Kendrick Lamar has fucked the game all up with the release of his new album To Pimp a Butterfly. Critics and fans are tripping all over themselves trying to describe how good it is and more importantly what it all means. Where his excellent first album (a classic in its own right) took listeners into the daily ins and outs of growing up gang affiliated on the streets of Compton with connected vignettes reminiscent of such west coast classics as Snoop Dogs Doggy Style. To Pimp a Butterfly follows Kendrick after as he comes to term with being a black man with fame, in America and in the world. To truly understand what’s happening in this album we first must see how Kendrick Lamar is bucking hip hop traditions.
Everyone knows when it comes to rap music your first album set’s everything up. By most accounts it’s your hungriest album, the closest you’ll ever be to the streets, the one that lets the industry know who you are and what’s in store for the rest of your carrier (if it even last that long). Think Nas’s Illmatic, B.I.G’s Ready to Die, DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell is Hot or 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin. It sets the stage. You’re second album is supposed to be about being rich and making it. Club bangers about bottle service and fucking bitches and groupies. It’s the brag album about getting all the things you ever wanted and flaunting it to the rest of the world, the new money album. This is probably the point where you claim to be the best rapper alive, start a rap beef or two, get better well known guest rappers to rap with you, bigger producers to make the track etc etc. You’re second rap album is supposed to be bigger, louder, and more of the same. Most rappers with Kendrick’s ground swell and talent don’t make the “black militant” album till later in their careers. Usually by that time they’re so far away from what’s happening in the streets to regular blacks that he militant album barely connects. How long did it take Yeezy to make Yeezus? Jay can’t even rap about the struggle anymore while Blue Ivy is literally throwing baby food at his Picasso like it’s no big deal.
That’s why it’s so risky that Kendrick put out TPAB, an album that’s unapologetic and capable of alienating a large number of his fan base. To have so much confidence in his talent not only as a storyteller but a lyricist to drop this album at this point in American Black History. An album with 70’s soul that can be linked back to Marvin Gaye’s what’s going on era. Without a “Club Banger” and very few radio friendly “chart hits”. How great is Kendrick Lamar as a lyricist? Over the summer he bodied the whole rap industry on one verse. MC’s till this day still mad about being called out on Big Sean’s single, Control (Yeah Drake I’m talking about you). Lamar had enough energy off of that one verse to fuel at least three more albums. That’s what we were expecting. But that was Lamar bench pressing light weight. Where on Control he named names on TPAB the only recognizable rappers to guest are Dre, Snoop and an old interview recording of 2 Pac. Kendrick is so far ahead of his peers he’s only fucking with legends on his second Album (what no Weezy guest verse?). He bodied the whole industry by not naming anyone. Sitting with grownups and having no competition. Making an album so black and suffocating it feels like a black man shadow boxing in a black room at midnight.
When we last left off with Kendrick Lamar his mom left this message on the outro
“….I hope you come back, and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let ‘em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back, with your words of encouragement, and that’s the best way to give back. To your city…”
To Pimp a Butterfly picks up from there and deals with Kendrick’s inner turmoil with fame and fortune that finds him battling for his soul between God, the devil (referred to as Lucy short for Lucifer through the album), having a mental breakdown in hotel rooms and then finding himself in South Africa. The Album as a whole shows the complex journey of today’s black man trying to grow change and become something more in America if he ever escapes the streets. The first half of the album deals with the fame and personal reflection of what it brings. Wesley’s Theory starts with all the things Kendrick wants to do after he gets signed. All the things he’ll buy, the money, acting straight niggerish. For Free is jazzy piano spoken word slam poem describing how the materialistic expectations of blacks comes with a price while the track King Kunta describes how people treat you when you’ve made it ( Bitch where were you when I was walking/Now I’m running game got the whole world talking/King Kunta/Black man taking no losses).
