Fighter: Kendrick Lamar
Trainer (Gym): Dr. Dre, Top Dawg (Top Dawg, Aftermath, Interscope)
Cut Men: Dr. Dre, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, Boi-1da, Pharrell Williams, Terrace Martin, Dave Free, Flying Lotus, KOZ, Knxwledge, Larrance Dopson, LoveDragon, Rahki, Ronald ‘Flippa’ Colson, Sounwave, Tae Beast, Taz Arnold, Thundercat Tommy Black, Willie B, Whoarei
Weight Class: Rap Superstar/Lyrical Heavyweight/Conscious Rapper
Notable Trash: None
Tale of the Tape: “Every nigga is a star.”
Wise words from a decent man— words that served as the introduction to Kendrick Lamar’s highly, highly, highly anticipated sophomore major release entitled To Pimp A Butterfly.
With his goal of being the the rap Muhammad Ali rather than the rap Michael Jordan in full swing, it’s evident Kendrick is the recipient of a higher calling in life (the Kendrick who made “Michael Jordan” is long gone). We should’ve know this is what he was capable of back when he uttered this rhyme on Section.80 some four years ago: “Visions of Martin Luther staring at me/ Malcolm X put a hex on my future, someone catch me/ I’m falling victim to a revolutionary song, the Serengeti’s clone/ Back to put you backstabbers back on your spinal bone…”
Now, the soon-to-be 28-year-old is taking it upon himself to carry the torch of Tupac Shakur that was never extinguished, even in death nearly two decades ago. Pac struck fans on an emotional level like no other emcee before or since. So much so in fact that he served as a very visible influence on this project. In March, K. Dot revealed the original title for this album was TU Pimp A Caterpillar (acronym duly noted) and he featured Pac on a surprise “interview” at the conclusion of the LP.
“Mortal Man” was TPAB’s final track, ironic if only because Tupac posthumously achieved immortality. Kendrick used this song, one of the pillars of the album, to rhetorically pose the question of loyalty as it relates to our best and brightest— our leaders. It was here where Kendrick also unveiled the full poem he had given to us in fragments throughout the project, which served the backbone of the album.
“I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence
Sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power, full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression
Found myself screaming in the hotel room
I didn’t wanna self destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers
Until I came home
But that didn’t stop survivor’s guilt
Going back and forth trying to convince myself the stripes I earned
Or maybe how A-1 my foundation was
But while my loved ones was fighting the continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one
A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination
Made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned
The word was respect
Just because you wore a different gang color than mine’s
Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man
Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets
If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us
But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man, maybe I’m just another nigga”
The formula was simple: Kendrick gives the listener a portion of this poem and follows it with a song that pertains to that portion. It begins at the end of the third track. He reminisces, “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence…sometimes I did the same.” which led into “Institutionalized”, where he miraculously makes robbery sound kind of cool for the second consecutive album (not literally, but from a musical standpoint). This groovy (yes, groovy) record depicts the struggle of slothful moochers living in an overly-materialistic hip-hop zeitgeist. Kendrick gives his boys, and the entire Black community really, a dose of tough love by calling on them to abandon the stick-up-kid lifestyle, challenging them to make something of themselves. However, Lamar is far from sanctimonious on this LP.
Sidebar: It was hard not to wonder if his first verse on “Institutionalized” was in any way related to no other TDE members appearing on TPAB, especially when he uses words like “spoiled” to describe his boys. It’s unlikely, but still.
The lines, “Abusing my power full of resentment, turned into deep depression, led to screaming at a hotel mirror” set the mood for “u”, a dark record he uses to criticize himself for not being enough of a leader for his people, specifically his sister, who got pregnant as a teenager. K Dot again harkens back to good kid, m.A.A.d. city, this time by reintroducing the listener to the alcoholism that has plagued him in his deepest moments of pain and confusion. The audible swigs and clinking of liquor bottles are lightly dusted over words of pure contempt for the man facing him in the mirror. In addition to his sister’s pregnancy, Kendrick shoulders the blame for leaving the hood behind, and in the process, preventing the murder of his friend. The polar opposite to the uplifting lead single “I”, “u” utilizes a similar amount of crude emotion Eminem displayed on “Kim” (well, almost), and applies it to his own self-worth or lack thereof. It’s arguably the best suicide rap song since Lupe Fiasco’s “Beautiful Lasers (2 Ways)“.
This was another recurring theme on To Pimp A Butterfly— Kendrick exhibits some sort of maturation, but immediately and almost willfully snaps at himself for even approaching personal growth. On GKMC, Kendrick was just trying to stay alive. On TPAB, he’s trying to find reasons to stay alive. Compton’s favorite composer exits “u” and comes right back with “Alright”, showing us his resolve, tenacity and faith by defiantly stating, “I rap, I black on tracks and rest assured/ My rights, my wrongs, I write til I’m right with God”.
