Well that was a whirlwind. The maybe-planned-maybe-not release of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly almost broke Twitter and my brain on Sunday night.
Whether it was intentional or not (and I have a feeling it most certainly was), we can thank the gods of rap that we have Kendrick’s latest LP a full week early. To Pimp a Butterfly is an experimental, dense, gigantic piece of art unlike anything Kendrick has done before.
If 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was an incredible rap album, To Pimp a Butterfly tries to and succeeds at being something bigger. Kendrick (and everyone else) knows he can rap circles around Drake or J.Cole, so why waste everyone’s time making a traditional rap album? (Side note: if you think Drake or J.Cole is better than Kendrick, you should probably stop reading this now.)
Good Kid was mostly a linear narrative filled with radio-friendly singles; To Pimp a Butterfly is basically the exact opposite. It is an album comprised of loose-ends and contradictions, and despite its hour-and-twenty-minute length, it is made to be digested in one sitting.
The loose-ends are basically endless. One song, “u,” is the most emotionally vulnerable song of Kendrick’s career. He sounds downright fragile as he raps hysterically about his insecurities for four and a half minutes. In the very next song, “Alright,” he raps that, “My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow / But we gon’ be alright.”
In “i,” he proudly exclaims how much he loves himself. The lyrics in the album jump from self-hate to self-love to seeing God in the form of a homeless man to berating himself as a hypocrite to comparing himself to Nelson Mandela. The sprawling landscape of topics, attitudes, vantage points and even voices leaves you to connect the dots on your own.
The only time the album is even vaguely straightforward is when certain themes are repeated. There are constant references to Lucy (short for Lucifer) and a repeated outro that builds on itself as the album progresses.
The album ends with a beyond-the-grave interview with 2Pac that finally sheds some light on the album, even if it ends with a cliffhanger. Kendrick did not make this album to hold your hand.
Even the instrumentation and vocals of the album are sprawling. It is usually funky and jazzy, and it was mostly recorded by people actually playing the instruments.
“King Kunta” is a 70’s funk adventure while “The Blacker the Berry” is an abrasive, incendiary song with an aggressive drumbeat as its foundation. In “How Much a Dollar Cost,” he even samples Radiohead.
You can tell how much care went into making these songs sonically layered, and certain subtle moments like instruments dropping out in certain verses (such as in “Wesley’s Theory”) or well-placed backup singers are some of the most rewarding parts of the album.
And what makes it so rewarding could potentially turn people away from it. It is such a complex, layered album that it cannot be used as background music. You have to devote time to it, marinate in it and try to (w)rap your head around it. Some people would prefer Drake or J.Cole because they are easier to understand and listen to; their songs are catchier, simpler and easier to digest. Those people are wrong, because depth and complexity are what make Kendrick great.
I need to stress that last point, because this album is incredible. What makes it so great is that I have been listening to it nonstop since Sunday night, and I still have only scratched the surface of it.
Trying to evaluate it so quickly seems like a disservice to such an enormous, dense work, but certain points become evident rather quickly. Among them, Kendrick ranks 1st, 2nd and 3rd for “best rapper alive,” and To Pimp a Butterfly exhibits points A, B and C.