Album review: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

Writer: Carmen Efferson
Compton’s native son delivers a sound riot revolution with a backbeat and a message to young black males

the ghost of Mandela

hope my flows they propel it

let these words be your earth and moon

you consume every message

– Kendrick Lamar

AND JUST LIKE THAT…in one massive broad stroke of a creative project, a rapper from Compton incites a paradigm shift, changes the rap game and snaps a youth culture into consciousness.

TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY is a sound riot revolution with a backbeat that hits hard on the downbeat. Compton rapper, Kendrick Lamar is one of the most talented rap artist of his generation. Kendrick and his crew of producers created a phenomenal collection of funk music driven politically calibrated rap narratives. Narratives that depict the reflective attitudes of racial inequality in the lives of young black males in America.

To Pimp A Butterfly needle dropped like an unrestrained blast of trumpets on the rap scene. Loud and forceful. The production energy is self revealing. It is noisy. It is dense. It’s multilayered with all kinds of goodies. Reminding me of James Brown and the JBs, Parliament-Funkadelic, Sly and The Family Stone, The Isley Brothers, those late 60s/70s super funk bands that produced immense complex sounds.

Kendrick desegregates rap from its stereotype. Its sometime musical and lyrical apathy. Its overused and overly processed sample sounds and integrates it into the black progressive music of a more free form of hiphop/rap. The album is ingenious. Executive produced by Dr. Dre and Anthony Top Dawg Tiffith. This project is noted for its major undertaking and huge list of collaborating producers, players and guest artists. Too many to list here but some of the major notables begin with Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Sounwave, Pharell Williams, Boi-1da and Terrance Martin. This incredibly talented crew are the keepers of black music. These guys are walking music libraries and you can tell most of that shit is in their heads (thank god there was a generation that actually embraced their own music history). Together they produced a richly composed colorful sound palette. They moved black music forward by contribution of their skills, intuition and inventiveness. Some of the guest artists includes rock and roll hall of famer George Clinton, founder of Parliament/Funkadelic, P-funk architect, music influencer and the legendary crooner singer/songwriter/producer Ron Isley of the Isley Brothers, Snoop Lion, Robert Glasper, Bilal, Kamasi Washington, James Fauntleroy, Anna Wise, Preston Harris, SZA and rapper Rapsody.

There is a high energy level on this production that makes you feel as though Kendrick’s studio groove is live performance tweaked. On listening to the deeper cuts on the tracks you can hear african music influenced funk forms and styles rationed out as social commentary. There is a lot going on, from dominating basslines, syncopated guitar rhythms, slamming traps, full bodied kick drums. You can hear mixed moods of soulfunk, RnB, g-funk, westcoast rap, jazz with segues to north african gnawa trance music. Slap bass laced with complex grooves, rigged up west african rhythms, electric bass runs that presents as talking drums. The production is generous with free jazz, ambiance and truncating breaks. You can feel the dreamy melancholic toned vocals of James Fauntleroy and Ron Isley’s breezy baritone on How Much A Dollar Cost. Kendricks raspy, but expressively charming vocals throughout. The soundscape is full. SZA brings her surrealistically warm and soubrettishly carressing background vocals on U. There is a pleasure in hearing Rap Music with full blown backgrounds. To Pimp A Butterfly is a heavy handed collage of sounds, but there is no denying this is a hiphop/rap album that is musically engaging and as a special spark of inventiveness, Kendrick does it by way of brilliantly unveiling the genetic code of funk music.

Funk music, from its inception has always served as the social commentary soundtrack to the black movement in America. With the 1965 publication of Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize winning, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as the lead, the Black Arts Movement of the late 60s/70s radio looped a funk music song like “Say It Loud I’m Black And I’m Proud” by James Brown in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It was also a response to the televised water-torchings, policed attacks with dogs and baton beatings of Americans that disagreed with the policies of Jim Crow. It was a time when music was made to uplift the people in post riot America. The production choices made on this project constitutes influential speak heard. Kendrick gives funk music the lead on this album but artistically sets up a blaxploitation vibe with a trace of soul music beginnings.

To Pimp A Butterfly is a concept album that takes listeners on a hero’s journey rites of passage. It’s also a story, autobiographical in tone. The story of a rapper who questions his self worth and the more he questions the deeper he gets into a metaphysical confrontation with self, his spirituality and his outside world and the perception of how others see him. It’s a musical journey where Kendrick implicates his own experiences with gang violence and the social schizophrenic trappings of fame. The songs are organized as a thematic progression of specific themes that fall into the circle of black life, from black on black crime and the violation of ones human rights to spiritual awakenings and self empowerment.

