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Review: Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly
Compton's own returns with a supremely conscious and impactful LP for the ages.
May 4, 2015
A two and a half year hiatus between albums seems practically like a decade in today’s age of music. Such a span seems even longer when attempting to follow up an album that has been widely heralded as a classic by critics and fans alike. 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city rocketed Compton’s Kendrick Lamar to mainstream rap stardom, with Lamar’s lyrical and storytelling ability submerging the listener into his world as a youth on the verge of manhood. In just months the twentysomething MC went from a mid-level rapper with a modest cult following to one of the hottest stars in not just Hip-Hop, but the entire music industry. So, it was no surprise that the internet nearly self combusted when Lamar’s second major-label offering, To Pimp A Butterfly, hit streaming services a week earlier than its original March 23rd release date. Shattering Spotify’s previous record, the album was streamed over 9.8 million times the day following its release, and is already well on its way to platinum.
While good kid played out like a movie, in which a teenage Kendrick comes of age, To Pimp A Butterfly is more of a jigsaw puzzle, with each track piecing together to convey the sentiments of a post-fame Lamar. One of the projects most personal tracks, “u”, dives into the regret of leaving home and the idea of survivors guilt. “A true friend never leaves Compton for profit,” raps Lamar from the perspective of a personification of his own self-doubts. The album, and Lamar’s greatest strength in general, comes from his ability to effectively convey his views and opinions by giving the listeners a front row seat to the experiences that shaped his current mindset. He makes music that demands to be heard, and his latest LP is no exception.
To Pimp A Butterfly is a project sonically drenched in jazz and funk. Tracks like “Institutionalized” featuring Snoop Dogg sound as if they could be straight out of the golden age of West Coast G-Funk rap, when Snoop and Dr. Dre (TPAB’s executive producer) reigned supreme. But the album’s sonics even regress past G-Funk, to a time before hip hop’s inception, when the genres of soul and funk dominated the industry. This retro sound found throughout is curated by the live instrumentation of Los Angeles’s neo-jazz movement. Producer Flying Lotus’s crew consisting of bassist Thundercat and saxophonist/producer Terrace Martin can be heard throughout. Lamar goes further to strengthen this vintage feel with features from George Clinton, frontman of the 70’s funk group Parliament, and notable soul legend Ronald Isley. At first listen, TPAB’s funk laced instrumentals are surprising, if not off putting. Yet, slowly, as the project continues, the jazzy melodies reminiscent of a funky past seem to wrap you like a blanket, and by the final tracks you find yourself musically engulfed in a world where James Brown could still sit atop the Billboard charts.
The album, however, is far from an easy listen. Lamar spits bars relentlessly throughout, and at times, TPAB’s density can be overwhelming. Upon first listen through, you can find yourself wondering whether if what you’re listening to is a genius expression of personal emotion or the babblings of a mad man driven to the brink by fame and celebrity. The second track, “For Free (Interlude)” is a jumbled, uncomfortable soliloquy voicing Lamar’s feelings of being used by old friends and record execs alike. Cluttered moments like this require patience and multiple listens to fully grasp what is meant to be taken away by the listener. This intense density can also be seen dually as a strength. With each listen through K.Dot’s lyrics reveal new messages that may not have presented themselves previously. Nonetheless, the less complex and catchier Lamar is still present. Tracks like the hostile, funk-rap power anthem “King Kunta” and the defiant, unrelenting “Alright” provide needed boosts of energy in the middle of the project.
To Pimp A Butterfly is as encapsulating as it is entertaining, as thought-provoking as it is sonically brilliant. Kendrick Lamar has yet again dared to create a sincere, socially-conscious product in a day and age in which materialism runs rampant and “twerking” has been added to the dictionary as a verb. Lamar’s unmatched lyrical prowess, social messages, and the project’s superb production may cause this album to perhaps one day be considered something extremely rare; a genre-defining benchmark.