By: Harrison Giza
Disclaimer: if you are the type of person that gets offended at the mention of racial slurs in the context of rap music as well as the eternally-unneeded analysis of hip-hop culture, get back to reading music reviews from your local newspaper.
To Pimp A Butterfly album is as complex as a hostage situation, as delicate as the subject of race it devours, and is too motherfucking groovy for words to bear. It is less than gangsta, raw in poetic justice, but maintains an emotional monologue that is enveloped through every single track on To Pimp A Butterfly.
It opens with the lines “every nigger is a star” over and over again, popping with the thriving likeability of a seventies pop hit. I was already getting a chill, one I hadn’t felt in a long, long time. Subject matter for rap music usually goes weed, women, good times. But going political and straight up Black America like he’s Curtis Mayfield? I didn’t even know he had it in him.
Kendrick drew a line for his fans right at the get-go, asserting his hip-hop importance with simple lyrical controversy. Without hesitation, I hopped over, although I do understand people who can’t stand this album (it is absolutely nothing like Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City). I hadn’t heard a new Kendrick Lamar album in three years. I was more than interested.
The second I heard that Boris Gardiner sample in “Wesley’s Theory,” I realized that I was going to listen to an album that was political, lyrically residual, and intelligently tolerable on a widespread variety of conversation-worthiness. Mr. Lamar has the capability to give that feeling, no matter the amount of time he has allotted. And what was to be discussed in his latest release? Loyalty, money, women, the nature of men, stereotyping yourself, addiction, experimentation, individual determination, popularity, physical complexion, and the need for a prominence of human respect in these ever-warping times. Holy George Carlin, Batman!
And then it hit me. Out of nowhere with the fury of seventy thousand thunderbolts, strapped with the never-ending dynamite of the slippery and slide-slink bassists that birthed it, The Funk arose through my headphones. George Carlin became George Clinton, while my mouth was left ajar in the process. The song talks about Lamar’s past, present, and icon-ridden future. Flying Lotus, one of the most dynamic producers in the music industry, constructed the beat for “Wesley’s Theory.” His sonic touch never seems to leave the album, perfectly fitting Kendrick on all fronts of his complex character. Combining Fly Lo with K-Dot, Clinton, and Thundercat, “Wesley’s Theory” becomes the musical equivalent of P-Funk and 2 Pac tripping acid together in the simulated glory of everything Black Pop Culture; watching Chappelle’s Show sketches and barrowing a line or two from Rick James himself (i.e. Thundercat the chorus is beyond hilarious). There are a lot of metaphors leavin’ miracles metaphysically in a state of euphoria here. Even Dr. Dre pops in for a quick check-up:
“Remember the first time you came out to the house?
You said you wanted a spot like mine
But remember, anybody can get it
The hard part is keeping it, motherfucker”
The Internet has informed me that some of you think that Dre dropping in like this is totally out of context. Give me a little time before I prove you wrong.
“For Free? – Interlude” is a powerhouse of what Kendrick is capable off. Sure, everybody won’t like this beat, not because it is jazz-thunked womp, but because it is “Backstreet Freestyle 2.0” with a more-than-complicated instrumental. The tune builds itself, swimming through ol’ Broadway melodies and Gil Scott-Heron scat. America, Uncle Sam, and most importantly, hoes, are discussed here in a swish-swash of interpretation. Kendrick’s former groupies label him a “motherfucker,” “ho-ass nigga,” and that he’s under the delusion of being “God’s gift to Earth.” “This dick ain’t free” is repeated, over and over again, amidst the elegiac bounty of Kendrick’s subtle poetic sweetness. Why? Because it ain’t free, son.
“I need forty acres and a mule
Not a forty ounce and a pitbull
Bullshit, matador, matador”
I love Kendrick as a rapper not for his raspy inflection or ability to rip through dozens of different characters with distinctly flavorful perspective, but because each of his lines are open to any interpretation imaginable. No one person is right because so much is open for discussion. There are rare instances of blatant morals, but Lamar never lets his ethics dictate over his true feelings towards a subject. To me, that makes him more appealing as an artist.
“King Kunta” develops with sinister funk flint and loosens with a few drops of horrorcore guitar, reminiscent of Marshall Mathers’ early days. He talks about the century-sacred power of yams, the amount of modern day rappers secretly housing ghostwriters, and that The Funk itself can help lead Black America to a level of intellectual freedom and comfort never-thought to be known or achieved. The tremendously retro beat comes from Sounwave, a guy that is all over this album, composing and cooperating over five tracks that entail Pharrell, Rapsody, and the closing operetta “Mortal Man.”
I could go on and on about each individual track, but I won’t prattle on out of respect for individual, critical expression. This album can be looked at room a variety of different angles. Let me just say a few things about my favorite tracks.
“Institutionalized” is slick with Rick flare bridges, with a beat change as potent as Snoop Doggy Dogg’s marijuana and marijuana accessories. Kendrick makes all of his featured guests stars, but Snoop literally gets to live his dream of being Slick Rick. It’s D-O-G-G-Y baby! Holla at a G when he pimping in his Kendrick Review! Going back to my natural narrative tone, Anna Wise and Bilal are congruently together in making words become music on this tune. The zooming and zapping paired against a few of Kendrick’s flows from his last album makes the track a really calm, understated moment. You don’t recognize the familiarity at first either.
I love the way “Walls” displays two perspectives on sex: one as a funky, entertaining, erotic freedom of bodily bliss, the other showcasing the destructiveness of the act itself. The pacing? Pure magic.
