Review: Kendrick Lamar's 'To Pimp a Butterfly'

To Pimp a Butterfly intensifies the social messages with which Kendrick has always associated himself, and interpolates them with heavy metaphor and poetic freedom found after escaping the linearity of a fully blown concept album defined by story, characters, and emotions. As always, Kendrick’s accessibility arises from his meticulous authorship and passion for honesty – the information encoded in any line, the irony of any wordplay, and the overarching social emphasis on the entire album is demarcated by Kendrick’s experiences, failures, and struggles. Meanwhile, the album remains too sonically versatile for Lamar to have spent a short amount of time pondering its aesthetic. Rather, it appears a slowly built up, layered composition of old-school funk, jazz, or even trap-inspired instrumentals constructed by the likes of the psychedelic Flying Lotus and bassist Thundercat, and even the catchier Pharrell Williams.

Kendrick is first and foremost a lyricist. While the social messages span the topics of the white-dominated music industry, suicide, spirituality, hypocrisy within the black community, and the importance of the social work found in the lives of Mandela or Malcolm X, there isn’t a second of preaching that doesn’t reverse back onto Kendrick by some revelation as to the character of the narrative voice or the hypocrisy of Kendrick’s own manifesto. Each verse carries with it a perspective led by its own set of drives and rational premises, and each glimpse inside the stricken parts of the African American community and its various sub-groups is stamped by a self-depreciating, introspective temperament.

Ultimately, the album’s progression moves away from a kind of unsure, arrogant façade of a man who’s “made it” against all odds and towards a poised activist who understands the inherent value in self-love as a solution, above all else, and is prepared for the worst, challenging his people and his followers, “if shit hits the fan, is you still a fan?”. To Pimp a Butterfly carries the weight and composure of a Kendrick album, with a versatility in voice, character, and subject-matter to rattle and shake the minds of those that give it due careful attention.

Unfortunately, Lamar’s nuance can be lost behind very enjoyable beats and hooks, but his power is found in the conceptual storytelling of every song, moving back and forth within himself and others until it becomes clear to him what the next step of the puzzle might be. This puzzle is itself a poem which Kendrick recites at the beginning of each track, to the late Tupac Shakur. Perhaps more unlike other socially conscious rappers, Lamar remains rooted and manifestly aware of the limitations and opportunities afforded by the personal perspective within which he is trapped. He is determined to narrate his own evolution amidst his discontent with society as it stands as a means to simultaneously release mental anguish and inspire others to enact positive change.

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