Hip-hop has been one of the most fluid genres of the past couple decades. It can be "gangsta;" it can be emotional. It can be ratchet; it can be socially conscious. The genre is constantly evolving and, as an art form, it has a right to be all these things and more or none at all. Hip-hop is what we make it. Fans tend to place boundaries on hip-hop by thinking it should sound one way, when in reality, the genre was birthed out of many other genres like jazz and blues. So of course, it's going to reflect those influences in its sound.
Kendrick Lamar's sophomore major label album—To Pimp A Butterfly—is true art and ignores the boundaries many like to place on hip-hop as a whole. TPAB combines aspects of jazz, R&B, funk (particularly of the West Coast "G" variety), and hip-hop. It belongs to more than one genre stylistically, musically, and lyrically. One of the genius things about the album is how smoothly Kendrick and his producers concatenate these genres and sounds. With production from Terrace Martin, Sounwave, Thundercat, Boi-1da, and many more, Kendrick crafted an album that all music lovers can enjoy. And that's important because the message the album carries is one everyone needs to hear.
It is hard to fully talk about this album without addressing its overarching theme and concept. So SPOILER ALERT: To Pimp A Butterfly is very much like a puzzle with a serious "Aha!" moment at the end so if you haven't heard the album, I strongly suggest you stop reading or skip towards the end as I attempt to explain the puzzle pieces as I understood them. I anticipated the concept of this album most of all before its release. The concept of good kid, m.A.A.d city—his debut album—was genius and one of the main reasons that album is heralded as a classic, so I knew Kendrick would have something up his sleeve. This album is centered around a poem that is split into fragments, with each fragment ushering in a new song and contributing to the overall album concept:
"I remember you was conflicted/Misusing your influence/Sometimes I did the same/Abusing my power, full of resentment/Resentment that turned into a deep depression/Found myself screaming in the hotel room/I didn’t wanna self destruct/The evils of Lucy was all around me/So I went running for answers/Until I came home/But that didn’t stop survivor’s guilt/Going back and forth trying to convince myself the stripes I earned/Or maybe how A-1 my foundation was/But while my loved ones was fighting the continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one/A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination/Made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned/The word was respect/Just because you wore a different gang color than mine's/Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man/Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets/If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us/But I don't know, I'm no mortal man, maybe I'm just another nigga"
Kendrick finishes the poem during "Mortal Man" where it is revealed that he was reading the poem to the late, great Tupac Shakur. Kendrick combines sections of a Swedish interview 'Pac had in 1994 to simulate a conversation between the two. When I first heard it, I couldn't believe what I was hearing; it was perfect. Tupac "talks" to Kendrick about his life and predicts that the poor people will overtake the rich, that black people will get sick of being mistreated and violently revolt against white people and their oppressors. With the events that have taken place in Baltimore recently, it's clear that many things haven't changed regarding black people and how they're treated in this society. It's also clear that Tupac may have predicted correctly.
Kendrick reads another poem to 'Pac that details the title and one of the themes of the album. In my opinion, the butterfly represents successful black people who have escaped their oppressive surroundings, thrived and made something of themselves. The caterpillars can represent people who are attempting to take advantage of black people by institutionalizing them in whatever way possible (placing other caterpillars in a cocoon so they don't reach their full potential and become a butterfly). This institutionalization takes place in many of the ways black people are held back (the prison system, education, job market) and on a micro level, this is also represented by how the music industry profits on the success of black artists while attempting to steer them away from releasing music with true messages. TPAB is full of themes like this as Kendrick uses it as a commentary on the black community and its position in society. The opening track, "Wesley's Theory," describes how black artists are 'pimped' by the music industry and the consumerism present in society. In "The Blacker The Berry," Kendrick heeds that black people must respect themselves if they ever want to be respected by the rest of society. He notes the hypocrisy involved in how black people are outraged by all the innocent black killings by police when gang members are out killing black people every day. While a majority of the album is full of commentary on black life and black empowerment, there are important messages for everyone. "How Much A Dollar Cost" explores how selfishness and lack of humility can cause people to lose out on a greater gift than money: eternal salvation. In "Complexion (A Zulu Love)," Kendrick delivers the message that color and skin tone do not matter; people are people, no matter their race. Kendrick views himself as a prophet, a messenger whose place and purpose is to spread positivity and expose reality through his music and views. I cannot help but agree with him as he is on his way to becoming one of the greatest revolutionary artists of our generation.
I want to discuss two of my favorite aspects of To Pimp A Butterfly. Kendrick released "i" as the first single for the album and it was met with mixed reviews. Fans thought Kendrick was "selling out" or going "mainstream" as the song is a far departure from the rough, solemn sounds of his debut album. "i" promotes self-love and self-expression. The chorus screams "I love myself!" It's a message that is so important in these trying times, but the strict boundaries many place on hip-hop forced them to write off Kendrick's album as inferior to his debut after only hearing one song. Well, when the album was released, the song had changed and become something much more powerful. He didn't change the message, but the format. The song is recorded as if Kendrick is performing in front of a crowd. Halfway through the song, it seems like a fight breaks out and Kendrick stops the song to address the crowd about how pointless the violence is and how black people must unify instead of wasting their lives in conflict. Kendrick proceeds to perform a "freestyle" after the crowd has quieted down where he notes that the word "negus" originated in Ethiopia and means king or ruler. He implores black people to use the word in an empowering way as America changed it to be oppressive. Kendrick has become very consistent with how conceptual his songs and albums are. In contrast to "i," "u" was a self-loathing and depressing song where Kendrick, as his conscience, berates himself for not being there for his family and letting the money and success interfere with the things that matter most to him. These songs are two of my favorites because the dichotomy present is very relatable and parallel to many listeners' narratives. No one is perfect and Kendrick shows that even he has days where he doubts himself and finds it hard to take his own advice. I think being relatable is one of the key aspects music should have nowadays.
Kendrick has created two major-label albums that are classics in their own right. They are completely different from each other but both are important for hip-hop culture. To Pimp A Butterfly could not have come at a better time. With all of the severe issues black people have been involved in regarding race relations in this country, we need an album that empowers us when we're living in a country that treats us like we don't have any power at all. TPAB is inspirational and showed that Kendrick was not looking to capitalize off the success of good kid, m.A.A.d city by making a similar album. He made the album we needed to hear and I honestly cannot see any album topping this one before the year ends. For an album that was released on the 20th anniversary of Tupac's classic album, Me Against The World, it's fitting that we received it from an artist who is the closest to Tupac reincarnate we'll ever see.
Favorite Tracks: Wesley's Theory, u, Alright, How Much A Dollar Cost, i, Mortal Man
Rating: ★★★★★ (5 out of 5)