Review Summary: Perhaps the most sonically ambitious, unapologetically black, mainstream Hip-Hop album in years, Kendrick Lamar not only manages expectations, but exceeds them.
In 2012, Kendrick Lamar was seemingly just the next big thing; another rapper who had high upside, but only time would tell if he could reach his impossibly high expectations. Then good kid, m.A.A.d. city dropped and seemingly everyone lost their mind. It was as though Kendrick Lamar wasn't the next big thing, he was the only
big thing in hip-hop.
Its not as though this should be surprising amongst hip-hop enthusiasts however, as there is a certain trend with what pertains to being great, and that is one classic album. Wu Tang Clan has 36 Chambers, Nas has Illmatic, Jay-Z has Reasonable Doubt, and the list goes on. Kendrick Lamar now has good kid, m.A.A.d. city, so the big question was whether or not he could be one of the exceptions in hip-hop lore, or would he just become another one-classic wonder that never reaches that same plateau of acclaim.
The answer is a resounding yes. With To Pimp a Butterfly, we see Kendrick Lamar at his most artistically extravagant, focusing just as much on his flows and vocal harmonies as the irregular time signatures of the upbeat, jazzy production. For example, the interlude "For Free" features a bouncy bass line and crazed jazz drum fills and all the while Kendrick keeps pace, firing bar after bar at machine gun pace. In fact, for the first time in Kendrick's life he is actually having to fight for the listeners attention, as the production demands just as much as its vocal star. To paraphrase, the album feels like Kendrick is in a rap battle, except his counterpart is a jazz ensemble that pushes Kendrick with each snare hit and trumpet blast. Its a varied, incredibly deep experience sonically.
That isn't to say Kendrick's lyrical eloquence isn't up to par. In actuality, it is at its most diverse. At the root of To Pimp A Butterfly is an album that is so topically nostalgic and relevant at the same time, that its gets its point across through that paradox painstakingly so. More than anything, the album is a cultural rally call towards the people Kendrick holds dearest. The lyrics are discrete and only time will tell just how just how hard this album impacts hip-hop. "King Kunta" is a chest-pumping, energetic affair that see's Kendrick at his proudest, comparing his rise to power to the legend of a slave named Kunta Kintie whose right leg was cut off because of his many attempts to escape. Retrospectively, on "The Blacker the Berry" Kendrick claims, "I'm the biggest hypocrite of 2015
" and then continues to spew three verses from three different perspectives. The first two idolize black culture, praising the steps that it took for them to achieve what they have today. Then the last verse openly criticizes the state of content that his community finds themselves in, ending the verse with perhaps the most open-minded line of the album asking, "Why did I weep when Trayvone Martin was in the street/ when gang-banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me/ hypocrite!
Kendrick Lamar once confessed, "I'm not on the outside looking in, I'm not on the inside looking out. I'm in the dead fucking center, looking around.
" On To Pimp a Butterfly, we see the type of open mind described in that line. Where good kid, m.A.A.d. city was the story of Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly is the story of black culture. This album doesn't try to win mainstream appeal, and it doesn't try to upstage his previous effort. It attempts to make a statement completely of itself, and in that perspective it succeeds more than any of us could have possibly hoped.