The Internet has a lot to say about Kendrick’s new album “To Pimp a Butterfly”, which dropped a week early, and is already breaking records. No one can really have a neutral opinion on TPAB, as an album with themes and concepts as intense and vivid as this could only be designed to provoke our most passionate reactions and responses. It’s with that in mind that the seemingly most fitting way to analyze it is to simply deconstruct it from start to finish.
The opening croons of Boris Gardiner letting you know that “every nigga is a star” should set off the “this isn’t going to be like GKMC” bells in your head. Kendrick wastes no time using Blaxploitation cinema as a backdrop for his musings about his career position and his perception of self. With Dr. Dre leaving a voice mail (IN 2015, REALLY?!) basically giving Kendrick the “more money, more problems” talk which is an important theme that reoccurs on TPAB. If you still weren’t aware of how black this album was going to be, please direct yourself to the Parliament sample.
“For Free? (Interlude)”
Imagine Robert Glasper playing the piano on a Kendrick album interlude. Doesn’t seem like a stretch of the imagination, but when you imagine Kendrick doing the Saul Williams spoken-rap thing while asserting that “this dick ain’t free” over said Robert Glasper accompaniment your ears might perk up a bit.
King Kunta was the single that should’ve put us all on notice, but the overtly funky pop culture cut has a deep history that makes the emotions and inflections that K. Dot uses here even more raw. The track has been out long enough that everyone who likes it already knows why they like it, and for those who don’t, listen to it in the context of TPAB. The track definitely shows how we’re progressing through, as everything only gets angrier from here.
Institutionalized is one of those moments where Kendrick proves why he’s so lyrically and conceptually ahead of his peers. Using a split personality complex to depict two different types of “inner city blues”; the struggle of wanting to leave the hood, and the struggle of shaking off poverty politics once you made it. Institutionalized feels like a continuation from GKMC, with the return of Anna Wise’s lofty vocals (from Real) blending effortlessly with appearances by Bilal and Snoop.
“These Walls” brings back Bilal, Thundercat and Anna Wise, to relay what is ultimately the whole point of the album: easing Kendrick’s guilty conscious about his perceived failure to use his influence and power to do more in the community. It’s such a weird track to bring it up, and he uses the super sad Frank Ocean song, “Swim Good” to do it, while dropping double entendres about “the walls closing in” before going into another spoken-word style inner monologue about where he is in life versus what he should be doing with his life. It’s relatable, but lyrically the track feels a bit all over the place, but special shout-out to Thundercat, who at this point in the album has been everything and more on the bass.
If “i” is the most annoying, self-congratulating thing K.Dot has ever done, then “u” might be the saddest, self-deprecating thing he’s ever done. Lamar told Rolling Stone, “That was one of the hardest songs I had to write. There’s some very dark moments in there. All my insecurities and selfishness and letdowns. That shit is depressing as a motherfucker.” He goes full Busboys and Poets Def Comedy Jam on the first half of the track, spazzing on everyone and everything, but mostly himself.
The album’s cohesion is really starting to stand out here as the song’s slow tempo and piano heavy beginnings perfectly Segway the track from “These Walls”, however the second half ramps up the sadness and pairs up SZA and Bilal on the back-up vocals along with a jazz flute ( seriously, who produced this?!) to help shift the tone for the hazier, introspective, suicidal as shit ending.
For the fans who wanted something to play in the car, or at the gym, Kendrick goes full hip hop and brings in Pharrell to sing and produce the track for him. The track serves as a moment of self-affirmation after what seems like a severe depressive episode on “u”, a reminder that everything will be alright both for Kendrick and his fans.
The range so far on TPAB flows from groove heavy g-Funk, to bass-backed neo-soul raps, to aggressively Afro-centric drum patterns, somewhat alienating his more hard-core listeners who hoped to hear more backseat freestyles from Kendrick.
“For Sale? – Interlude”
Lucy is LSD, and apparently K.Dot has found quite a things it can do for you. Definitely thought Kendrick was drug-free on the last album, except for that time he accidentally hit the wrong blunt. See what (more) fame will do to you. The track also introduces Preston Harris.
Knxwledge produced this shit out of this track. Maybe it’s Kendrick having the quintenssial quarter life crisis, albeit on a much larger scale than any of us are, or maybe it’s the insane sampling here that penetrates the track in a way the lyrics fall short of doing. While he’s going through it, Lalah Hathaway’s “On My Own” sample is comforting, and the trippy “Wishful Thinkin” blend add to the disorientation that Kendrick is feeling here.
Hood Politics is exactly what it sounds like. Kendrick is stripped down on this track, angrily trying to address the state of the community but finding himself wrapped up in the frustration of identity and respectability politics. The track seems to be a burst of true emotion for the Compton rapper, who finally has the proper context and platform to articulate his (still wrong/misinformed) viewpoints.
“How Much a Dollar Cost”
This is where the album starts to get a bit preachy, especially coming off of a track like Hood Politics. The song is mostly metaphorical about how the TDE frontman met God as a homeless man at the gas station, and it features James Fauntleroy. The track also features Ron Isley/Mr. Biggs vocals near the end.
“Complexion (A Zulu Love)”
“Complexion (A Zulu Love)” starts off with the same slight pretentiousness as HMADC, but thanks to background production by Pete Rock, and a verse by 9th Wonder affiliate, Rapsody we get treated to hopes of a post racial society and Idris Elba as James Bond. I bet money this Taylor Swift’s favorite song on the whole album.
“The Blacker the Berry”
The racially charged track dropped on February 10th, and according to Kendrick it was inspired by the death of young black men, specifically Trayvon Martin. “It just put a whole new anger inside me,” he told Rolling Stone.
Bonus for bringing back Lalah Hathaway, who actually sings the track’s intro.
“You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”
“Circus acts only attract those that entertain…/We live in the Laugh Factory every time they mention your name.” But rather than confess his sins to her, Drake-style, the 27-year-old listens to what she’s saying. Then he turns around and flips it on his peers and rap colleagues. As with everything else on TPAB, the beat is superb, but he’s not saying anything on this we haven’t heard Kendrick say since Overly Dedicated.
A 2014 trip to South Africa inspired the closing 12-minute track,” Mortal Man” which serves almost as his To Pimp a Butterfly dissertation on how blackness, class privilege and fame should be handled now that he’s in a position of influence.
The album won’t resonate the same with everyone, because mostly everything on here is so niche it has an audience already, and the audience that Kendrick already had isn’t as well represented here as it was with GKMC. Either way, To Pimp a Butterfly is a much needed ode to blackness in white-washed, Spotify driven 2015 hip-hop, especially since he’s talking about the black male identity. So even if Kendrick doesn’t get it all right on this one, there’s still something to be appreciated about the album’s overall message, making it even harder to judge seeing as how many of us are just happy to have artists not named Flying Lotus, or Killer Mike, or Jay Electronica doing the whole “black power/black pride/black music” thing this time.
We wanted to make Kendrick our Mainstream Malcolm and however you feel about it, and though he doesn’t end as strong as he starts, this was his attempt at that. Whether he knows it or not, he made To Pimp a Butterfly a love it or hate it album, and his fans will ultimately end up choosing between those exact two options.