I have only a few hundred words to convey my feelings about Kendrick Lamar’s new album, To Pimp a Butterfly; this isn’t going to be easy. This difficulty I face is many ways reflected in the album I’m reviewing. Lamar wants to tell his listeners so much and express such complexity that, upon the first listen, you are overwhelmed with the sheer size of the project. As one the most hyped albums of the year, there was a lot riding on this release. But it leaked a week early, perhaps to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Tupac Shakur’s Me Against the World. From this, one might conclude that To Pimp a Butterfly sticks to rap conventions. However, Lamar chooses not to discriminate on any level, particularly not through genre. Incorporating a variety of musicians and genres, from Flying Lotus to Snoop Dogg to George Clinton, Lamar holds nothing back musically.
In To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar is frustrated both personally and politically, and even more so when the two worlds clash. We get a glimpse at both sides of his life as a young black man in America. We hear about his rise from the ‘hood’ to bestselling artist, and how these perspectives collide. The first listening is confronting, due to the unusual blending of styles (jazz, funk, pop and hip hop in a rap album), dense layers of competing melodies, and rapid-fire, verbose and intense lyrics. But the second time around, the storm-clouds part and the simple anxieties of contradiction and the fear for one’s people becomes apparent.
The emotional voyage this album takes is hard going, and, to someone who is the biggest honkey you have ever met, confronting to say the least. This album deserves an entire thesis written solely on it. But, since I don’t have a thesis in which to digest and dissect this admirable follow up to good kid, m.A.A.d city, I will simply state that yes, To Pimp a Butterfly does indeed live up to the hype, both as a commercial product (‘King Kunta’ deserves to be played at every club around the world) and as a piece of art. Just make sure you listen to it a couple of times: at full volume and with plenty of bass!