Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Review: To Fully Appreciate 'To Pimp A Butterfly', Forget All Notions of Kendrick Lamar

Before you continue reading, or if you have yet to listen to Kendrick Lamar's newest album To Pimp A Butterfly, I want you to get rid of all your notions of Kendrick Lamar. I want you to forget about his astounding 2012 release good kid, m.A.A.d city. I want you to forget about his "Control" verse, and his "Nosetalgia" verse, and his "Never Catch Me" verse, or literally any bar you've ever heard him spit. I want you to forget every single thing you know about the best rapper alive. Done? Now we can move on. 

To Pimp A Butterfly is not what you would have expected. It's not what anyone expected. Even with the jazzy single "i" and his untitled Colbert Report performance, no one could have guessed what TPAB would sound like. It wasn't until a little less than two months ago when vague details began to emerge and the first official track "The Blacker the Berry" leaked that people were sure of what Lamar's new album would sound like. The aggressive single with a "I Used to Love H.E.R."-like twist followed by reports from TDE-producer Sounwave that Lamar was "mad" on the new album, and the cover art showing a mob of black men standing over a dead judge on the White House lawn, had everyone, myself included, believing that this new album would be full of aggression, and more of the dark, East Coast rap that Lamar was known for. Boy, was everyone wrong.

Lamar's newest album is as much a jazz, funk album as it is a rap album, and that's just barely scratching the surface. It's as experimental as it gets, with odd cadences, poetry woven throughout, spoken word segments, a faux live-performance track, and even an interview between Lamar and Tupac. "The Blacker the Berry" is not the mode track, it is an outlier. It's fantastic to see experimental hip-hop on such a grand scale, and yet again, Kendrick Lamar has pushed the envelope on hip-hop farther than anyone could have imagined.

The reason I ask for you to remove any notions you have of Kendrick Lamar is because you can't fully appreciate TPAB if you think of it as a rap album. It's not supposed to be one, and you'll be disappointed if that's what you think it is. It's closer to a rap/funk opera than anything else. This is not to say that it's not fantastic. The production is lusher than anything I've heard in a very long time, with complex, orchestral jazz and funk production that is as explosive as it is beautiful. But Kendrick Lamar is not strictly rapping on here. If you are looking for Lamar to make a conventional rap album where he spits vicious lines and paints masterpieces in bars, like he did with gkmc, you won't find it on TPAB. Lamar sacrifices convention and listenability to craft a masterful and new manner of story-telling. But there still are fantastic rap songs on here. "King Kunta", "The Blacker The Berry", "Alright", "Momma", and many more will satisfy your thirst for traditional rap while still pushing your horizons. 

Each song on TPAB tells an individual story, but the whole album has a full theme, juxtaposed by a poem that Lamar reads in pieces throughout the album and in full on the last song "Mortal Man". The first track "Wesley's Theory" opens up with Lamar as a material-obsessed new rapper, being tempted by record labels and the government. He continues this theme through the first half of the album, which is characterized by mostly upbeat funk production. But on the song "u", the album takes a sharp turn. Lamar is anguished by his unquenchable thirst for material wealth, and sees the consequences of his actions. While he was busy out in the world touring and rapping, his teenage sister gets pregnant and his good friend dies in Compton. He languishes in a hotel room contemplating suicide and proclaims himself a "f-cking failure". From them on, Lamar tries to put himself to good use and searches for how to help his community back home on the songs "Alright" through "Hood Politics". He then explains the vices that are holding back his community, such as money ("How Much A Dollar Cost"), race ("Complexion [A Zulu Love]") and violence ("The Blacker the Berry"). The final track "Mortal Man" finds Kendrick wrestling with if he can really be a leader, and ends with the full poem, an interview with Tupac, and an explanation of the album title. The overall theme is very similar to J. Cole's 2014 Forest Hills Drive , yet infinitely more in-depth and encompassing; and that was still a great album.

If gkmc was about Compton, then TPAB is about the entire nation. But at the same time, it's insanely personal. Beyond Lamar's unmatched lyrical skill, Kendrick also uses a variety of odd cadences in his voices to portray emotions and points of view. From screaming, to high-pitch raps, to laid-back bars, Lamar uses so many different flows and voices that it would sound like they are altered, but they are almost entirely all natural. For features, Lamar relies heavily on Anna Wise, James Fauntleroy, Bilal, and Thundercat for vocals. They don't stand out, but instead magnify Lamar's performance. As for rap features, Snoop Dogg has a minor part on the track "Institutionalized", but he doesn't exactly rap, and on "Complexion", Rapsody has a very insightful verse about race. This is being nit-picky, but it would be nice to have just one more rapper on Kendrick's own song.

Kendrick packs every single bar with a deeper meaning. This album will take weeks, months, maybe even years to fully digest. I've listen to this album everyday multiple times and there are still ideas that pop up that give me chills. There is no question this will be a classic. To Pimp A Butterfly is a must cop.

Lyrical Skill- 5

Technical Skill- 5

Production- 5


Features- 4

Themes/Consistency- 5

Notable Tracks- every single song on TPAB is a masterpiece

Overall Score- 5

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