Hip-Hop is back and more than ever before. From Chance the Rapper, and Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, to Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, MF Doom, Flying Lotus, to Ghostface Killah and toronto-jazz BadBadNotGood, we add Kendrick Lamar. With the help of Thundercat, bassist and all around modern-funk epitome, (with credits of Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah albums, Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead!, and a track off Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet) Kendrick utilizes his skills to return to making the music he grew up with. ”We want the funk!,” they scream on “King Kunta,” and it’s true. This is where rap has been heading back to; hip-hop, funk, jazz. The digital age has made rap music too stereotypical, too formulaic. Rap isn’t a template that you just fill in: some braggadocio, some talk of wealth, of women. That’s been done before, and it’s getting boring, monotonous, un-fulfilling. Kendrick brings to rap a story, personality, truth, a message.
On To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar’s 3rd release, he is once again the narrator; haunted by his past and the events described to us in Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, Kendrick deals with his new life and must find himself again. “Wesley’s Theory,” the opener, details the new emotions and struggles that followed him from Compton. “To Pimp A Butterfly,” meaning both, that Kendrick has risen as a butterfly from his cocoon, the transition from his caterpillar-state of Compton, and that black artists are being “pimped” by the record industry, and not showing their true beauty, creativity, and message, but instead falling into the stereotypes of rap. The sample, “Every Nigger Is A Star” by Boris Gardner, was used in a movie of the same name, “Wesley’s Theory,” and was the black pride anthem to re-appropriate the perception of the slur “nigger,” so that African-American’s could make it their own, and not have it be used against them any longer. Besides Kendrick’s personal narrative, this is the message of To Pimp A Butterfly. “How many niggas we done lost?,” he stops the track to ask a crowd of people, “how many?” With his & Thundercat’s return to funk/jazz underlying his strong, and aggressively packed black pride lyricism, To Pimp A Butterfly is really “no-holds-barred,” true to the times, inspiring, and as Bilal (a collaborator on the record) put it, “against the grain. It’s thought-provoking — and I miss that in music.”
As I praise To Pimp A Butterfly for it’s brilliance however, I’m not going to act like it was perfect. Some tracks don’t hit as hard like “Hood Politics,” the “For Sale?” interlude, or the ending mock interview with Tupac Shakur, but the narrative is great throughout, and I’m glad he had an interesting story and interludes and skits. I would rather have had “i” stay a complete song, with the following skit become a new track, but I’m glad he chose the live setting of “i,” recorded similarly to when he performed it amazingly on Saturday Night Live. The new break in the song did allow for the climax of the record, where Kendrick finally loses it and asks the really powerful questions, and we still have the original single, so we can keep that as well. Maybe Kendrick thought we had heard “i,” enough, and that this extended version of “i,” was for the record, where the previous single was for us.
Nonetheless, To Pimp A Butterfly isn’t just a black pride album, it’s also focused on the effects that Kendrick’s past and new life have had on him. Where Good Kid M.A.A.D. City was the story of Kendrick L. Duckworth, the teen, the caterpillar, To Pimp A Butterfly is the story of Kendrick Lamar, the rapper. “Loving you is complicated!,” he screams on “u,” the opposing side of “i.” Where on “i,” he finally learns to love himself, on “u,” earlier on the record, he’s tortured by “Lucy,” a lustful and evil woman who is the personification of sin and Lucifer, the Devil, as well as his career following Good Kid M.A.A.D. City. He speaks of wanting to use his music to help and inspire people, but instead he’s used it only for himself, for wealth, for fame, and that he hasn’t followed through on his promises. “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” he yells on “The Blacker The Berry,” (the ‘look Kanye, I can do Yeezus too,’ black pride struggle single). Voices from his past come back to haunt him, and in finding himself again, he returns to the people on the end of “i,” to share what he’s learned, and it really resonates: the world is ready for real social change and reform. Drake might say he’s “a legend”, and Kanye West might proclaim himself a “God”, but King Kendrick is back, and he’s here to rule.