To Pimp a Butterfly has been a relatively long time coming. For years, we waited while Kendrick Lamar sat perched atop his throne, surveilling us. When the fans became too fussy about his protracted silence, he swooped down and dropped damn near sixty bars on his “Control” guest verse, effectively reigniting his own flame while serving as conflagration to all other rap game royalty. But it’s hard to reign supreme on the back of an abbreviated, ripening run of excellence. Chief rival Drake continued his torrid march toward, “If I die, I’m a legend” status, prodding and nudging forward the notions expressed on Lamar’s Take Care interlude, “Buried Alive.” Kendrick did continue to tour extensively and played headliner as well as Kanye’s second-fiddle turned usurper, but he seemed to beg away from his fame a bit. Those occasional “featuring K. Lamar” joints, coupled with the triumph of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, afforded Lamar more time out of the spotlight than typically advisable for a superstar musician in his prime.
But he was not immune to scrutiny. Kendrick has always had a certain candor and unwillingness to modulate his opinions, for better or worse. He was lit up on Twitter by Azealia Banks for espousing a hoary “self-respect” line in a Billboard interview in response to the Michael Brown incident. Word of the album being delayed or a departure from GKMC stirred up some more unrest. First single, “i,” (released a full six months before the album) faced derision for its perceived jollity. Doors left unopened and expectations unfulfilled allow doubt to creep in, and concerns of a possibly over-tweaked effort were left unallayed.
But then, In February, the second single, “Blacker The Berry” was released. A month later, in the span of a week, an album title, the cover, a tracklist, a third single, and then, due to an Interscope fuckup, the album appeared on iTunes and was released eight days early. The lightning release spurred enough fanfare to demolish Drake’s one-month-old record for number of Spotify album streams in a day for his surprise mixtape, If You’re Reading This Its Too Late (9.6 to 6.8 million). The resounding reaction? To Pimp a Butterfly was worth the wait.
Normally never one for brevity, Lamar has always embraced the ghettoized prophet verbiage, sometimes—rarely—to diminishing returns. On To Pimp a Butterfly, he is still sometimes in this mode (see the thematic reprise-cum-outro that builds throughout the album), but it is never to a deleterious effect. Even while his ongoing insecurity and Pac complex manifests in an extended, album-closing interview with the man himself, it does not come across as necessarily outré or forced. The album is so fully exacting in its sprawl that it’s hard to justify skipping through any one part.
The album owes its sound, in large part, to bassist-extraordinaire Thundercat, who drapes himself across the entire album. Pitching in is producer Terrace Martin on sax and Robert Glasper on piano. Studio vocalist/guru Bilal is there too, contributing either by name or anonymously to a third of the album. “Wesley’s Theory” continues a longstanding Flying Lotus-Kendrick Lamar collaborative relationship featured most recently on last year’s standout You’re Dead! track, “Never Catch Me” (FlyLo has since divulged that he gave Lamar an entire folder’s worth of beats and that Kendrick rhymed over all of them, but they will likely go criminally unheard). The track begins with Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger is a Star,” soon morphing into a densely p-funk laden, George Clinton assisted piece, complete with Dre voicemail commentary on retaining the throne.
It’s interesting to note that Kendrick’s creative process was apparently akin to legendarily lavish and stylized director Quentin Tarantino—perhaps less domineering—as he orchestrated his vision. Guest spots on the album all very clearly fit the scope and parameters issued by Lamar. Snoop shows up on the album, more Rick the Ruler than Lion or even Dogg, at the end of “Institutionalized.” Ron Isley continues his stunning run of relevance, which dates back parts of seven decades to 1959’s “Shout!” by adding gospel vocals to “How Much a Dollar Cost?” Rapsody delivers what is one of the most densely layered verses on a major release in recent memory on “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” a neo soul cut that could very comfortably be nestled among the offerings from The Roots’ Phrenology.
The most striking aspect of To Pimp a Butterfly, aside from the production, is the way in which Lamar commits himself to playing so many roles, to such complete effect. During TPAB’s entire, 79-minute runtime, we hear umpteen different patois. A slick-tongued pimp-type must respond to a shit-talking woman and her Uncle Sam on “For Free? (Interlude).” Lamar is Payback-prime James Brown incarnate on the dense, gurgling third single, “King Kunta.” On “u,” he plays intoxicated man trapped in a hotel room, ululating and inexorably accosting himself. “For Sale? (Interlude)” finds him speaking as infantilized Lucy, née Lucifer, to himself about the evils and temptations of the game. “Momma” is the song most representative of the album as a whole; it’s polished and discursive at once, and features more meaningful turns in four verses than you’re likely to get anywhere else right now. “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said),” which breezily, cathartically separates “The Blacker the Berry” and “i,” has him playing his mother (and 2pac). Lamar flits around everywhere on this album. The fact that it feels so entirely cogent and stitched together is a testament to his increased faculty as an artist comfortable with exploring the excesses of his talent.
Fulcrum tracks “u” and ”i”—dichotomous in name only—inform many of Lamar’s core intentions for the album. The album reimagines “i” as a raucous live cut, eschewing glibness for a raw, fragmented injunction. Tucked away at the end of the album, the jaunty Isley Brothers sample and message of self-empowerment is literally cut short by an audible scuffle in the audience. The fight is mollified by a commanding Kendrick, who insists, “Not on my time, kill the music,” and implores, “How many niggas we done lost? Answer the question,” before launching headlong into a spoken word manifesto on “How the infamous, sensitive n-word control us.”
On “u,” Lamar flourishes irreconcilable anger and self-loathing over a dissonant horn as he morphs from psychotic bursts to an inebriated airing of his grievances aimed directly at his psyche. His voice quakes and moans as he screams, “Loving you is complicated!” tumbling over the words repeatedly in one of the most incredibly charged moments on an album stuffed full of them. This is Kendrick at his most vulnerable, at odds with himself over the death of loved ones abandoned and promises unkept. The song harkens Ready to Die’s “Suicidal Thoughts,” as the last thought we are left with is indeed Kendrick contemplating ending his life. Things, however, do not end here and immediately pivot into “Alright”—the most buoyant song on the album—with a once again triumphant-sounding Lamar informing us that, “Alls my life I had to fight!” and Pharrell affirming on the hook that “Nigga, we gon’ be alright.”
And therein lies the genius of To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s resolute in its sonic, thematic, and emotional mélange. Many seminal rap albums have reverentially appropriated historical works of genius like Bitches Brew, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Live At The Apollo, Maggot Brain, and 125th and Lenox. Instead of paying homage, Kendrick Lamar up and amalgamates these records in an hour-and-twenty-minute paroxysm. Perhaps no album to date has done it so completely and prolifically. It is frenetic, and unnerved, and tempestuous—a stupefying odyssey through a glut of torment, injustice, and creeping self-doubt. The whole affair feels like more than Kendrick Lamar’s statement album. It feels perhaps like the 21st century’s most well constructed and ubiquitous musical documentation of one black man’s struggle in America.