It’s not a coincidence that Kendrick Lamar released the eagerly anticipated follow-up to Good Kid, M.A.A.D City a week early, falling around the anniversary of 2pac’s Me Against the World.
On Against the World, Tupac Shakur – an already established artist – reflected upon his successes, his pain and insecurities and his failures while pondering imminent jail time. In fact, the album hit the Billboard charts while Shakur resided behind prison bars.
Flash forward twenty years and we find another rooted artist contemplating his own successes and the insecurity surrounding him; albeit not behind prison bars but within the shackles perpetuated by him and American society.
Rap’s resident raconteur returns with To Pimp a Butterfly, a political and forward-thinking work of art. Like Good Kid, Lamar thrives as the flowing storyteller. This time, however, we find the MC trading tales of the past for a gaze toward the future amid compositions more aligned with 70’s funk and Miles Davis jazz than hip-hop production associated with Compton, California.
This specific progression of sound throughout TPAB should be credited to Steve Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, who helped create the visuals for Lamar’s opening act of Kanye West’s Yeezus tour. Per Flylo,
“I played him a folder of beats that I was keeping close… Later that night, he told me he had the concept for the album.”
Consequently, Ellison produced the opening track (a mirror of their previous discussion) and set the tone for the entire work.
“Wesley’s Theory,” commences with a dreamy, feel-good sample from Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger is a Star.” Along with the 70’s blaxploitation film of the same name it soundtracked, Gardiner aimed to denounce the hurtful power of the slur, shifting the connotation towards positivity.
The sample comes to a screeching halt when eerie tones of reality interrupt that confident dream, as George Clinton meditates on personal growth and idolatry over quintessential Thundercat bass slapping,
“When the four corners of this cocoon collide
You’ll slip through the cracks hoping that you’ll survive
Gather your wind, take a deep look inside
Are you really who they idolize?
To pimp a butterfly.”
Kendrick’s furious delivery follows shortly afterward, painting a vivid picture of consumerism and greed in the face of success. The song’s most engaging moment comes when Dr. Dre appears to mentor the 27-year-old rapper,
“Remember that first time you came out to the house? You said you wanted a spot like mine, but remember, anybody can get it. The hard part is keeping it, motherfucker.”
Not only does “Wesley’s Theory” set the tone for To Pimp a Butterfly sonically, but thematically as well. The sentiment of maintaining success emanates throughout Lamar’s rhymes, along with larger scale ideals: questioning who we are, who we strive to be, and what we do to perpetuate the angst and boundaries that prevent that realization.
Can we leave our cocoons? Can we leave behind a life of crime? Can we rise out of poverty? Can we rise above racism? Can we rise above classism? Can we rise out from the darkness? Will we survive in our efforts to do so? Once we do abscond, can we spread our wings and fly?
These questions propagate throughout To Pimp A Butterfly and notably on album highlight, the beautifully melodic and jazzy “Institutionalized,” where the speaker reasons to himself,
“I said I’m trapped inside the ghetto and I ain’t proud to admit it
Institutionalized, I could still kill me a nigga, so what?”
While Kendrick Lamar tops Billboard lists and headlines festivals across the world, his mindset still struggles to disown the entrapping confines of his harsh Compton upbringing.
Snoop Dogg lends his smoked-out smooth flow, sharing a similar train of thought as he slinks, “You can take your boy out the hood but you can’t take the hood out the homie.”
Since its inception, hip-hop culture has thoroughly expressed the idea of physically leaving the mean streets behind while battling to escape mentally. What makes Kendrick’s approach so significant is how he later juxtaposes these notions of hood mentality violence on the showstopper, “The Blacker the Berry.”
The record, which features a fantastic appearance from the distinctive Assassin (widely known for his work on Kanye’s “I’m In It”), boasts Lamar’s most aggressive spitfire to date, his fiery verses pointing to his own hypocrisy, “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?/ When gang banging make me kill a nigger blacker than me?”
As a product of west coast gang culture, a spectator and conceivably even a catalyst to the deaths of fellow black men, the speaker points the finger at himself to be the change he wants to see; noting the hypocrisy he feels after initially blaming those responsible for prolonging the strife: the government, the law, and subsequently, institutionalized racism.
Because of the album’s provocative themes, radio singles are minimal on Lamar’s latest effort. The most dance floor-ready song may be the funky “King Kunta,” which derives its name from the enslaved, Kunta Kinte – historically accounted within the novel and ensuing miniseries, Roots.
To Pimp a Butterfly wasn’t created for radio plays or Billboard lists, but to start a conversation. To sublimate his own self-doubt and depression, tying these themes to the endless loop of inequality and suppression we witness in America on a daily basis. Musically, the album is gorgeous. Thematically, it’s profound.
Kendrick Lamar is leading the discussion; I just hope we’re all listening.
(Album Cover: Spotify)