Review by Jason Klaiber
RIYL: 2Pac, Nas, Dr. Dre
Recommended Tracks: Trust me, and listen to the whole thing
Whereas most albums either have unintentional speed bumps in the form of weak songs or include filler tracks for the sake of “padding out” material, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is one of a select few in hip-hop or any other genre of music that can be called flawless. There’s not a single thing misplaced on this record. Every note and lyric is precisely calculated and serves an effective purpose in the grand scheme of the album.
To Pimp a Butterfly is guided by the true-to-life narrative of Kendrick dealing with his success in the music industry. He analyzes his newfound fame and finds himself in search of answers. In doing so, he extends his perspective beyond just his neighborhood in Compton and looks at America as a whole, where the temptations of Lucifer and corporate control, masked respectively as “Lucy” and “Uncle Sam,” linger in large doses. The analogy involving the caterpillar, the butterfly and the cocoon, which altogether represents the crippling of society’s beauty, is pieced together as each song flows into the next.
To Pimp a Butterfly doesn’t paint a picture in the vein of its predecessor, 2012’s similarly acclaimed but stylistically different good kid, m.A.A.d city, so much as it nails its message into the American psyche. It’s a political outcry targeted at a nation that sees itself in racial discord and sees its people wrapping themselves up in money-chasing ideals.
In style, the album condenses the past half-century of black culture into its 80-minute runtime. It’s a four-way intersection of the sophisticated and engaging wordplay found in Nas’s Illmatic, the soul and social consciousness of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, the strutting grooves of Parliament’s Mothership Connection and the spirituality-driven jazz of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. If not already, To Pimp a Butterfly will one day belong in the esteemed company of such albums as well in that it will be considered an indisputable classic.
On this expansive creation, Kendrick quarterbacks a team of acknowledged performers. Long-established singers George Clinton and Ronald Isley lend their voices to the album, as do rising stars Anna Wise, James Fauntleroy and Rapsody. The wide vocal range of Bilal also makes a series of ear-catching appearances. Dr. Dre, the record’s co-executive producer and Kendrick’s mentor, delivers some commentary at the end of “Wesley’s Theory,” while his partner in rhyme Snoop Dogg raps the bridge in “Institutionalized” with a flow reminiscent of his verses on The Chronic and Doggystyle. The instrumentalists present here, namely experimental bassist Thundercat and renowned keyboardist Robert Glasper, as well as the extensive crew of producers narrow out the cast and assist in lifting the album to extraordinary heights.
To Pimp a Butterfly might be difficult for the average hip-hop listener to digest, or at least at first. It’s more suited for people who enjoy a more all-inclusive array of music, and it demands more than just one listen.
It’s confrontational. It’s emotional. It’s chilling. It’s a masterpiece that should serve as a touchstone for hip-hop from here on out.