“When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?” Think about it. With all the mystery surrounding Kendrick Lamar’s new LP, its enigmatic promotion, surprise release and game-shattering critical reception, what do you think? For almost a year Mr. Lamar has remained tight-lipped about each and every detail of his forthcoming album. In September, he dropped his first single, “i.” In December, the Compton rapper debuted an untitled song on the series finale of “The Colbert Report.” In February, Top Dawg Entertainment unveiled another single in “The Blacker The Berry.” With no official information being reported fans began to wonder when exactly we were going to hear Mr. Kendrick’s highly anticipated follow-up to the universally coveted good kid, m.A.A.d city. Now we know.
It’s not that K.Dot broke Spotify streaming records in two days. It’s not that his introverted demeanor portrays the soul of a vulnerable human in a genre of unwavering arrogance. It’s not even his masterful control of syllabic rhymes. It’s the music. It’s the story. It’s the dedication to the craft that puts listeners in a trance as they creep to the edge of their seats on the emotional roller coaster that is To Pimp A Butterfly. From track one, the genre-bending “Wesley’s Theory” grips your ear with one of the album’s deeply rooted metaphors, black entertainers are being exploited and “pimped” by the industry. Using the tax-dodging Wesley Snipes as an example, Kendrick raps over a Boris Garner 70’s funk sample “Every N***** is a star” while taking shots at capitalist America and receiving advice from the legendary Dr. Dre, and it all happened in four minutes and forty-seven seconds.
Whether he’s spitting machine gun, slam poetry flows over jazz saxophones on “For Free? (Interlude),” bearing his soul while choking on a bottle of tears on “u,” or crooning the tough love words of his mother on “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said),” there’s not a moment on the album that we don’t feel the pain and passion in Kendrick’s voice. He’s unabashed by criticism and revealing it all as he tackles the subjects our society’s afraid to talk about. Its no secret race relations are at the heart of America’s struggle and its no secret hip-hop’s butterfly hasn’t forgotten where he came from. Loyalty: to himself, to his family, and to his Compton friends on the cover, stands as the album’s major theme. Using the White House as a symbol of freedom, Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” as reference, and caterpillar analogies as metaphor, the TDE rapper squares off with Uncle Sam.
Forget about the crowd pleasers for a second, the songs like “King Kunta,” “Alright,” “Hood Politics,” and “i” that should have his headlining performance at Bonnaroo as moshpit-like as ever, to appreciate this album we must look at the message. Strung along as a fragmented poem Kendrick eventually reads to the slain rapper Tupac on “Mortal Man,” we get a story of oppression, aggression and depression. I mean the last time I checked not many people have had a conversation with the deceased on a rap record. The comparisons are evident. Kendrick Lamar just might be the next Pac. “The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it. Its only job is to eat or consume everything around it, in order to protect itself from this mad city…although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are on and the same,” says Kendrick.
In a society that would rather read a Buzzfeed article, gawk at a Reddit thread or watch Worldstar videos than try to take artistic risks, To Pimp A Butterfly is as visceral as art can get. It can be uncomfortable to hear, preachy at times, and a bit arduous, but the music is everything we’ve been avoiding. It’s everything our society needed to hear. He’s mastered a whole new sound that transcends time and genre. What happens when great music drops at the right time? A classic. Kendrick Lamar has changed the game, whether you want to hear it or not.
Stream or buy the album below:
Spotify: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly