Léte contributors and friends comment on the album that we've been playing all week non-stop.
Written by Ryan Lyons and Erin Duncan
Are we still scared to label anything a “classic” right away? Even when the artist proves themselves worthy again and again? Every song on K Dot's new album has purpose and still bangs. It would be an understatement to say that America has been experiencing harsh racial injustices since Kendrick Lamar released his 2012 major label debut good kid, m.A.A.D City. Since that release, which told the narrative of Lamar and his city limits of Compton, California, we have witnessed the racial tensions of Ferguson and the murder of Mike Brown - as well as murders of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and most recently Tony Robinson - which often make it feel unsettling and uncomfortable to still be black in America in this day and age. In a recent controversial interview with Billboard, Kendrick stated "I wish somebody would look in our neighborhood knowing that it’s already a situation, mentally, where it’s fucked up. What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within." The statements, especially egged on by a multitude of blog headlines only posting a small quote, caused backlash on social media. Some loyalists began to question his position when it came to such issues. Could a potential hip hop savior feel that his own people need to clean up so white folks could respect us? Was he insinuating our own guilt within Mike Brown's death? An impending album would no doubt confront race crimes, as well as black on black crime, it was just a matter of how Kendrick was going to address it in his own self-built and carefully crafted sonic landscape.
Kendrick has provided a place to answer some of our lingering questions, and continue to raise even more. Using current racial tensions somewhat as a guide, along with other topics: the downside of fame, blackness, spirituality, politics, and more. So much more that we’ll be decoding and uncovering layers of this album for years to come. This second official album is far from cries of a sophomore slump, although no one was expecting that from King Kunta at all. In fact, Kendrick raises his palette by sharing this album with an incredible and more genre-bending diverse line up, bringing forward the musicianship of acts like Thundercat, Terrace Martin, Larrance Dobson, Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper and Sounwave. The album which was released early online, inevitably creating a frenzy in the way that artists such as Beyonce and Drake have proven to be advantageous. To Pimp A Butterfly is it's own Poetic Justice and it's own Do The Right Thing. Léte contributors and friends react to a week's worth of being immersed in Kendrick Lamar's new film.
I started writing notes on each song on To Pimp a Butterfly, but, around track 5, I stopped writing. I became less of a music scholar and did what I do even better than write about music – I let myself slip into it. You have to experience music before you can observe or interpret it, especially with rap.
Kendrick knows how to make me feel something, intensely, and I find he is such a great storyteller that I can always fall deeply into his cinematic productions. He knows how to suck you into his world, and unlike most mainstream rappers today, his world isn’t a fantasy land of sex, riches, money, fame or other superficial commodities. Lamar’s land is a reality, a reality that we all face as black people. Yes, he discusses sex, riches and fame, but he uses these as tools to interpret the black man, the black experience. Black desires and black downfalls within an American system that is operated for us to fail, in one way or another.
To Pimp a Butterfly is laced with clever, contemplative, creative lyrics, wondrous production and instrumentals, stellar feature artists and musicians who feel more like a united band than guest appearances, and a conversation with Tupac at the very end that was constructed in such a way that made my eyeballs hot. It was mortal versus immortal, alive conversing dead, present reflecting on the past, and the parallels between the two rapper-poets became more apparent to me than ever. A rose and a butterfly! This album displays black beauty in all its forms; dark, alluring, complex, magnificent, depressing, dangerous and divine.
Before To Pimp A Butterfly dropped, my assumption of Kendrick's direction after hearing "i" and "The Blacker The Berry" wasn't an optimistic one. With "i" it felt like he was taking the passive "We gon' be alright" route given the song's airy, super-posi vibes. Then, "The Blacker The Berry" felt like a too-obvious attempt at redeeming himself for fans disappointed with "i." Him being a "proud monkey" didn't resonate with me either. But as I've had to remind myself on many occassions, Kendrick Lamar's music is misleading when taken out of the context of an album. In 2012, "Swimming Pools" was easy to skip after first hearing it but as I listened to g.o.o.d kidd, m.A.A.d. city, and realized that the single was a small piece to a puzzle, I gained much more appreciation for it. That remains true with To Pimp A Butterfly.
