Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly (Review)

Kendrick is no greenhorn in the realm of storytelling, of stringing lyrics seamlessly with such palpable sincerity. The artist formerly known as K-Dot picks up where he left off in good kid, M.A.A.D. city, crafting an eloquent if perhaps hasty response to race, class, and his own legion of personal demons.

What makes Kendrick's third studio album compelling is not continuity but conversion. Lamar continues the narrative of his first studio album but does not let it dictate where To Pimp a Butterfly takes us. In a mere 16 tracks, Kendrick is Compton tour guide, and vehement philosopher and professor of antiblackness, and apprehensive, black entertainer reconciling wealth and success within the context of his own vice. 

The album begins jokingly. Early tracks, "Wesley Theory", "For Free?", and third single "King Kunta", are arrogant and satirical in tone, alluding to his industry success briefly before tying his narrative to the larger conspiracy of America and its centuries-long exploitation of blackness.

For every moment Kendrick sheds light on the horrors of living in and out of contemporary black enslavement, he points a flashlight at his own failures to combat these inequities. "U" serves as an intense introspective both musically and lyrically.

Soliloquy is Kendrick's comfort-zone, having openly revealed writing a primary (if not sole) confidant. Tracks like "u", "Momma", and "How Much A Dollar Cost" follow Kendrick's musings which are surprisingly relateable despite their specificity.

Having returned from a recent trip to South Africa, the country's Civil Rights movement has had a profound effect on Kendrick's worldview. He cites frequently images and references to Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and the tribes, Zulu and Xhosa. 

Production-wise, the album is jazzy as fuck. Trumpets and bass are heavy but he does not stray from the more classic gangsta rap aesthetics. This balance is best exemplified in "Alright". It's like if Janelle Monae's The Electric Lady was borrowed by Tyler, the Creator and given to Prince and Pharrell to hand back to Dr. Dre...and, well, back to Compton's self-proclaimed king.

In "Mortal Man" he leaves fans questioning their loyalty; if they'd still stand by him when society's ills inevitably destroy him. Kendrick sees himself as the next in a long line of black leadership, drawing connections to Tupac as well as Michael Jackson and Nelson Mandela. The interview with Tupac Shakur reveals the meaning behind To Pimp a Butterfly's title and Kendrick's solution to "the race problem". 

The internet is swarming with reviews and critiques and conversations regarding Kendrick Lamar's recent work, especially in juxtaposition with his personal statements out of the studio. There are subtle inconsistencies.

Some argue Kendrick's intent is more convincing than his actual argument; arguing his intimacy with ghetto culture and lack of more academic exploration into the inequities of an anti-black state provide little to back his militancy and reckless tone. Some argue the album is too black. Or not black enough.

Either way, Kendrick Lamar has done what is necessary of the artist, despite the medium. He made people uncomfortable.

Kendrick doesn't make albums but dissertations, citing solely his experience, grasping fervently at what his seemingly inescapable sadness can reveal about the human condition. To Pimp a Butterfly is as intellectually satisfying as it is sonically impeccable. Its solutions are vague and impossible. Its description rich and poetic. The work is a salient reminder that we need now, more than people with right answers, are people asking the right questions.

We ain’t got time to waste time, my nigga. Niggas gotta make time, bro. The judge make time. You know the judge make time. So it ain’t shit for us to come out here and appreciate the little life we got left.
— Kendrick Lamar, "i"