It’s difficult to believe that Kendrick Lamar’s modern day classic, good Kid, m.A.A.d City, is approaching 3 years since its release in 2012. The album – a follow up to the equally impressive Section.80 – cemented Kendrick’s place as the golden boy of the West Coast and of Hip Hop by elevating the standard for other albums to be compared against, both musically and conceptually.
Move forward to the present day and Kendrick Lamar is aiming to cause similar hysteria within the Hip Hop community with his latest LP, To Pimp A Butterfly. They say, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and this old adage most definitely applies to the To Pimp A Butterfly artwork. Even before you’ve listened to a single track from the socially and politically powerful project, the artwork perfectly illustrates its core principles. The first music you hear upon listening to the album is a segment from Boris Gardiner’s ‘Every Nigger Is A Star’, immediately thrusting you into the racial context knitted throughout the hour and nineteen minutes of project’s entirety.
Classic funk influences help to shape the opening pieces of the album, with the likes of funk legend George Clinton providing a feature on ‘Wesley’s Theory’ and the equally funky ‘King Kunta’ contributing to a sound that could be part of a soundtrack to a 70’s Blaxploitation movie. After speaking on the history of Black oppression, Kendrick brings us into the modern day with ‘Institutionalized [Ft. Bilal, Anna Wise & Snoop Dogg]’, where he discusses the affects of the longstanding racial inequality that lead to the circumstances that he (and many others like him) grew up in. K Dot tells the story of an associate at an award show plotting to relieve artists of their watches (“So many rollies and you want all of them”), using this as an example to depict their negative institutionalized mentality. A concise contribution from Snoop Dogg shows that he can definitely relate to Lamar’s views, by expressing, “You can take the boy out the hood, but you can’t take the hood out the homie”.
The first single from the album was the inspirational and uplifting ‘i’, based upon the soulful roots of The Isley Brother’s ‘Who’s That Lady’. During the album we are introduced to the opposite of the aforementioned single via the track entitled ‘u’, where Lamar converses with himself that, “loving you is complicated”. Though the two songs take completely different routes, they aim to get to the same destination of realising self worth.
‘Complexion (A Zulu Love)’ is a song that carries a beautiful sentiment, as Lamar examines how irrelevant the colour of a person’s skin is, referencing both different races as well as different skin complexions within the black community. The song also includes an astonishing feature verse from Rapsody, who many would consider to have outperformed Kendrick on this particular occasion. It is evident that the song’s subject matter is important to the female MC hailing from North Carolina, as her ingenious wordplay and references superbly support her opinions on racial discrimination.
Other highlights include ‘These Walls’, where Kendrick uses an explicit, but perceptive, multi-faceted metaphor to describe his relationship with a female. The Pharrell assisted ‘Alright’ is one of the few songs on the project you could consider to be a “banger”, with a catchy chorus that could find it in heavy rotation in a club near you very soon, but more importantly, the song carries an significant message. The soulful ‘Momma’ explains how that despite how far Kendrick’s successful music career has taken him away from home, the stories he tells within his music have brought him back mentally and spiritually.
The album’s final track, whilst being impressive on its own, is made even more extraordinary due to the intelligently crafted interview Kendrick creates between him and the deceased rapper Tupac Shakur. Shakur’s side of the conversation is taken from an interview in 1994, while Kendrick bases his question on a vision he once had of a conversation with ‘Pac. It is as eerie as it is insightful, substantiating a link between the two both spiritually and as potential speakers of a generation.
To Pimp A Butterfly is so metaphorically profound and sophisticated that a single listen of the album is not enough to fully soak up and embrace the true essence of what Lamar is attempting to communicate. Compared to good Kid, m.A.A.d City, Kendrick’s latest offering probably isn’t musically superior, but his opinion on social, political and racial issues that he divulges throughout the album could not be more appropriate at this time, therefore making it’s impact more prevalent than just the musical art form.