Nowadays in our crazy, interconnected world, it’s not even a week after a hotly anticipated album releases that we are already on to the next thing. With instant streaming, leaks before release, and the ability to listen on any device at any time, we are digesting music faster than ever, and getting bored and moving on to the next hot item over and over.
Somehow this didn’t happen with Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore album To Pimp a Butterfly. With all the surprise releases these days (from Beyonce to D’Angelo), everyone wants to be the first one to chime in right away with their hot take. To Pimp a Butterfly was a total surprise release, but in some ways transcended this hot-take culture because of its incredible density, an album made to be digested and savored over weeks and months rather than given just an instant opinion. Suffice it to say reviewing this album might be even more interesting in a year, but a month in, I think it’s fair to say Kendrick Lamar is forging the path forward for hip hop and popular music at large on Butterfly.
When I say forging forward, To Pimp a Butterfly seems like another step towards the post-hip hop landscape. Don’t get me wrong, Kendrick’s flows are as quick, nimble, and potent as anyone’s, but most of these songs don’t even really play like hip hop songs. Building on the jazz and soul-fused electronic music of Flying Lotus and Thundercat (whose production and ridiculously fat bass is all over Butterfly), songs like opener “Wesley’s Theory” and the multi-part “Institutionalized” display an incredible fusion of genres that defies our current categories. While Kendrick certainly has the social consciousness and heart for his hometown of Compton like Tupac, creatively he is the successor to Andre 3000.
We could talk plenty (and others have) about the importance of Kendrick’s voice when it comes to race in America or his jam-packed lyrics, but I’d rather focus on the fun side for now. One thing that makes To Pimp a Butterfly so wonderful and a surefire cultural touchstone is Kendrick’s knack for phrases both serious and silly. Whether it’s “What’s the yams?” on the funkadelic and pretty much perfect “King Kunta”, the Yogi Bear-style “boo-boos” on “Hood Politics”, or “If shit hits the fan are you still a fan” on introspective closer “Mortal Man”, Kendrick has created his own universe of vocabulary that is sure to be borrowed by fans as well as other musicians down the line. He certainly isn’t going away anytime soon.
The music on this album is everywhere, and I mean that in the greatest way possible. It is like combining the music of Nas, Questlove, Hendrix, Lotus, Outkast (as Wes mentioned earlier), etc., into one giant love pile. You have deep jazz roots fused with brilliant, booming pop, and some outrageously intriguing instrumentation. But musical brilliance aside, what makes this album so important is it’s lyrical depth.
Wes is right to say that you could spend months analyzing this album and only really scratch the surface of what it stands for. Every WORD breathed into this album has intention, and there is a lot of damn words. Even down to the name of the songs and the title of the album itself, To Pimp a Butterfly, could be translated into several different meanings: To exploit something beautiful. To abuse something colorful. To try and control nature. If this album title alone doesn’t cause a stir inside you, than do not even bother hitting play on whatever medium you are accessing it through. (Except actually do hit play, because that just means you need to hear it all the more.) This album needs to be heard, analyzed, and understood like a literary work of genius. As a matter of fact, some people have actually already begun doing so in public schools. If you are interested in reading a lot more on this subject, please click here to see why this high school teacher dropped everything to do exactly that. (Yes I did steal my analysis of the album title from this article).
A few years ago I saw Kendrick playing a mid-sized tent in the afternoon at Bonnaroo, playing his backing-tracks off of his iPod. Last year I saw him headline the Pitchfork music fest with a full band. This year I will see him headline Bonnaroo on the main stage in front of +90,000 people. There is a reason he elevated to such great heights so quickly, and all on the strength of one album. This man is a voice that NEEDS to be heard on the same level as Toni Morrison, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harper Lee, Kanye West, Steve McQueen (both McQueen’s actually), Harriet Beecher Stowe, Malcom X, Nas, etc., and the list could go on. That may sound crazy to lump all of those names in the same category, but luckily there are people in this world that agree with me.
If you have yet to hear, please listen now:
Austin’s Awesome Anecdote
I don’t love this latest release by the multi-talented Kendrick Lamar. I like it as whole quite a bit, and love various portions of the project, but I wouldn’t mind a more common thread musically. It might just be one of those albums that is going to take me a good while to fully appreciate, and don’t get me wrong, I find something new to appreciate about To Pimp a Butterfly every time I listen to it. But pure unbridled enjoyment and appreciation are two very different things for me personally when I experience music.
I agree with Todd that Kendrick Lamar is an important voice, if not the most important voice, in hip-hop post-Kanye. I also agree with Wes in the matter of Kendrick’s unique musical talents and lyrical gymnastics shining through. It is just too many jazz beats for me. Jazz only catches me in its most bombastic form, and while Kendrick captures some of that here, he does not harness the mayhem of the jazz I most enjoy.
Props to Kendrick, and “King Kunta” is on the shortlist for song of the year, but until further notice, I’m going to keep this one on the really good list.
Can’t Miss: “King Kunta”, “Mortal Man”, “Blacker the Berry”, “Hood Politics”
Can’t Hit: None