Kendrick Lamar pulls an about-face on his third album, To Pimp a Butterfly

Chris Duncan

Waiting another week for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly would have been torture. Whether Interscope Records accidentally released the album early on iTunes, or the album was somehow leaked and Top Dawg Entertainment responded by releasing it properly, the most anticipated record of 2015 is in our hands.

The album’s title seems to be a play on words of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In the novel, the mockingbird symbolizes the black man wrongfully accused of rape and the other characters that, as Maude Atkinson said, “sing their hearts out.” Like mockingbirds, butterflies cause no harm; they’re just innocent animals. Over the course of the album, Lamar insists it is horrible to characterize innocent black men as hustlers rather than human beings. That theme — the
unjustified persecution of black men — is carried throughout the entire album. “King Kunta” is the first heavy-handed track to feature an angry Lamar. The funk-infused beats and production fit perfectly with the style of the entire album. This song sounds nothing like Lamar’s previous work, such as good kid, m.A.A.d city. “King Kunta” is all about feeling “in the moment,” and, in this moment, he’s pissed.

In the context of this new album, the previously released “The Blacker the Berry” manages to be uplifting yet menacing. Back in February, the track sounded groundbreaking. Surrounded by other tracks, it feels oddly simple; the beat is a straightforward drum loop, and there’s a fairly standard verse-chorus structure. It really says something about the adventurous spirit of the entire album when this song feels predictable. The radicalized self-hatred throughout the song — especially in the last lines —  still hit me every time.

Although the entire album is quite heavy, it’s not the emotional lyrics, but rather the beats and production, that stand out and set the entire feeling of the record. To Pimp a Butterfly is far from the style you’ll hear in most hip-hop records created today. “Institutionalized” features appearances from Bilal and Snoop Dogg, but Lamar doesn’t need a supporting cast to put on a great show. The complete beat switch in this song is a sign that he doesn’t want the listener to ever be comfortable. It took a while to understand, but the flow on this song feels amazing.

“Momma” features a beat smoother than anything on the entire album. The elements of soul and funk just pour out into every crack and seam of the song. Listening to Lamar’s story is hypnotizing, but, when the beat changes, it’s just another reminder that he doesn’t want the listener to establish solid ground. “Hood Politics” is a fascinating breakdown of how people communicate. Lamar returns to form, dropping heavy lines, such as “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip-hop was rappin’ / Motherfucker if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum.”

Yet again, the first 10 seconds of this song sound nothing like the song a minute in — and again, the lyrics always give the listener the impression there’s a deeper meaning waiting for those ready to dig.

Let’s not forget “i”, which did a complete 180 and became a standout on an album full of amazing performances. The album had me scrambling when this track began as a more electrifying version of the upbeat single Lamar released last September. The spoken word/freestyle Lamar uses to end the track is impeccable. It feels more like a scene from a movie than a song.

“Mortal Man” closes with a return to form as Lamar “interviews” 2Pac. This track stumbles, but by this point, it doesn’t matter. Lamar doesn’t seem to care about competition in rap anymore — his sights are set on conquering all of music.

When good kid, m.A.A.d city came out, it seemed as if it was going to be a classic. It might have been hard to get through, but, after a little time to digest the album, many of the songs were clear and invigorating. I may never understand To Pimp a Butterfly. Even if you’re not a fan of rap, To Pimp a Butterfly is a must-listen. The path Lamar chose to take is a difficult one, and the album itself is a challenge to follow and understand. Almost nothing about Lamar’s future is certain, but one thing this album establishes for sure: Kendrick Lamar is one of the greatest creative minds alive today.