The emotional closing of Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.a.a.d. City comes on the penultimate track “Real” when Kendrick’s mother says “I hope you come back, and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton”. Kendrick’s new LP, To Pimp a Butterfly, finds its author still struggling with the challenge of his mother on “Real”. How can you be a leader when you despise yourself? Can you ever truly escape your traumatic upbringing? How do you learn from your mistakes; learn to accept yourself, your culture and your blackness when society tells you that you shouldn’t? To Pimp A Butterfly grapples with all these questions and much more over the run of its 16 tracks. In totality the album does what no one thought possible: It is quite simple so ambitious, so intricate, so compelling, so purely good, that it makes its own remarkable predecessor (and nearly every other rap album in the history of the genre) look simplistic by comparison.
The most initially striking aspect of Butterfly is the gulf aesthetically between it, and anything else on the market in recent years in rap. Heavily built around live instrumentals courtesy of collaborators like bassist and singer Thundercat, Butterfly largely eschews the more traditional rap sounds that drove Good Kid M.a.a.d. City cuts like “Swimming Pools”, Kendrick and his production team have opted to syncretize the major African American art forms of funk, jazz and soul to create an extremely unique atmosphere. Instrumentals such as the frenetic jazz of “For Free” or “U” sound schizophrenic and totally unprecedented in the last few decades of mainstream hip hop. Others such as the neo-soul influenced synth of the extremely catchy “These Walls” would sound more at home on a D’Angelo album than a hood rapper from Compton. When Kendrick does chose to attack a more traditionally rap sounding instrumental on the parable-esque “How Much A Dollar Cost”, he does so over Radiohead samples and uneasy drumbeats that linger a split second off what the “right” beat is. The overpowering baselines of “Wesley’s Theory” and “King Kunta” evoke a blend of early 1990’s G-funk of mentor Dr. Dre with more traditional 1970’s tie-die and lava-lamp clutching grooves. “For Sale” is the love child of a syrupy sweet radio advertising jingle, a Beach Boys intro and the psychedelic rock of The Flaming Lips. No song on this album sounds the same and none of it sounds like any other rapper in 2015.
If this album was just a musical composition, it would already be extremely fascinating. But the music, for all its highs, is not even the star. Lamar’s Good Kid M.a.a.d. City was a concept album, and Butterfly is no different. After “Wesley’s Theory” and “For Free” act as establishing shots to catch listeners up with our protagonist, Kendrick launches his story in earnest. In a bit of dead air after the braggadocios “King Kunta”, Kendrick reads the first line of a poem “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence…”. After each track Kendrick reads the poem from the beginning, adding a new line each time as the story plays out until at the conclusion of Mortal Man, Kendrick can read the full poem.
Each track tells the story, the feeling, and the meaning of the new line that accompanies it. In Butterfly, Kendrick grapples with his place as a newly rich black man, who feels lost, depressed and meaningless in a society that only cares about him as a means to make money. Wracked by surviver’s guilt, alcoholism and depression, Kendrick battles his sometimes literal demons as he leads the listener on a riveting tale of pain and self-acceptance. Butterfly is more elliptical, cryptic and symbolic than its predecessor, but the emotion behind it is perhaps even more visceral. Particularly affecting is the heartrending “U” where Kendrick oscillates between growls, yelps, screams and sobs as he drunkenly stares in the mirror of a hotel room, plotting his suicide. It is extremely dark, painful and hard to listen to, but it is an incredible piece of art.
And as with Good Kid, this album is not only impeccably curated from a thematic standpoint, with its repeated imagery, symbols and depth of references, the bar-for-bar rapping is some of the best you will hear. Kendrick has long been a master of playing on multiple meanings, alliteration, onamonapia and word sounds to construct intricate lines that require multiple of listens to catch every nuance. Butterfly takes this to another level as Kendrick’s meta-poetic structure of the album allows for a myriad of interpretations beyond the individual line, verse or even song. Certain tracks like the frantic “For Free” borrow heavily from a free verse slam poetry tradition. While others such as the soul dripped “Momma” serve up tongue twisting assonance and alliteration while spinning tales of loss and discovery. Lamar raps from multiple perspectives on the album, himself, a kid on the street, a homeless man, black society, the personification of America and more, freely switching pronouns as easily as he shifts vocal tone and delivery to reflect each unique perspective.
After battling with hatred, racism, the devil of consumerism, his own self-destructive community and Kendrick Lamar himself, the emotional catharsis of the newly re-recorded single “I” and album closer “Mortal Man” will be moving for even the most stone-hearted listener. This isn’t a cliched story of a capital “g” Good kid from bad circumstances rising above the capital “e” Evils of racism, depression and capitalism. This is a story of an eminently flawed and complex man trying to find his place in an eminently flawed and complex society. As Kendrick reads a second poem to his idol 2Pac on the outro of Mortal Man, he receives no response. 2Pac doesn’t have the answers that Kendrick needs, Kendrick doesn’t have them either. He freely admits his flaws, mistakes, fears on “Mortal Man” even as he advocates for social justice and change. One of the philosophical missions of the album is to tear down the saying “if you live in a glass house, don’t throw stones”. Kendrick argues that we all live in our own glass houses, we all have our flaws, we all are unjust and that is exactly why we need to work together to break down the walls of violence, racism, misunderstanding and sadness that divide us as much in the world of own individual psyche as they do in our political world of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
This album is incredibly entertaining regardless of what amount of analysis you put in, but Butterfly has a depth that few albums even attempt to reach, let alone achieve, rewarding dozens and dozens of listens with new quirks and wrinkles musically and lyrically. This review barely scratches the surface of this amazing album. To Pimp A Butterfly is a genre defining piece of art that challenges its listener emotionally and intellectually to engage its depth of meaning, and take its message of anger, passion, conviction, confusion and thirst for justice and societal and self improvement out into the world.
– Ben Perotin is a Georgetown class of ’14 alum and spent three years hosting the hip hop program “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Radio Show” and writing rap album reviews for WGTB. He would like to thank Sam Kosarzrycki, Jackson Sinnenberg and the rest of the music board team for letting him write this guest review!