I do want to preface this review with one fact about my own music tastes; I am honestly not a big fan of hip-hop as a genre (what a surprise!). But I don’t think the entire genre of rap is bad, since I would not be even reviewing this album if I had such a close minded opinion. I’ve always been more of an Animal Collective, Daft Punk kind of guy – I am obsessed with experimental and synth-based songs. Thankfully though, even someone like me can see that Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is primed to be one of the greatest rap albums of all time.
Already earning itself perfect scores from music critics everywhere, Lamar’s newest album has been seen as an instant classic. It manages to tackle many political themes without sounding too preachy or taking away from the music itself. I did enjoy Lamar’s previous album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, for it’s melancholy episodes of the rapper’s upbringing in Compton. I was also a big fan of the ambient beats used throughout the album, like in “Swimming Pools (Drank)”. But I can tell this album will last the test of time
To Pimp a Butterfly marks a very strong shift from the gloom of gkmc to both pride in an oppressive society and rage against the racist status quo. I believe that shift is what will make this album so memorable in the future. For the last four years (and even longer than that), African-americans have suffered greatly in trying to achieve the American dream. With the violence brought about by both street gangs and the police who are meant to protect them, black Americans seem to be left in a hopeless situation. But in this album of self love defeating hate, and brutal honesty in the face of lies, Kendrick Lamar sends a message of hope to the hopeless.
The album begins with a brief, crackling sampling of Boris Gardiner singing “Every N***** is a Star”, which can almost sum up the self-loving aspect of this entire album. Immediately, it jumps to this strange yet beautiful fusion of Jazz and Funk, with Kendrick rapping about his first girlfriend under all of that. But that’s only the refrain; he spends the next two verses rapping about how African-american artists are being used, or “pimped” by both entertainment industries and then America itself, in the form of Uncle Sam. Yes, this all in the first song, which is only 4 minutes long, and there’s 15 more to go on this 84 minute long album.
Unlike gkmc, To Pimp a Butterfly focuses on many different topics, not all of them necessarily related to Lamar’s own experiences. One thing that connects them all together is the snippets of a poem in the intros and outros of the tracks near the beginning of the album: “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same, abusing my power, full of resentment, resentment that turned into a deep depression” being one only beginning of the poem. This all culminates into album’s final track, where we found out that Lamar had been reciting this poem to none other than Tupac Shakur, the 90s rapper killed in a gang shooting. Lamar was able to do this by taking some of Tupac’s responses to an 1994 interview. This 12 minute closer ties all of the chaos that happens before it together, with Lamar summing it up in an “on the spot” poem:
“The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it
Its only job is to eat or consume everything around it, in order to protect itself from this mad city
While consuming its environment the caterpillar begins to notice ways to survive
One thing it noticed is how much the world shuns him, but praises the butterfly
The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar
But having a harsh outlook on life the caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak and figures out a way to pimp it to his own benefits
Already surrounded by this mad city the caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon which institutionalizes him
He can no longer see past his own thoughts
When trapped inside these walls certain ideas take roots, such as going home, and bringing back new concepts to this mad city
Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant
Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations that the caterpillar never considered, ending the internal struggle
Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same.”
One piece of trivia to this: The album’s original title was going to be “Tu Pimp a Caterpillar”, with it’s abbreviation (TuPaC) referencing you-know-who.
The depth of this album really surprised me, to be honest. When I saw all the praise everywhere for this album, I thought it was just music critics trying to seem progressive or something, even though I was aware of Kendrick Lamar’s talent before I heard this album. But after listening to this masterpiece, I can honestly say they weren’t wrong at all. I was going to list my favorite songs from the album, but it’s actually really difficult for me to do that right now. With fantastically innovative instrumentals combined with deep and witty lyrics, To Pimp a Butterfly deserves all of its perfect scores.