The Music Man: Album review: “To Pimp a Butterfly” by Kendrick Lamar

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After the Grammys last year, much of the music industry’s attention shifted to Kendrick Lamar. He had walked into the awards with seven nominations, all relating to his major label debut, “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” and walked out with nothing. Even Macklemore apologized to Lamar, after feeling he and Ryan Lewis had “robbed” Lamar by nearly sweeping the rap category. In the midst of all this, I didn’t pay much attention to Lamar — after all, I didn’t even really like hip-hop then.

Earlier this year, I decided to go back and listen to “good kid, m.A.A.d city” to see if my newfound appreciation for hip-hop could make me like Lamar. Two songs in, though, I could not stand his voice and stopped listening to the album.

Last week, Lamar released his third album (and second with a major label), “To Pimp a Butterfly.” I had heard a lot about the album in anticipation of its release — music publications far and wide painted a portrait of a pro-black message surrounded by sophisticated lyrics and production. When “To Pimp a Butterfly” finally dropped, I decided to listen to it, if nothing else because of the album’s hype. About two minutes into the 79-minute project, I was hooked.

Even before I heard the album, its title intrigued me. I later found out “To Pimp a Butterfly” was supposed to be a play on Harper Lee’s novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which deals with race relations in the ‘60s. Lee’s novel shows readers that mockingbirds, such as innocent black men, are attacked and killed by others, namely white racists, a lot. In this same vein, it seems like Lamar is trying to show a world where society unnecessarily shows fantastic and wonderful black men as stereotypical gangsters — in essence, pimping butterflies.

The rest of the album is just as poetic, metaphorical and deep. Lamar’s lyrics deal with self-love, self-hate and everything in between, all with his backstory of being black in the U.S. The album’s timing also supplements its message well, with most of it recorded around Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s police brutality-related deaths. After a few listens, all of this comes together to show Lamar’s true intent — empowering the black community everywhere through music, a universal language.

However, Lamar leaves some loose ends as well. Each song, of course, deals with its own issues, and I still haven’t figured out what some of the tracks are supposed to mean. This depth, though, is part of the album’s beauty.

Just listening to “To Pimp a Butterfly” without paying attention to lyrics is an experience in and of itself. From the opening, Lamar plays with jazz and funk, creating a refreshing sound in the electronically-dominated hip-hop world. The samples only add depth, and a few “skits” and interludes (one that even features Lamar doing what sounds like a cross between scatting and slam poetry) throughout the album help distinguish chunks that share certain themes and sounds.

“Wesley’s Theory,” the opening track, embodies Lamar’s aim of black empowerment from the beginning by sampling Jamaican singer Boris Gardiner’s “Every N—– Is a Star.” The rest of the track makes the transition to jazz and funk influences very clear, showing the album’s complex structure right off the bat through its bridges, hook, intro and outro.

The fourth track, “Institutionalized,” definitely stands out — Lamar shows money’s negative effects, and a top-notch feature from industry veteran Snoop Dogg rounds out the song. Lamar plays off black stereotypes and racism in an angry, near-ranting style on “The Blacker the Berry,” with the track culminating in a realization of his own hypocrisy by condemning violence against black people while not trying to stop black-on-black gang violence. In “u,” Lamar explores his own struggles more through tear-filled, drunken verses that are both emotional and deep. On the song’s companion track (and the album’s Grammy-winning first single), “i,” Lamar seems to love himself more, rapping over the sounds of a crowd in a studio recording that nearly sounds live.

The peak of the album rightfully occurs at the ending, on “Mortal Man.” After the song portion of the track, Lamar recites a poem he’s been building, line by line, since the third track of the album. This turns into a mock interview with late-great hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur, with Kendrick asking questions and Shakur responding through clips of interviews he did before his murder. Shakur’s answers help walk the reader through some of the album’s big ideas, while also raising even more questions about how society treats black people. To close the track, Lamar reads another poem, written by one of his friends, about caterpillars and butterflies, but Shakur doesn’t respond, leaving the listener to draw his or her own conclusions on the album’s overall metaphor.

This gives just one example of why you have to listen to “To Pimp a Butterfly” in full. The message only grows after hearing the songs flow from one to the next and picking up on some repeated elements, such as Lamar’s poem. “To Pimp a Butterfly” clearly challenges society on many different levels — from what hip-hop is and isn’t to the broader context of race relations. Even though it can be hard to digest, one thing is for sure — Lamar will (or, at the very least, should) definitely get the recognition he deserves for this game-changing release.

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