There's a strong sense of introspection on this album which is carried out with a wider range of methods than we've ever seen from Kendrick. "Wesley's Theory" ( which starts off with Boris Gardiner's silky and declarative "Every Nigga Is A Star") embraces the West Coast's signature use of funk while Kendrick nasally sings on the hook. "For Free?" is a spoken-word tangent that looks back to a long history of black oppression and "King Kunta" reaches back to James Brown for inspiration. That variation of styles contribute to the album's impact.
This album feels triumphant more than anything. Thought the harsh consequences of racism are illustrated throughout To Pimp A Butterfly, the focus is titled towards how to begin maneuvering in spite of the bullshit. And thankfully that how-to manual isn't just for the listener to absorb; much of the album feels like Kendrick is looking inward, trying to motivate himself to take on the responsibility of a leadership role. That's most evident with Bilal singing “shit don't change until you get up and wash your ass, nigga” (Institutionalized) the call back to his roots (Momma) and the uplifting sermon for the people (Alright).
It all feels like a call to sharpen all aspects of self and those first few plays of the album made me want to do that.
King Kendrick delivered like Kris Kringle at night, on his own schedule. With the shows, prime time performances on huge stages, and everything in between - Kendrick had set himself up with the necessary spotlight, sans the fact that he'd gone without releasing a project for a while.
The album isn't like any piece of work I've come across in a while (much respect to Lupe's and J.Cole’s albums). Each track has its own feel but its vibes are tied together. Like any of his projects, there's a message without it seeming preachy. He touches on sensitive subjects with ease - like a young man who has seen it all, but still acknowledges that he knows very little.
Kendrick Lamar is far from your average modern hip-hop star, and To Pimp A Butterfly is the perfect representation of his unique artistry. It's unabashedly funky, honest, and unapologetically Black. It's a conceptual exercise in self-actualization, with a welcoming realness which drew me in from the first note to the last; a body of work that is truly art at its core.
Kendrick's album is pretty much flawless. Ironic, as that's exactly what it exposes. Flaws in society. Flaws in other musicians albums. Flaws in us. Flaws in him. Everywhere but in the music itself. It's a dungeon of sound containing both protest and peace. It can rile you up, but it can also calm you down. You can not pay much attention to the words and still enjoy it, but you can also spend a while dissecting it if you so choose. I find myself going back to two different parts the most. "Alright" into "For Sale" and "You Ain't Gotta Lie" into "i" - these two combos have the highest replay value to me. "For Sale" makes me feel like I'm floating. I would put money down that Tyler produced that if someone had just played it for me. Overall the album is just so subtly strong. It doesn't scream "I'm great!!!" or even whisper it - it doesn't have to.
Dave Free talked about how Kendrick is the calmest person and never lets anything get him riled up outside of the music, and you can tell that K.Dot really bottles that all up to release in his expression of his songs. An expression that is clear and thoughtful while still serving as an outlet for him to let his anger and energy out. It deals with familiar topics in a much more mature way, and obviously kendrick has always been a (very) mature artist in general, but the songs on this album reach that quality at a new level. It’s not so strict a structure and narrative as GKMC was, yet it still feels very connected. It just feels like one long ongoing connecting passage of sound. One long church session, a sermon for the people.
TPAB sounds like “Mo Better Blues" in 2015, particular shining through on tracks like “For Free? (interlude)" as an example. You trying to tell me that you wouldn't see that in a 40 Acres and a Mule production? Man, Kendrick and Spike gotta turn this album into a visual manifestation of what already feels like a movie in our minds, ears, and hearts. In the meantime, I’ll keep playing back the album and undoubtably turning over new stones of insight in the process.