Kendrick Lamar soars in ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’
Assistant Managing Editor
Two years after his platinum-selling second album, Kendrick Lamar proved that nobody killed his vibe with his new album “To Pimp a Butterfly”.
Lamar’s new album debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 with opening week sales of 363,000 copies, streams and singles accounted for. It also debuted at the top of the charts in England, New Zealand and Australia.
Critics such as Kyle Anderson of Entertainment Weekly have hailed the album as an “Oscar-worthy cinematic event,” while others like Spin magazine’s Dan Weiss referred to it as “mandatory listening.”
But one of the common threads critics have lauded it for has been its timelines in the ongoing discussion of race and racism in the United States.
Playing off the title of Harper Lee’s seminal novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the title for Lamar’s third studio album potentially suggests the sinful nature of characterizing black men as gangsters rather than humans. This theme plays out through much of the album, especially in tracks like “Wesley’s Theory,” “King Kunta” and “The Blacker the Berry.”
The other predominant theme in the album is the shift in sound Lamar made from “good kid, m.A.A.d city” to the new album. The previous album incorporated more atmospheric beats with subtle hooks reminiscent of OutKast’s mid-90s sound (see also “Aquemini” and “ATLiens”). This new album, however, brings in a more earthbound sound.
“To Pimp a Butterfly” draws on a lot of historically Black forms of performance art throughout, predominantly jazz, funk and spoken word. Lamar said in an interview that this album was “honest, fearful and unapologetic” – a quality heard from track one.
“Wesley’s Theory,” starts with an excerpt from a song by Jamaican singer Boris Gardiner, which encouraged Black pride and attempted to change the perception of a certain racial epithet.
The song then transitions into a verse any fan would expect from Kendrick rapped over a beat with funk-style bass and a disco soul-style feel.
While the sound may take some getting used to if one expects more of the good kid from the mad city, it grows on the listener with repeated listens – especially within the context of the whole album and its use of Lamar’s trademark sound bite samples throughout.
The next track, “For Free? – Interlude,” introduces the listener to the spoken word and jazz aspects of the album. The track starts with a woman dissing Kendrick over a smooth piano and trumpet sound before Lamar spits a rapid-fire verse that symbolically sticks up to the proverbial Man trying to marginalize – or pimp – his talents.
The true launching point of the album is the third track, “King Kunta.” The song, which references a slave whose story is the basis of the novel “Roots,” takes an empowering spin on the name. Indeed, this track addresses the duality of living as a wealthy black man in America: dominant like a king but oppressed like a slave.
Musically, the track has one of the most catchy and well-used bass tracks in the game today with a subtle guitar track that adds an air of swagger to the track.
His lyrical prowess shines through both in his flow and in his content that falls in the style of Ralph Ellison and Chinua Achebe with references to the symbolism of yams in black culture.
The rest of the album varies in style and feel, with the main theme of race and racism flowing throughout with sprinkles of the phrase “I remember you was conflicted,” a set of garnishes that becomes a spoken word poem in the closing track “Mortal Man.”
Some of the tracks, when taken individually, may take some getting used to before one can appreciate them completely.
In fact, many of the tracks work best as a part of the album. However, the interludes stand out as a hallmark of Kendrick’s verbal prowess in spoken word.
The other track of note is the Grammy-winning effort “i,” the lead single of the album. With samples of The Isley Brothers’ funk-soul classic “Who’s That Lady” and lyrics that attempt to inject a sense of redemption through self-expression, this complete track stands out as one of the album’s best. It requires multiple listens to fully appreciate its lyrical and musical nuances.
“i” really acts as a synecdoche of the whole album. With its superb mix of musicality, lyrical prowess and deeper themes, the whole album truly is, as Weiss said, the “Great American Hip-Hop Album.”