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Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp A Butterfly

Released 2015 on Interscope / Aftermath / Top Dawg
Reviewed by Separator, 10/04/2015ce

With his new album 'To Pimp A Butterfly', Kendrick Lamar has achieved the impossible: he has topped himself, again. His previous effort 'Good Kid, m.A.A.d City", was one of the biggest and best rap releases of 2012, and introduced him to a wider audience thanks to singles like "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" and "Swimming Pools (Drank)". That album presented Kendrick's journey from Compton street gang member to God-loving rap overlord in a non-linear fashion. On first listen one might not notice this story going on, but after a few it should be clear as day.

'To Pimp A Butterfly' is much more difficult. It essentially tells a similar story, but in a much more abstract way. In the opener, "Wesley's Theory", Kendrick once again puts on the guise of his 17-year old self, detailing what he will do when he gets signed (he did get signed at the end of 'GKMC'). It boils down to partying excessively and shooting guns in the street. Uncle Sam comes in to tell him it's alright to do these ridiculous things because "I can see the dollar in you." In the next track, "For Free?", a mesmerizing spoken-word-like rant at supersonic speed, he shoots down female detractors, yelling the instantly memorable line "This dick ain't freeee" repeatedly. In the funky "King Kunta" he's as braggy as he's ever been, saying how he 'runs the game'. These opening songs present Kendrick post-breakout, giving in to the temptations that someone in that situation is presented with.

After the Snoop Dogg-featuring "Institutionalized" and the sex-themed (but in a deeply complex and psychological way) "These Walls", we find Kendrick in his darkest days on the astonishing "u". After repeatedly shouting "Loving you is complicated", he launches into a rant against his lover, only to devolve into drunken sobbing on the second and third verses. Here he uses a voice that sounds like it could collapse at any moment, similar to what he did on the title track to "GKMC". It is the highlight of the album.

In "Alright", featuring Pharell Williams on the hook, Kendrick begins to see the light again, saying that 'if God got us then we gon' be alright'. This is one of the most technically impressive songs on the album; his flow is just unstoppable. On the next track, "For Sale?", the devil pops up in the guise of an attractive woman named Lucy to tempt Kendrick into signing a deal with him which would mean returning to the hubris of the first track. Of course he refuses this. He goes back to his home turf on "Momma" and "Hood Politics", but feels out of touch with what's going on there nowadays: it doesn't feel like home anymore.

In "How Much A Dollar Cost", God approaches him disguised as a homeless man who asks him for a dollar. When Kendrick refuses, he reveals his identity and informs him that he's lost his place in heaven. The two tracks that follow pose two different solutions to the current race conflicts in the U.S.: peace and harmony (the Rapsody-featuring "Complexion", or chaos and bloodshed (the furious single "The Blacker The Berry"). Kendricks seems to lean toward the second solution.

The next track, "You Ain't Gotta Lie", is the only redundant one on the album, in which Kendrick raps about not needing to conform to belong in the slightly annoying voice of his mother. The penultimate track is a "live" version of the polarizing lead single "i" released in early 2014. It is better in every way than the original. On the climactic closer "Mortal Man", he again expresses his desire to be remembered, and asks his fans: "when shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?" The album closes with a 7-minute fake interview with Tupac, which Kendrick cut together from an actual 1994 interview with the rapper. After he reads his poem to Tupac, they discuss race relations and we find that Tupac is the source of Kendrick's viewpoints.

Unlike most albums with this kind of lyrical density, the music does not play second fiddle. A live jazz band is used on just about all tracks, and electronic music darling Flying Lotus does an excellent job producing the opening track. This potent combination of thoughtful lyricism, technically flawless rapping and adventurous music to back it up makes 'To Pimp A Butterfly' an instant classic and, though it's hard to say this early in the year, a likely candidate for Album of the Year 2015.


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