This album, prematurely or not, is being labelled as one for the ages, and is getting mentioned in arguments over the Best Rapper Alive title. Offensive, ground-breaking and anchored in social awareness, To Pimp a Butterfly fulfills the expectation hanging over Kendrick Lamar’s head.
The rapper formerly known as K. Dot has challenged the rap genre with a 16-track record detailing the black, male experience in America today. The ideology is clear: Lamar opposes black-on-black violence and wants self-love to replace it.
The density of Lamar’s message means casual listeners may be disappointed by the lack of feel-good music. Lamar’s aim was to make his audience feel “uncomfortable” and the absence of melodic hooks in place of non-linear structures, mid-track shifts and sprawling free jazz interludes (“For Free? (Interlude) delivers upon this aim.
“i” sums up Lamar’s approach. The song (sampling The Isley Brothers) won a Grammy after its initial release, but the newly extended version cuts to Lamar addressing a restless crowd like it was the Civil Rights Movement all over again:
“I promised Dave I’d never use the phrase ‘fuck nigga’,” Lamar announces: “He said ‘think about what you saying, fuck niggas’/ No better than a white man with slave boats.”
While the album poses numerous social questions throughout, it tries to answer some at the end. The 12-minute long “Modest Man” dissolves into an interview with Tupac Shakur, where Lamar assumes the role of interviewer. Using a 21-year-old Q&A, K. Dot sheds light on ideas of legacy, success and the current generation of hip hop artists.
Although clearly pushing his message, Lamar still offers up the obligatory mother dedication song with the Knxwledge. produced “Momma”. While artists like Jay-Z (“Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)”) and Kanye West (“Hey Mama”) wrote nostalgic and anecdotal songs, Lamar still uses his track to deal with the larger issue of gang violence.
It seems unfair to compare Lamar to Kanye West and Jay-Z without mentioning names like James Brown and Prince, however. To Pimp a Butterfly dips into jazz, soul, funk and spoken word, and can be seen as an album continuing the evolution of black music.
To Pimp a Butterfly‘s downfall could be how heavy the message is overall; it’s not easily digested, especially after just one or two listens.
But Lamar could have easily come back with an album outlining a childhood under dire circumstances. Just rework good kid, m.A.A.d city and the 27-year-old would have satisfied the masses, provided his label with money-making singles and kept his name relevant.
Instead, Lamar’s genius and ambition lead to this; To Pimp a Butterfly is not just another album: it is a huge step on Kendrick Lamar’s path to greatness.