Just three years ago, legendary rapper Kendrick Lamar shattered the hip-hop scene with his brilliant growing-up in Compton narrative album “good kid, M.A.A.D. city.”
This past Sunday, his brand new, highly anticipated album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” a play on Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was released ahead of its scheduled premiere date. Although the album doesn’t contain as many catchy tracks as its predecessor, the music featured does not disappoint. The fury and politics are apparent, and this masterful work of art is really intended for a full listen through.
“To Pimp a Butterfly” is such an introspectively deep album to the point where I believe no review can adequately give it justice, nor will any of us truly grasp its full power at the moment.
In the same fashion as D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” album released in December, “To Pimp a Butterfly” dives head first into the conversations about race and racism in America, black lives mattering and even shows an identity struggle within Lamar, the contrast between the funky Isley Brothers sampled “i” and the darker, angrier “The Blacker the Berry,” for example. It’s an 80 minute crash course dedicated to black power and black music, and even the album cover demonstrates this. On the cover, Lamar is holding a white baby, surrounded by unapologetically expressive and shirtless black men brandishing wads of cash and bottles of champagne in front of the White House with a seemingly dead white judge laying at their feet.
Free jazz, 1970s funk, Miles Davis and Parliament are all apparent influences in the tracks that make up “To Pimp a Butterfly.” It’s not your everyday hip-hop/rap album release, it’s a complex listen, and demands your full attention, but given the time, it’s truly rewarding, and makes sense as a full album listen. It works as a journey, and an effectively shows the transformation of a caterpillar attempting to escape its self-inflicted cocoon; detailing a man dealing with depression trying to make sense of the world by having discussions with fallen heroes, the album closes out with the 12-minute “Mortal Men,” in which Lamar has a discussion with slain Tupac Shakur by using a rare interview, by interacting with his fans and by trying to do it all on his own terms, no matter the consequences.
“Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations that the caterpillar never considered, ending the eternal struggle,” Lamar laments to Tupac. “Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one in the same. What’s your perspective on that?” Shakur doesn’t answer, and listeners are left to come up with their own conclusions and thoughts about the heavy topics brought up in the album, and to continue discussions about the current climate of black America.
It’s a bold and innovative project, with fearless expressions, dazzling, compelling beats and verses and brazen symbolism.
“To Pimp a Butterfly” flows together cleverly, and aims not to stomp into the hip-hop universe and make a foolhardy declaration, but to start and continue an important and necessary conversation about the questions and conflicts of race in America today.