c. 2003: By the time OutKast was hard at work—crafting what would inevitably be the apex of their collective creativity and last major record—André 3000 a.k.a. André Lauren Benjamin and Big Boi a.k.a. Antwan André Patton had just about run out of ways to express themselves via hip-hop. You see, a common misconception made while tracing OutKast’s garish decade plus long history and discography is that it was Stankonia, their landmark New Millennium album, that widened horizons and broke the duo into new creative territory. But upon brief reexamination, all Stankonia was a logical continuation of what OutKast had already established on their previous three records. However with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, their eagerly awaited follow-up to Stankonia, André 3000 and Big Boi tapped into some pretty fertile soil. For starters, the duo, for the first time in their career as a group, had chosen to work separately, which would open the floodgates of endless possibilities and imagination. Where Big Boi’s contribution, Speakerboxxx, flirts with progressive, psychedelic funk music by way of Southern hip-hop (with an emphasis on retaining social awareness), André 3000’s acclaimed The Love Below is a different beast altogether as it blends pop, jazz and funk with live instruments, and singing instead of rapping. Despite the immediate bifurcation, the end result is a project sounding unsurprisingly unified because the two ultimately share the same freewheeling aesthetic.
The unapologetic eccentricities presented on OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below fueled not only some of the best hip-hop, but some of the best pop music—and both Speakerboxxx and The Love Below, respectively, are among the very best hip-hop and pop music offered up to the public. Looking back, little did we know that at the time OutKast was using the current pop music landscape as a weapon; with both André 3000 and Big Boi’s amalgamated frustrations with the limitations of hip-hop driving them into wide new sonic territories, and to speak out on various social ills. Take Big Boi’s summer tune “The Way You Move”, with its deep-throbbing bass and crisp electronic claps, punching horns, and Earth, Wind & Fire-inspired exultations, via Sleepy Brown, setting a brilliant dichotomy between the nightclub and picnic on a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon. Whether you’re dancing with a partner or enjoying a classy meal in a three-star Michelin restaurant, you’re bound to miss Big Boi’s lighthearted ode to women of all shapes and sizes. Or how about André 3000’s smash hit “Hey Ya!”? A seemingly chintzy little pop number with elementary lyrics and an infectious bubblegum singalong that appears tailor-made for the hackneyed “guilty pleasure” idiom. But in all actuality, the track is an experiment gone array thanks to its mad scientist who is really an estranged hardcore vegan hip-hop superhero that wears fuzzy boots and silly hats. “Hey Ya!” has no regard for preconceived notions of music, iambic pentameters or 16-bar rhyme schemes, and whether or not he knew it at the time André 3000 was out to topple the walls that had been imperiously dividing rock, R&B and hip-hop for years—subsequently allowing for everyone to swim in an enormous public pool of original, popular music.
c. 2014: Who would have thought that eleven years to the day, that a young hip-hop stalwart would circumstantially find themselves fastened to the driver’s seat of a ’67 Chevrolet Impala—one that is a near-replica to the one driven by OutKast around 2003? That’s precisely what occurred one faithful September morning when Kendrick Lamar released his deceptively uptempo and polarizing track “i” onto the world. The track was the first proper new Lamar track released since his 2012 breakout album good kid, m.A.A.d city. But unlike any of the singles off of good kid, m.A.A.d city, “i” wasn’t met with the same immediate fanfare, with many critics and fans deriding the song as nothing more than a capitalization on the success of Pharrell’s escapist fluff, “Happy”. Whether it was the heavily sampled Isley Brothers backdrop or the “I love myself” refrain on the hook, the overall glowing sneer of “i” initially felt displaced and more empty calories than a nutritious treat. It wasn’t until Lamar divulged some intimate details surrounding the making of the track, which he described as a song for prison inmates and suicidal teenagers. “I wrote a record for the homies that’s in the penitentiary right now, and I also wrote a record for these kids that come up to my shows with these slashes on they wrists, saying they don’t want to live no more,” he explained, saying he wanted his upcoming record to have a positive, inspirational sound. And with that, whenever we hear the glorious “I love myself” hook during a summertime cookout we will be surely celebrating, but never forgetting about those fighting an inner war.
