactly how it feels. There is a strong thread of severe anxiety in the tone of voice and the lyrics. The glitches also add to the uncertainty and broken feeling. When speaking about u, Kendrick told Rolling Stone: “That was one of the hardest songs I had to write. There’s some very dark moments in there. That shit is depressing as a motherfucker. But it helps, though.”
A deeper insight into the character of Lucy or Lucifer is seen on For Sale? (Interlude). It’s about the seduction of hip hop and the lifestyle of a rapper, personified by Lucy as the temptress. The choral harmonies and calm atmosphere give it a chill-out vibe and the outro repeats the first half of the central poem.
Telling the horrors of his childhood, Hood Politics is a commentary on the gang culture that was rife while he was growing up. The smooth funky beat in the background of the angsty youthful rap juxtaposes the dark content. The track contrasts Momma which is about his development and growth after such a dark past.
The last track Mortal Man is a powerful and moving end. Primarily, it’s another track about the struggles of being famous and a role model. “When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?” is Kendrick asking if his fans are true and loyal to him, showing his uncertainty about his place in the industry. He knows he is a newcomer and his unexpected interview with the spirit of Tupac Shakur continues this, as he “asks” him how he dealt with fame. Tupac’s answers are actually taken from a Swedish radio interview in 1994 but the seamlessness of it on Mortal Man is amazing. The final poem, a tale of the pressures of being famous and the lessons learned through it, is revealed and Kendrick ends his album on a lyrical piece on self-development and change using the analogy of the caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly. “Although the butterfly and the caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same” is a beautiful, thought-provoking line that resonates as the album shuts itself down.
To Pimp A Butterfly is a very well thought-out project that Kendrick has decorated with poetic wonder. It’s a concept album unlike any other and hits some hard truths. It’s easy to see Kendrick’s talent for words and why he has received so much praise for his work. It’s an album that throws itself open to anyone who wants something more than music. It’s for those who want a story and a strong message to take away with them.