Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’: Album Review

Christina Lee | March 23, 2015 6:34 am
Kendrick Lamar's 'To Pimp A Butterfly': Listen
Woah, no one saw this one coming: The anticipated album comes out a week early.

Days after Kendrick Lamar‘s sophomore album To Pimp a Butterfly arrived on iTunes and Spotify, Taylor Swift posted an Instagram photo from her recent Vogue cover shoot. She and model Karlie Kloss hold hands as they twirl their skirts, the sheer fabric catching the sunlight at Big Sur. “When that new Kendrick comes on,” the caption reads.

Hey, Taylor: Did you actually listen to the album? I bet not. Make no mistake, to follow up his novelistic debut, 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, with an album as grandiose as To Pimp A Butterfly is a personal triumph for Lamar. But, while this hip-hop classicist used to be able to ignore his conscience (even Taylor knows this) and pack punch into even his most sobering songs, Kendrick can’t do it anymore. The reason To Pimp A Butterfly is impressive overall is also why it can be overwhelming at times: His mind won’t shut up.

The album is a fever dream of black music, old and new. A sample of Boris Gardiner‘s “Every Nigger Is A Star,” an obscure soul song from 1974, fades into next-generation funk master Thundercat‘s bass before the Jedi Master himself, George Clinton, booms in — and that’s within the album’s first minute. “King Kunta” could pass for a run-of-the-mill blaxploitation film anthem, except for how a grim-sounding sample of a Mausberg song looms over K. Dot like a storm cloud. This music isn’t the same dusty soul loops used in standard ’90s throwback hip hop. It’s more vibrant than that, as it relays how there’s far more at stake on To Pimp A Butterfly than mere nostalgia.

Throughout, Kendrick tries to figure out who’s responsible for black suffering in America. “The Blacker The Berry” is a searing indictment, in which he blames everyone else before pointing the finger at himself (“So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street / when gang-banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?”). “u” is one long, ugly cry, where he blames himself for a death in his native Compton to the point where he’s suicidal. “Loving you is complicated,” he repeats to himself, his chest heaving as if he’s hyperventilating. What makes his search for answers gut-wrenching is how often he shoulders the blame.

Kendrick is asking bigger, tougher questions now, and the one downside to that is how often he sounds lost in his own, increasingly abstract thoughts. This is especially true of the calm between “u” and “The Blacker The Berry.” This fluid, six-song stretch can feel like a lull, which does a slight disservice to the revelatory moments jam-packed in there. (Compton becomes K. Dot’s safe haven, despite its reputation; while God appears in the form of a homeless man.) Only when other signs of life appear, like a sage verse from rap newcomer Rapsody, or the rowdy crowd in the album version of “i,” does To Pimp A Butterfly snap back into focus.

Of course this album is deserving of the recognition. It’s the boldest that Kendrick has been, and it’s one of the most substantial “mainstream” rap albums to be released this year, if not over the past few. (For Rap Genius to suggest checking out O.T. Genasis‘s “CoCo”  lyrics following Kendrick’s “For Sale?” seems flat-out ignorant.) But again, Taylor: Did you listen to To Pimp A Butterfly? Did you get to the end, where Kendrick is alone, talking to himself and with the music stopped? By then he’s asked these questions, though he doesn’t have all the answers. The silence is deafening.

Idolator Score: 4/5

— Christina Lee