After all, it was on good kid, m.A.A.d city where the 27-year-old rapper’s own mother advised that her son “give back with your words of encouragement” at the end of Anna Wise-assisted “Real”, a track that finds Kendrick Lamar tirelessly repeating “What love got to do with it when you don’t love yourself?” But Lamar’s mother should be proud of her son, as he makes good on the promise; delivering a compelling follow-up to good kid, m.A.A.d city in To Pimp a Butterfly—a sprawling 79-minute behemoth of an album fueled by militant energy, a battered ego, and a thousand old jazz, funk and soul records. It’s hard to fathom the insurmountable pressure Lamar was under posthaste critical evaluation and subsequent universal adoration of good kid, m.A.A.d city. As if it wasn’t enough pressure to have Dr. Dre declare you the heir to the hip-hop throne, how about having the music community comparing you to Tupac Shakur? Or your debut likened to Nas’ genre-defining masterpiece Illmatic? The weighty expectations for Lamar to deliver on his sophomore major label studio album would’ve driven many of his generation’s contemporaries down a familiar path, firmly grasping at their security blanket, and as a result compromising their artistic integrity for comfort. But with To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar navigates that ’67 Chevrolet Impala out of his native Compton and plots through a dizzying course of America’s past, present and future. But despite this seemingly larger scope and wider vantage point, Lamar’s journey through The Land of the Free has left him socially disillusioned, filled with a swirling mixture of internal chaos and self-doubt, and utterly tormented by the risk of “misusing your influence”.
Throughout its hefty 79-minutes, To Pimp a Butterfly takes the listener on a topsy-turvy odyssey through black culture and music; there’s jazz, funk, soul, R&B, elements of gospel and blues, and, of course, hip-hop. In addition to its musical DNA, To Pimp a Butterfly is interspersed with hyperkinetic beat poetry akin to Russell Simmons’ groundbreaking Def Poetry Jam and a laundry list of reverent references to black culture (historical events, political and cultural figures, art, film, music, sports, food, lineage, ancestry, language, locales, and communities). The album opens with a sample of Boris Gardiner’s cheery “Every Nigger Is a Star”; Wesley Snipes’s tax-evasion prison sentence is used as an extended motif for the vices of black celebrity and the aggression of those institutions that prey on its failure. There’s a The Color Purple reference; images of cotton-picking slaves; visions of a world where a racial hierarchy no longer exists and Idris Elba is, in fact, named the next James Bond. George Clinton is here, introducing a track; Ronald Isley pleas to God for forgiveness; Dr. Dre leaves a voicemail about obtaining and maintaining personal wealth. Black street gangs metamorphose into corrupt politicians (“Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-icans”). “King Kunta” works in Kunta Kinte from Roots, African cuisine, Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can!” slogan, Richard Pryor, Michael Jackson, and Parliament. Prominent black leaders Huey P. Newton, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson are all name-checked. Soulquarians influence aplenty; Fela Kuti’s musical blueprint is present on “Mortal Man”. Black stereotypes consume Lamar’s rationale on “The Blacker the Berry”. A spoken word poem is recited for Oprah Winfrey in a public forum. Even Tupac appears on the album, manifested as Lamar’s guardian angel.
But notwithstanding the aforementioned hefty pro-black themes presented on the album, To Pimp a Butterfly is still, ultimately, an album about the man and the mind behind its numinous conception. The success of his autobiographical street allegory good kid, m.A.A.d city has opened up many opportunities Kendrick Lamar didn’t have before; the stories of his personal experiences growing up in Compton took him out of Compton and abruptly thrusted him in front of the world. “You take a black kid out of Compton and put him in the limelight, and you find answers about yourself you never knew you were searching for,” he said during an interview. “There’s some stuff in there, man. It’s a roller coaster. It builds.” This existential quandary Lamar faces—the same felt unreliability of human experience brought about by the inhuman acceleration of historical change—has led every sensitive modern mind to the recording of some kid of nausea, of intellectual vertigo. And the only way to cure this spiritual nausea seems to be—at the least, initially—to exacerbate it. Lamar’s quest for post-stardom identity mirrors black America’s quest for post-assimilation purpose. But Lamar’s newfound experiences and fame have left him thoroughly detached—scrambling for any sensible form of semblance—as his mask of sanity begins to slip. The lyrics on To Pimp a Butterfly find Lamar cynically portraying fame and its cold retrogression into perceived insanity with the frenzied, clangorous musical backdrops perfectly reflecting his headspace. The music on To Pimp a Butterfly has a certain, je ne sais quoi—an adventurous quality to it, which is fitting to the album given Lamar’s subsequent travels and ostensible state of “homelessness” (Lamar was extensively touring the country at the time) during its earliest gestation.