“Hood Politics” is smooth, sterilizing, and as ignorantly irritating as it is logical and scary. I feel like Flatbush Zombies could have spit a couple verses on this track if it was longer. The bass is warm, slathered with ingenuity; steadily able to keep tripping you out despite how many listens you’ve given it. The Sufjan Stevens and Killer Mike references are great too.
“Alright” is a blessing. Pharrell is Pharrell again, not “your mom’s new favorite artist” or that “really happy guy” falsely balding live on television. The vocals at the beginning are reminiscent of the last Frank Ocean/Beyoncé collab, but with three times the muscle, menace, and marginality. You can almost feel him grinning with each verse he spits. It is gangsta, but with a self-consciousness seldom seen. Gotta give it up to Pharrell. This song takes me to Neptune and that hook is simply Drop-It-Like-It’s-Hawt as hell fire.
“The Blacker The Berry” is worth each piece of praise it has received and I already have tweeted enough about it to ramble anymore. The beat is deafening and the message is anything but. Rapsody’s verse on ”Complexion (A Zulu Love) is Missy Elliot intelligent. Some of the best lines on the album come from her.
“Mortal Man” is the final track. By any measure, it is a hip-hop odyssey, the highest and most efficient manifesto in the genre I have heard since Kanye West’s “Last Call” or the final minute of Franky O’s “American Wedding.” It opens with rambling G piano rolls, the warmth of a jazz band tuning up, and hungry, hurtful vocals that Drake will mimic soon enough. Then, the beat, appearing as quickly as it needs to, as simple as it needs to be, pairs with Kendrick’s final verses like he was born to rap over them.
The song asks the question: “when shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?” or better yet, “will you still respect me after you realize I’m not the immortal presence you see me claim to be?” Lamar then addresses common heroes of the past and present, Martin Luther King Jr, JFK, and Michael Jackson. However, these names are not brought back for entirely good nature.
“How many leaders you said you needed then left ‘em for dead?
Is it Moses, is it Huey Newton or Detroit Red?
Is it Martin Luther, JFK, shoot or you assassin
Is it Jackie, is it Jesse, oh I know, it’s Michael Jackson”
How many people have been idolized in our culture only to be forgotten after their popularity has come and gone? Two influential black men are discussed at length in “Mortal Man,” Nelson Mandela and Tupac Shakur. One is considered to be one of the greatest rappers of all-time, with politically focused rap bangers and a pop cultural status of the most legendary heights. The other was a man wrongfully imprisoned for over 27 years, who went onto become the first President of South Africa. Lamar puts these two in the spotlight not to emphasize the popularity of both men, but that natural human legacy heralds above superficial beings of fame, success, and pop culturally existent accomplishment.
This album at its core explores the idea of what it means to be a successful black man, starting with the foundation “every nigger is a star” while culminating with an achievement of future racial peace and questioning self-worth.
“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”
Kendrick asks Black America: do you have the aspiration to become President and try to change the world or become just “another nigga” in this fucked up, multicolored and underprivileged society? Do you want to be the new leader of an untainted, immortal message of justice or end your life getting shot after a Mike Tyson fight?
Dr. Dre is on this album for less than ten seconds, sure, but what does he say in his pimpin’ short amount of time?
Remember the first time you came out to the house?
You said you wanted a spot like mine
But remember, anybody can get it
The hard part is keeping it, motherfucker
Kendrick owes Dre, becoming another padawan in the Doctor’s long list of profitable hip-hop prophets… but when Kendrick tells him that he wants “a spot” just like his, it should be noted that he isn’t talking about the multi-million dollar mansion the Compton-bred, Beat Guru calls home. He wants to have Dre’s title of conversation-worthiness, ability to stay permanently relevant, and to do so without breaking the truth of his own homegrown being. Haters be warned, but Nelson Mandela’s flow >2 Pac’s.
Dre was absolutely needed, not for his fame and his fortune or awards and his wealth. Not for “keepin’ it gangsta” by any means at all. Dre is the rap game George Clinton in a way, both with his women and Chronic wisdom. Kendrick owes his success and influence to them. It makes sense some of the most successful and respected black musicians are on an album that ends with an ode to Nelson Mandela.
Without George Clinton, Dr. Dre’s production and Snoop Dogg’s flow would have been pretty fucking vanilla, lacking lots of funk. Kendrick takes both of these influences and raises them higher in both terms of sound and his respect for them, making sure that the funk, sweat, and soul of his being are in the heart of this jazz rap, G-funk festival of Good Kid, M.A.D.D Vibrations. He even lets an Isley Brother play God! WHAT ELSE DO YOU PEOPLE HAVE TO COMPLAIN ABOUT?
While Kanye took the final moments of his debut album “The College Dropout” to shout out the people who stood behind him and his ego struggle to get to the top of the music industry, Thundercat, Robert Glasper, Sounwave and almost every artist who worked on To Pimp A Butterfly stand together with Kendrick and his ideas, hopping behind their respective ringleader. The man has become one of the most outstanding, perspectival rappers the genre has ever produced.
To have this level of talent, this virtuoso ability to pick apart layers of societal, intellectual, and personal grievance is a once-in-a-decade find for mainstream music connoisseurs. The man was expected to bring another drinkable, smokeable, fun-lovin’ album to the forefront of pop culture. And what does he package and sell to us instead? The greatest hip-hop album in over ten years most people won’t hear past the first minute.
The last time I praised an album this much was when I listened to Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. One of my favorite artists. Period. Those two albums are in my cornerstone of favorite albums. Whatever the future holds for Kendrick Lamar and his imminent “next album,” I will be there to eagerly hear his generational brand of The Funk.