It’s all fun and games but soon on the track U Lamar finds himself in a hotel room talking to himself in the mirror breaking down about how his new found wealth has driven him further away from his family and friends. He switches personalities (voices) and viewpoints halfway through questioning himself on not being there to visit one of his close friends who was shot and eventually died while he was out touring on the road. He’s drunk and considering suicide. A few tracks later Lucy aka the devil visits him on the interlude, For Sale? Tempting him with even more riches and fame if he only he signs over his soul.
The next song Momma starts the journey to black enlightenment. Kendrick believes he knows everything but then realizes he doesn’t know shit until he goes back “home”. Home being Africa (here and the rest of the album) and where I’m sure is South Africa. By the third verse he meets a boy that resembles himself. This is one of the many spirt guides he meets theree. The boy tells him, “Kendrick you do know my language/ You just forgot because of what public schools had painted…” and also “I can attempt to enlighten you without frightenin you/ If you resist, I’ll back off quick, go catch a flight or two/ But if you pick destiny over rest in peace/ Than be an advocate, tell your homies especially to come back home”. Later on the track How Much a Dollar cost a cut on which Kendrick excellently flexes his lyrical muscles mixed with compelling storytelling, still in Africa he meets God at a gas station disguised as a homeless man asking for one dollar. He turns down the old man assuming he’ll use the money for drugs and alcohol. A verbal back and forth goes on within himself and then to the old man as Lamar tells himself to be stingy and not give the dude a buck. He’s work hard to attain all of his wealth on his own and isn’t willing to pass it on. By the end the old man tells him he is god and that the cost of a dollar is his soul.
From then on learning from his lesson Kendrick uses the rest of the album to bring the lessons learned in Africa back home to America to Compton and connecting the dots. He has new found energy, swagger and confidence that carriers the rest of the album. It’s not about the materialistic bullshit anymore, he’s seen his origin, he knows the big picture, seen the struggle still being experienced by black in their own countries. He makes the connection between war tribes and gangbanging sets. The struggle is universal. Complexion (A zulu Love) he raps about loving his skin tone and becoming at peace with his dark complexion. The Blacker The Berry is THEEE militant call to arms. Kendrick drawing a line in the sand and screaming he understands exactly why white American hates him, fears him, is jealous of him because they hate themselves. The hypocrisy of standing up against that but then still participating in black on Black Death himself in the past. This was written after Trevon Martin was killed.
The albums closing track Mortal Man perfectly brings all points home. Invoking the spirit of great leaders Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, JFK, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens and asking us as fans would we still be around if shit hit’s the fan. Pointing out how quickly people turn their backs on their idols and icons once society persecutes them or they fall from grace. Asking will those that love him still love him or are we all here right now cause he’s hot. Though this is his fear he’s still gunning for the position of being a leader. The twelve minute song moves into him reading one of his poems called Mortal Man to 2Pac. Cutting himself into a previously recorded 2Pac interview creating a world where a great one is holding court with a future great one. Pac seems almost prophetic describing the rising that will come in the future, encouraging young black men to step up and fight back while they’re still young and have the energy to lift weights and push back while Kendrick agrees. The album closes with Kendrick reading a poem to 2Pac written by one of his friends about Kendrick transitioning from a caterpillar on the streets of Compton to a Butterfly who’s gained knowledge of the world and has transformed for the better and realizing the two are one and the same
This album is purposefully not for everyone. The complexity in following the journey takes many listens. But only three months into the year and the Grammy’s a full year a way, there’s no surprise there’s only one album being talked about as album of the year. Somewhere as I type this Drake is mastering his album filled with club bangers, stories about fucking girls in different cities, a few hard cuts about rappers and ex’s that slept on him. An emotional tear jerker about the one that he let get away. Yeezy is fussing some samples from underground British immigrant dance culture that will be set to coincidentally drop along a new clothing line show release and Jay Z is finishing his album about building a space station on the moon just to hold all his Degas and Rembrandts. Any other year this would all be exciting news to hip hop heads but in 2015 Lamar’s TPAB makes them seem all irrelevant.
“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 colour 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”