Where good kid, m.A.A.d city was more or less about Kendrick Lamar and the bitesized geographical makeup of Compton, To Pimp a Butterfly features Lamar’s most sprawling, ambitious (and equally challenging) compositions yet—taking a more scenic route to his usual destinations. The fanboy reverence Lamar and his trusty team of producers exhibit toward the vintage sounds here (jazz, funk, soul, R&B, spoken word poetry, gospel and blues) is truly one of the album’s greatest strengths and achievements. If To Pimp a Butterfly were an orchestra, Lamar would most certainly be its esteemed conductor. Not since the days of Kanye West has a singular rapper taken near-complete creative control over their respective art and vision. Lamar’s longtime engineer, Derek “MixedByAli” Ali, says the rapper would often talk in moods: “He would say, ‘I want it to sound eerie,’ or ‘I want it to sound like you’re driving past something.’ Or he talks in colors: ‘Make it sound purple. Make it sound light green.’” This hands-on approach by Lamar is especially refreshing in the days of dime a dozen bedroom DJs and producers. In fact, if there’s one thing you can take away from To Pimp a Butterfly it’s—like George Clinton, James Brown, OutKast and even post-punk outfit Gang of Four before it—that this is a revolution you can dance to. You just know it’s something special when by merely offering something for both the brain and the booty—in the same way that made OutKast special during their triumphant victory lap (c. 2000-2004)—as it hits that rare balance of creative eccentricity and mass appeal. Not to sound cliché: but there is something here for everyone.
When you might eventually find yourself scoffing at the overtly political messages, or growing tired of the righteously indignant tracks, you can easily put the album on cruise control, and pick apart the wonderful little details buried in the headphone-friendly mix. Bilal and Anna Wise’s tag team echoed harmonies bounce from speaker to speaker on the one-two punch of “Institutionalized” and “These Walls”. Jazz pianist Robert Glasper’s hyperactive keys jut up against stammering, free-improvisation percussion on “For Free? (Interlude)”. Oddities like “For Sale? (Interlude)” bloom and disappear in time-lapse photography. Even the brief skits have musical interest: there’s tabla, harmonium and ambiance. But that isn’t to say the classic rippity rap Kendrick Lamar the world loves is missing in action, because he’s very much present on the album, offering up some much needed relief to those still feverishly clinging to their worn out copies of Section.80 and good kid, m.A.A.d city. If his previous releases had Kendrick Lamar incidentally bearing the title of “Talented Lyricist & Rapper”, then To Pimp a Butterfly is a strong argument for Lamar as “The Gifted Songwriter”. Take “The Blacker the Berry”, easily Lamar’s most aggressive, confrontational and astute track yet, with his delivery teetering ever-so closely between a roar and a bawl. Where the threat of violence and bloodshed is imminent on, say, a track like “m.A.A.d city”, Lamar always felt the need to retreat into melodious singsong filler. But on “The Blacker the Berry” he smartly cuts off his tuneful ear, opting to give his razor-sharp tongue all the work: “I mean, it’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society/ That’s what you’re telling me, penitentiary would only hire me”. Elsewhere Lamar plunges into bloodcurdling screams (first verse on “u”), mumbling in a drunken stupor (third verse on “u”), and flaunts his newly discovered moxie (second verse on “Momma”).
Kendrick Lamar isn’t just a permanent stone-faced wretch with his clenched fist frozen in midair, he’s actually got a terrific sense of humor even when in the face of adversity. Lamar’s deft ability to balance serious-minded reflections on the gruesome nature of the world at large, alongside the unique brand of dark humor with which he imbues on To Pimp a Butterfly, makes for a multifaceted listening experience. Even under the grim and mind-deadening dimensions of ghetto life in America painted on “Hood Politics”, Lamar is able to find a way to work in highly quotable farce courtesy of his repetition of the phrase “boo boo” at the end of every line. And let us not tip-toe over Lamar’s dense, spoken word on “For Free? (Interlude)” where the line “This dick ain’t free” is vocalized with emphasis, surrounding the refrain with lines like “I need forty acres and a mule/ Not a forty-ounce and a pit bull”. But this feeling shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to the seasoned Lamar fans, given his lyrical multiplicity and oddball vocal inflictions. After all, it was good kid, m.A.A.d city that gave us many hashtag worthy phrases including, but not limited to, “I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower”, “Bitch, don’t kill my vibe”, “Pour up, drank”, ScHoolboy Q’s “YAWK! YAWK! YAWK! YAWK!”, and “Ya bish!” There are even entire tracks on To Pimp a Butterfly that are dedicated to escapism—albeit some skewed, ephemeral view of “narrative escapism”—like on the Pharrell produced “Alright”, which plays on a contemporary “turn up” anthem, but on here it isn’t concerned with the nightclub—going for pure catharsis. Curiously, even the album version of “i” discovers new thrills with its live-sounding mix. In the midst of his performance the band unceremoniously stops when an argument breaks out in the crowd, and with Lamar subsequently assuming the role of a peacekeeper by reciting a poem. With the track slotted towards the end of the album, it marks a pivotal moment in the narrative; this is where Kendrick Lamar finally becomes a leader—there’s a hush over the crowd as they listen to the King.
