To Pimp A Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar

Aftermath / Interscope / Top Dawg, 2015

REVIEW BY: Daniel Camp


After boldly announcing his arrival with the brilliant, autobiographical good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Kendrick Lamar would have been forgiven a sophomore slump. No artist strikes gold every time in the studio, and if Lamar had just tossed out some more scattershot songs about growing up in Compton, nobody would have batted an eye.

Instead he delivered arguably the album of the decade.

To Pimp A Butterfly is a dense, complex, sprawling journey through the black experience in America, at times a celebration but more often a raised fist of barely stifled rage. If good kid, m.A.A.d. city established Lamar’s bona fides as a rap star, To Pimp a Butterfly cements those credentials and elevates him to the higher plane of a Bob Dylan or a Nina Simone – not just a star, but an Important Artist.

Beginning with “Wesley’s Theory,” Lamar navigates the subject of black economic oppression, putting a voice to an America that has regretfully told him “We should never gave / we should never gave / Niggas money. Go back home.” “For Free?” continues the argument, with Lamar’s rapid-fire delivery of all the ways that black men and women have enriched their nation over the years, only to receive little in return: “I need forty acres and a mule / not a forty ounce and a pit bull.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

But lest you get the idea that this album is just a list of grievances from a rich, famous artist, Lamar addresses his own community too in songs like “Hood Politics” and “Complexion (A Zulu Love).” These songs, borrowing an idea from his previous album, serve as a plea to the black community to put petty grievances aside in the name of progress, to stop the civil wars that only further black oppression and reach for something higher. This is most sharply seen in “i,” the album’s first single, which begins as a raucous, live party track and ends with a speech about brotherhood when the performance is interrupted by arguments in the crowd.

For all his ire at others, Lamar’s aim is arguably sharpest when he targets his own personal complicity in the social ills keeping the black community uninspired. On “The Blacker the Berry,” the album’s best song, he ends his message of black empowerment with this question and accusation: “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? / When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? / Hypocrite!” It is this willingness to self-incriminate that keeps Lamar from ever becoming a mere scold—his is a prophetic voice of protest, not a pointed finger.

Nothing is simple about To Pimp A Butterfly, and that is reflected in the music, which takes a leap forward in complexity and production after the easy flows of good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Beats and rhymes are laid over jazz and funk throughout the album, creating a sound picture that is simultaneously chaotic and melodious—much like the message the album delivers.

To Pimp A Butterfly is the kind of album you can listen to a dozen times and still feel like you’re only scratching the surface. The music, the rhythm, the lyrics – everything is as complex, varied, and powerful as the story they tell when woven together. Few albums are this ambitious, and few artists can match that ambition with this level of skill.

When “Mortal Man,” the album closer, ends with a mock conversation between Lamar and Tupac Shakur (the result of some clever studio tinkering), it almost feels like a blessing from rap’s greatest martyr to its new king.  From the streets of Compton to the gates of power, Kendrick Lamar has something to say – and on To Pimp A Butterfly, he holds nothing back.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


© 2018 Daniel Camp and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Aftermath / Interscope / Top Dawg, and is used for informational purposes only.