Just 30 minutes before the unexpected early release of Kendrick Lamar’s highly-anticipated, second major-label release, To Pimp A Butterfly, the Compton rapper took to Twitter for just the third time this year.
He tweeted, “Yesterday. March 14th. Was a special Day.”
Lamar’s tweet references Tupac Shakur’s Me Against the World, which dropped almost 20 years to the day before Kendrick’s new To Pimp A Butterfly. As clean and explicit versions of the album flashed across iTunes and Spotify throughout the night, some critics and fans saw the early release as just another stunt for shock value. The conspicuous presence of Tupac’s influence on the record suggests otherwise.
The final track on the album, “Mortal Man,” features a six-minute edited conversation between Kendrick and the slain rapper. Kendrick continually uses a butterfly as a metaphor to represent his journey as an artist. He ends by posing a question to Shakur. “Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one in the same … What’s your perspective on that?” After seven short seconds, the track ends without a response.
This is not the only ambiguous moment on the album. The entire album is threaded with questions in Kendrick’s urgent delivery. As a whole, the album forces listeners to come up with their own perspectives and answers to the political, social, and spiritual topics raised, and to reflect on Lamar’s unrestrained persona. The album is fundamentally focused on questions instead of answers. Lamar pushes conversation and contemplation from his listeners, something almost entirely unheard of in hip-hop today. On To Pimp A Butterfly, contemplation is more important than aesthetic. The album is not as easy to listen to as good kid, m.A.A.d city or Section 80. He is not just telling stories or calling out his contemporaries anymore. With To Pimp A Butterfly’s blend of intellect and emotion, Kendrick Lamar has risen above what other hip-hop artists even hope to achieve.
The album has a sound rooted in 70s funk. It begins with “Wesley’s Theory,” a Flying Lotus beat featuring an appearance from legendary rapper/producer Dr. Dre, in which he warns Lamar of the dangers of success and how one can maintain his influence—a common theme throughout the album. His struggles with fame are further elucidated on the fifth track. “These Walls” is an emotional song in which Lamar offers a window into his personal life and his emotional struggles with his quick rise to fame.
On the following track, “u”—a much darker counterpart of the hugely popular “i”—Kendrick seems to be speaking to himself. The track begins with an eerie, angry scream that gradually builds into an emotional and passionate verse. Kendrick’s crackling voice moves through his insecurities, past selfishness, and regret. He wails “Loving you is complicated” on the hook and admits he “Facetimed” a friend “instead of a hospital visit.” He goes on with “God himself will say ‘you f—kin’ failed’ / You ain’t tried.” This intense self-reflection and candidness is a staple of the project and is at the heart of its success.
One of the most notable tracks on the album is “i,” the second to last track. The song has undergone a significant transformation from the Grammy-award winning, pop-esque version released earlier this year. On the album, Kendrick simulates a live performance, undergoing lyrical and production changes that give it a much more “real” feel. The new, extended version does not end with the sounds of bustling traffic like the initial release, but with a crowd brawl that rages until Kendrick asks the question, “How many n—as we done lost bro? This year alone.” It is moments like these when Kendrick forcefully sheds the fourth wall that make the album, that directly force the listener to stop and consider questions of great weight and meaning.
The most powerful track, “Blacker the Berry,” is aggressive, provocative, and exciting. While the track dropped only a month ago, Kendrick is said to have been working on it for three years, since he heard about the death Trayvon Martin. Kendrick raps with force over the Boi-1da-produced beat with the help of Lalah Hathaway, who was featured on the hard-hitting hook of Kanye West’s “I’m in It.” On “Blacker the Berry,” Kendrick is blunt with an incredible sense of urgency as he delivers an unforgiving verse about the hypocrisy of society and himself. He raps, “I mean, it’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society / That’s what you’re telling me, penitentiary would only hire me.” It’s a taste of the honesty and ruthlessness on display earlier in his verse on Big Sean’s “Control,” minus the trivial disagreements with other rappers. Kendrick’s honesty and lyricism combine to create one of the album’s strongest tracks.
To Pimp A Butterfly is not an easily digestible album. It is an epic. It requires thought and consideration to truly appreciate its significance. Already a massive commercial success, To Pimp A Butterfly proves Kendrick Lamar is one of, if not the most honest, thought-provoking, and prominent rappers in hip-hop today.
Featured Image Courtesy of Interscope Records