But To Pimp a Butterfly isn’t quite picture perfect Beyoncé, even in spite of everything that makes it a fully realized project. It’s worth noting that unlike good kid, m.A.A.d city, To Pimp a Butterfly isn’t billed as “a short film by Kendrick Lamar”, which arrives prepackaged as both a gift and a curse. The gift: Kendrick Lamar is allowed to experiment both sonically and conceptually, explore new musical territories, and push some serious boundaries by not limiting himself narratively. The curse: Evidently, Lamar is still struggling with his self-confidence because he is overcompensating with all of these crazy interweaving storylines, interlocking dramas and cast of characters. But it’s not only the abundance of them that’s somewhat problematic either, it’s that the yarn feels completely tangled. Maybe ‘completely’ is a tad hyperbolic, because the storylines are all relatively easy to follow, and the characters are often hiding in plain sight. And perhaps it’s just that, that’s the problem: you’ll roll your eyes anytime Lamar mentions “Lucy” like it requires a double take or nudge of a friend. Or when the plot twist is finally revealed: The poem Lamar was reciting (“I remember you was conflicted…”) throughout the sixteen tracks was being read aloud to his childhood idol Tupac the entire time. It’s tricky because “Mortal Man” is one of To Pimp a Butterfly’s finest moments; a story of Lamar’s final triumph over all he’s faced over the course of the album, with one of the best instrumentals, but the long fictional dialogue with Tupac that follows—some six minutes of Lamar asking Tupac about how he dealt with image and fame during his era—probably won’t hold up so well on repeated listens down the road. Still, you could always just skip that part if you’re sick of story time with Kendrick Lamar and Tupac Shakur. And it’s a really fine song apart from that.
Kendrick Lamar was able to use the unexpected success from good kid, m.A.A.d city to utilize his new album, To Pimp a Butterfly, and the current pop music landscape as both a weapon and battlefield, respectively. “You can ask Dré – from day one, I thought the shit on [Speakerboxxx/The Love Below] was jamming,” Big Boi tells Rolling Stone. “Management people was getting panicky. They thought the singles were too left. I said ‘Let’s hold our dicks on this one.’ Like, ‘Don’t budge.'” He laughs. “We ain’t budging.” We can only guess, but it’s safe to say Lamar most likely held his dick on every decision on To Pimp a Butterfly. Damn, just look at that album cover one more time: That’s the type of shit that’ll certainly have Middle America quivering and Fox News fabricating fear mongering stories. To Pimp a Butterfly seems to possess undefinable eternal qualities that will unravel in time on an emotional, intellectual and spiritual level. Kendrick Lamar coalesced the political and societal challenges of hip-hop’s past into what is one of the genre’s most artistically unorthodox releases yet. The album is a challenging work of art, one in which the artist seeks to awaken awareness as opposed to providing an audience with simple, by the numbers solutions. The question Lamar raises throughout To Pimp a Butterfly, and specifically during his fictional conversation with Tupac is: How can one man provide answers for such a universal, deep-rooted topic? The avid and attentive individual will certainly hear an album that can change the views of a nation. Those, on the other hand, that see otherwise are actually the subjects that To Pimp a Butterfly should be most poignant to, as they are gazing into a shattered mirror. And shit, if we can just, for a second, disassociate the music from the sociopolitical then maybe To Pimp a Butterfly can even help hip-hop reinvigorate itself in the album form with the funky grind of its roots; looking back fondly at Parliament records, Prince’s early electronic experiments, the gritty funk of James Brown, and the schmaltzy soul of Isaac Hayes.