Kendrick Lamar ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ Review: Kendrick Cracks Open A New Cocoon
Kendrick Lamar, the self-proclaimed king of rap, had been very mum about his third album. It was simply known as Untitled until early March, when Lamar gave the album a title, To Pimp a Butterfly, and a release date, March 23, 2015. Or so we thought. Due to an error by iTunes, the album was unintentionally leaked 8 days early on March 15. Members of Top Dawg Entertainment (Lamar’s record label), took to Twitter to express their displeasure with the mix-up.
(Explicit Language Below)
— dangeroo kipawaa TDE (@dangerookipawaa) March 16, 2015
Nonetheless, the album has been released and effectively sent Twitter ablaze, with a majority of the trending topics on that night relating to the album or Lamar.
The album title, To Pimp a Butterfly, is a very clever metaphor for those who have made it out of the hood (the so called cocoon of a butterfly), and have begun to reap large benefits off of it, literally pimping the system. Conversely, it is also seen as the system pimping a fragile butterfly that just made it out of its cocoon, and doing so without remorse.
From the first track, “Wesley’s Theory,” with it’s P-Funk sample and vocals from funk legend George Clinton, most fans will notice this album is not cut from the Good Kid M.A.A.D City cloth (Lamar’s second album). Instead, To Pimp a Butterfly takes on more of a Section 80 feel (Lamar’s debut album). The song title is based on the idea that those who are on top are pimped out by the entertainment industry, and try to beat it using tax evasion. As the government doesn’t like to lose money, the offender is almost always caught, and the government reprimands them, similar to famous actor Wesley Snipes.
A recurring theme in the album is black empowerment, featured in the undertone of many of the songs on the album. In the interlude “For Free,” Lamar tries to combat the idea of “gold-digging” by stating that being with him isn’t free, and just being a pretty face isn’t enough to get with him. In the song “King Kunta,” Lamar cleverly manages to mend those at the top of the power chain (“Kings”), with the lowest slaves (“Kunta,” named after the popular character from Roots).
At the same time, Lamar also pushes the idea of “pimping the butterfly”, and the stress induced because of it. With “Institutionalized,” Lamar, and rapper Snoop Dogg, combine prison metaphors to describe those who never make it out of their cocoon. In essence they become marginalized by the environment they grew up in.
Lamar also busts out a very honest look inside the mind of Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, instead of just Kendrick Lamar. On “u,” Lamar speaks on his inability to save his sister from teen pregnancy and opens up about the depression he faced. Largely a song about self-dissatisfaction, Lamar’s normally stoic appearance is directly contradicted by the demons inside him. Not counting the singles he released, this is arguably the best the song on the album.
“The Blacker the Berry,” the overtly powerful angry single that was released earlier this year, further extrapolates breaking down African-American stereotypes. Taking the blame for his own faults by calling himself “the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” Lamar is trying to actively claim fault of his actions. With one of the strongest verses of the year thus far, this track was well received.
On the other side of the spectrum, “i” speaks of self-love and empowering yourself. An extended version of the Grammy-winning song is featured on the album, which adds in a spoken word verse that brings us a word that will be plastered everywhere in 2015: “Negus” (Ethiopian for royalty, specifically kings).
The outro of “Mortal Man” is an especially eerie track. Comparing Nelson Mandela’s prison term and more “pimped butterflies” such as Michael Jackson, Lamar questions loyalty – “when s–t hits the fan is you still a fan” – and breaks out a poem to try one last time to stop black on black violence and entice empowerment. The poem turns the album into an interview with himself and rapper 2Pac. While the interview of 2Pac is taken from archival footage from 1994, the message 2Pac brings is so relevant to today’s society that you can do nothing but sit there in amazement. As Lamar reads another poem explaining the actual meaning of his album to 2Pac, he tries to get Pac’s opinion, but there’s nothing. Kendrick is alone.
To Pimp a Butterfly is truly the best album I have heard all year. Lyrically, Kendrick is in a very small group of rappers who consistently combine well versed metaphors with realistic storytelling. The production on the album is also amazing, combining a large variety of soul, and funky samples to progress the 80 minute album. While it is not necessarily the album hip-hop fans may have wanted after Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, it is most definitely the album the society as a whole needed. Instead of conforming to the upper echelon of hip-hop, Kendrick goes against the norm and talks to the people directly through music to incite change. It may be a slow uphill battle, but as the current “King of Hip-Hop,” maybe it takes a kid to raise a village.