Two tracks later, Kendrick Lamar authors up a pair of 16s that warrant consideration for “verse of the year” on “Momma” (the second verse might actually win it). Two tracks after that, Kendrick enters his submission for “storytell rap of the year” as he describes a run-in with a derelict outside of a gas station. On its surface, “How Much A Dollar Cost” may seem like a record designed to cast shame on those who look down upon the less fortunate. In actuality, this song touches on the Black community’s obsession with the almighty dollar and how this preoccupation has the ability to keep African-Americans out of the kingdom. Kendrick is so possessive over the money he’s earned, he overlooks and eventually beings to resent the man begging for change, who unbeknownst to him happens to be God.
As discussed on The Preseason Podcast of the Year, To Pimp A Butterfly’s production was largely funk influenced (see “King Kunta”). Executive producer Dr. Dre made sure to infuse elements of jazz, R&B, spoken word and neo-soul, but overall the album was lacking many of the types of beats that will first attract the casual rap fan. Even the extremely radio-friendly “i” only peaked at #39 on the Billboard Hot 100. Perhaps this is where Kendrick Lamar and his role model Tupac differ: Pac could make a hit record and didn’t have to link up with the likes of Taylor Swift to do it. Unlike GKMC, “Alright” is about the only record on this project that makes you want to move beyond the standard head nod.
Sidebar: Every time “King Kunta” comes on, ya boy attempts to sing along with the chorus, but “King Koopa” always comes out. 80s baby? Guilty. Grew up on Nintendo? Guilty.
If there’s a weakness to TPAB, this is it. Kendrick was clearly on a mission to get his message out to the people, and while the scope of this message is staggering for a 16 track LP, Kendrick’s musical approach was akin to swallowing the pill whole, rather than breaking it up and mixing it into a bowl of Corn Flakes. In the end, this may limit his reach and make his overall impact less effective. But those who evaluate music for a living will likely fall head over heels for the original, or at least refreshing sounds heard on this hip-hop album.
Fight Night: Eighth Round KO
Remember how worked up hip-hop got over “Control”? Everyone did, HHSR included. What ever came of it? Where’s all the fury towards his fellow MCs? Kendrick claimed that he was coming to “murder you niggas”, but alas, “those niggas” (Cole, Drake, Big Sean etc.) appear to be alive and well. TPAB wasn’t the type of record designed to elicit praise from the streets. Sticking to the blueprint for the rap Armageddon laid out on “Control” turned out not to be Kendrick Lamar’s primary objective, much to the chagrin of the streets.
What To Pimp A Butterfly lacked in as a rugged attack on the competition, it made up as a direct hit against the many injustices that plague the Black community. Violence, Black male/female relationships, materialism, self-deprecation, various forms of abuse, Willie Lynch Theory, modern-day slavery, among others. K Dot takes us on a wild journey, but lands this plane on the tarmac of time. King Kendrick is well aware that his time to address such issues while everyone is listening and still gives a shit about what he has to say is not promised. Whether he did enough to maintain the ear of the general public with this approach and his Nas-meets-Eminem-meets-Outkast brand of hip-hop is anyone’s guess. Still, TPAB was more artistic than GKMC, which says a lot.
You actually get the feeling this record will be held in higher regard as the years go by. Each song is it’s own mini-movie, which fit into the larger picture. Although, it’s interesting that as Kendrick did his best to paint a portrait of the young African-American condition, the overwhelming majority of these songs were negative. Whether it be using his fame to game women as portrayed in “These Walls”, or calling our the Black community’s hypocritical ways on “The Blacker The Berry”, it’s clear that he, and we, have a lot of work to do. The most aggressive songs on this record were the ones directed at himself and his own people.
Sidebar: Perhaps this is why the album lacked upbeat/positive records— there simply isn’t enough upbeat/positive stuff going on in our communities.
Listeners are left to search for the slivers of hope, many of which was not spoon-fed to them by the artist. That search unearths KL’s ability to overcome. His ability to reject Satan and find God. His ability to find himself by going home and the pride he takes in being a Black man. His ability to love himself and his self-discovery. His recognition of the fickle nature of the record industry. His appreciation for truth (“You ain’t gotta lie to kick it!”). And perhaps most importantly, his capacity to fight: for his sanity, his money (to a point), his craft, his soul and his people.
The natural temptation is to compare To Pimp A Butterfly to Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. Like Kendrick, we must learn to “fight” this inclination.
They’re different. We need to accept them as such.
Cray Allred wisely pointed out on the HHSR Podcast that we don’t need to figure out where TPAB ranks all-time right out the gate. However the fact that this record’s impact is registering immediate gains is indisputable. This is why a whole lesson plan was scrapped, with TPAB serving as the new curriculum in at least one school, and why Kendrick was recently recognized as a cultural icon by his home state.
Not every song was a home run; some were better than others, but much like his past projects, nothing was wack. Despite some creative arrangements, the production did leave something to be desired at certain points. And the overarching butterfly analogy is stretched a little thin. But if you want to try and tackle everything that encompasses Black pathology in 78 minutes and 51 seconds of musical composition, good luck creating an artwork that approaches anything near To Pimp A Butterfly.