WESLEY’S THEORY, leads with a sample of from Boris Gardiners, Every Nigger Is A Star, a single from an early 70s soul music soundtrack for the movie with the same title. George Clinton guests on this track. The song investigates the trappings of success in young black males in the entertainment industry, when for them, they have an unlimited amount of money but unrealistically denying the fact that they have a limited amount of education. As in “uneducated with a million dollar check.”  Young black males that fall into hoop dreams rites of passage. FOR FREE, as an interlude opens with a hoodette reading her so-called man the riot act. A metaphorical complaint filed against the repressive ‘ghetto circle of life’ cycle told through free form jazz and spoken word poetry performance. KING KUNTA, a riotus uptempo, downbeat with pure funk leanings. A rapper revisiting his community after success. Taking inspiration from James Brown to DJ Quik and Mausberg. FOR SALE, a conversation with the devil. Survivors guilt of being able to leave the ghetto and seek bigger dreams and lead a better life. The kid that makes it out of the hood. INSTITUTIONALIZED, landlocked and ghettoized. Not only geographically but mentally as well. THESE WALLS, the looming dark cloud confessionals of regrets that takes ones head. U, the sometimes deeply hidden vulnerabilities of young men that triggers mental health issues that lead to suicidal tendencies. Hopelessness. ALRIGHT, a snap out of it self confidence mantra. MOMMA, the temptations of evil. HOOD POLITICS, aggressive g-funk street level claim jumping in the hood. A calling out. The dozens and battle. HOW MUCH A DOLLAR COST, speaks with a spirit guised as a homeless man. The test of ones spiritual convictions. COMPLEXION, The color struck syndrome and its complications. Prejudice by judging the color of ones skin. THE BLACKER THE BERRY, black and proud anthem. Know thyself doctrine. YOU AIN’T GOTTA LIE (MOMMA SAID), confronts lack of self confidence. I, self love. A self realization of ones world and doing what it takes to survive in it. MORTAL MAN, a look to bigger loyalties and better men as role models.

The songs on this album can be considered a reveal presented as the mindset of the trials and tribulations many black men deal with day to day. Kendrick gets psychological. In order to fully appreciate his point of view you need to know something about where Kendrick comes from.

Kendrick Lamar Duckworth pka Kendrick Lamar was born in Compton, California, on June 17, 1987 His parents relocated to Compton from Chicago in 1984. Compton is a bilingual and bicultural community. Inhabitants are mainly African Americans and Latinos. Although beautiful in city landscape and farmlands it also has its shady undercurrents that can pull you under. The sun rises, the flowers bloom and the good people of Compton have breathing room. But there are imbalances in the bad parts. In Compton night falls slowly and trouble can find its way home. It is one of those, what you want what you need what you come here for, kind of communities. There are many American neighborhoods that welcome serene quiet moments, but in Compton the solitude of silence can be seen as a bad sign, it’s the thing that occurs just before a shootout or an armed military tank crushes its way through your living room without fair warning in search of drugs and guns that may or may not be there. Getting batter rammed is the search warrant. Kendrick has mentioned witnessing his first murder as a small kid. He also spoke of being harassed and having guns pulled on him by the police as a teen. Historically, Compton has its struggle with police brutality, corruption, violence, high levels of unemployment and immigrant abuse. He paints an emotional picture of his experiences growing up in Compton. It’s these experiences that become rap inspired narratives.

Rap literature is one of the most under recognized areas of literai culture. I am unclear why this is. Never the less rap prose, poetry and verse writing is a writing experience where theories of rhetoric and composition tools are applied. In that sense, To Pimp A Butterfly is a brilliant piece of literature. Kendrick’s lyrical field of vision is expansive. He indulges dramatic verse techniques such as free form/free verse, reading, monologue, characterizations, freestyle and audio verite. He will present poetry as spoken word poetry written and spoken word poetry performance.  His rap verse is non pedestrian and has a natural flow. He flaunts his penchant for verbal prowess of what I call, the fire and brimstone verbal rolling and tumbling of words, a liken to the black holiness church that can be so dense at times you can catch his internal rhythm. Not only does he lay his verse over the tracks but he embeds verse within the music, especially on Wesley’s Theory. His lyrical groove is fanatically airtight and deep in the pocket.

According to MTV News, when To Pimp A Butterfly was released as a leak on March 16, 2015, the project was streamed 9.6 million times on Spotify on its first day, setting a new global record for the most single streams in a single day worldwide. As of April 13, 2015 it sold over 500,000 traditional album sales to date. Rap music listeners were responsive to the relevancy of it’s music and message. To Pimp A Butterfly steps into the roll call of other important and successful socially conscious concept album projects, like Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life and Quadrophenia by the Who.

This album is perfection. Exceptionally timely. Recent headlines in America are charged up with police instigated killings of unarmed young black males. That alone makes this album as responsive as a conversation about Jim Crow. To Pimp A Butterfly is a heavily penned conversation with intent and Kendrick knows exactly who is talking to. The voiceless. The unheard. The socially suspect. The young black male in America. Kendrick articulates complaints filed and fully embraces his participation in his world and channels it to the outside world. He tells us what he knows, don’t ask questions to shit you already know the answer to. For instance; when will America understand that racism is not a black peoples problem, when will certain American law enforcers stop behaving like Nazi Gestapos when it comes to young black males in America and when will America as a country stop ratfucking its own people.

On the album’s closing using audio verite, Kendrick engages in an imagined conversation with the late rapper Tupac Shakur. The audio was given to him as an unpublished interview by Mats Nileskar, a Swedish journalist. With the blessings of Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur he was able to use it on the album.

To Pimp A Butterfly is more than a rap album, it’s the rap industry’s empowerment movement for young black males. It’s the voice of Kendrick saying I hear you, I really hear you. Kendrick describes the album as “fearful, honest and unapologetic.” The album is a sound riot revolution, a nonviolent protest. Kendrick Lamar is a genius and the album To Pimp A Butterfly is bone-chilling perfection.




Previous Film Review: Dark Horse
Next News: Soul Legend Percy Sledge dies

No Comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.