THE NAME To Pimp a Butterfly reportedly is an interpretation of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. If you know To Kill a Mockingbird, you’re already on the right lines when it comes to understanding the underlying themes of To Pimp a Butterfly, confirmed in the song ‘The Blacker the Berry’. This in turn makes To Pimp a Butterfly more of statement, than Lamar’s previous release; while Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was autobiographical, telling the story of Kendrick Lamar’s life in Compton, To Pimp a Butterfly deals more with the present state of the African American community. From here on out, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City will be referred to as GKMC, and To Pimp a Butterfly as TPAB.
The opening track, ‘Wesley’s Theory’ is enough to demonstrate that Kendrick isn’t in the same place that he was in 2012. The often minimalist attitude to GKMC has been replaced by a Funk and Jazz driven beat which, throughout the album, often drops away leaving Kendrick’s voice floundering over acid jazz. Where on GKMC his mother was speaking over the phone, on TPAB its Dr. Dre who is reminding him of where he came from. Riff wise, nothing really tops the likes of ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’ or ‘Money Trees’, but Kendrick seems more focussed on making a statement then creating a radio friendly verse.
The result of this will no doubt alienate some of Kendrick’s fans. Some people were already divided over ‘i’, a song which is perhaps one of the more ‘safe’ tracks. Other songs like ‘u’ and ‘Momma’ push Kendrick’s deliverance to another level, the former of which shows the rapper drunkenly rapping in a strained voice over a background of Ambient-Jazz. Elsewhere, Kendrick somehow manages to avoid being placed into this new genre of ‘Funk Revival’, because his tracks like ‘i’ and the amazing ‘King Kunta’ have this amazing undertone of disillusionment with modern America. His addition of music like Jazz and old school RnB and Soul give the album a vintage sound that is often very appealing.
Of course this disillusionment comes from Kendrick’s excellent lyrics. The obvious highlight comes from ‘The Blacker the Berry’, the song which ends with the line ‘So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?/ When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me/ Hypocrite’; a line that truly cuts to the core of division within the United States. But this theme runs through the entire album, with the song ‘Institutionalized’ relating back to Kendrick’s time in Compton, back on the streets. But this album not afraid to poke fun at the topic, if only in a couple of instances; for example, Rapsody’s line of ‘the next James Bond will be as black as me’ is a nice jab at the public’s confusion about Idris Elba’s reported casting as the iconic spy.
Without a doubt, TPAB is a very powerful album, perhaps even more powerful than GKMC. Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics carry their own gravitas, much like Beat poetry, but TPAB doesn’t hit me with as much appeal as its predecessor does. This isn’t because the album is bad, far, far from it, but the themes and music need to mature in my mind, and then maybe I’ll understand this album like I understand GKMC. But from the first couple of listens, To Pimp a Butterfly is very, very good. Kendrick’s additions of Jazz and Spoken Word elements keep his approach fresh, and the overall theme of the interesting, in depth, and strangely humble. While Kanye West intimidates at the BRIT awards, Kendrick calls himself a hypocrite and questions not only what is around him, but also what he believes. To Pimp a Butterfly uncovers more with every listen, but even from the first, you can tell this is going to be huge. If you happened to doubt it.
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