To Pimp A Butterfly has dropped.
It was supposed to be March 23rd, but Kendrick decided to drop it 20 years and a day after Tupac dropped Me Against The World, and he tweeted that so folks wouldn’t be completely confused (but they still were.) I’m mad hyped that this shit is now on my phone a good bit over a week before I thought it would. Anyways, let’s see what one of the most highly anticipated hip hop albums (of all time, really) has for us. This is Spit Talking’s To Pimp A Butterfly review. I think the reaction to this is gonna be similar to Yeezus’s: it’ll be split at first, then after a year’s passed everyone will recognize the genius.
This album is literally nothing short of incredible, with Kendrick pushing the limit on what rappers should rap over and how they should rap. It took 2 and a half years, but the wait was worth it cause he crafted a masterpiece. This is Kendrick’s best album, yes, better than good kid, m.A.A.d. city. The individual tracks may not be as good for driving around or something (although some stretches, like King Kunta to Institutionalized to These Walls, are better than anything on gkmc in my opinion), but overall the sound is so innovative for hip hop that it’s no contest. Then the interview with Pac and the cocoon/walls/ghetto/institution metaphor and the interwoven poetry throughout takes this shit to mindblowing levels. Some folks might not like it cause it’s unexpected, but ths shit is a certified classic. There’s a lot of great music, and a lot of social and individual commentary. This shit is so dense that you could probably listen to it for a year and still not get it all, but I tried to break it down for y’all as best I could.
For its fearlessness, innovation, commentary on the state of both hip hop and the world, and its ability to sound old school and brand new at the same time, I give To Pimp A Butterfly a:
The album starts with Wesley’s Theory, a smooth-sounding intro featuring George Clinton and Thundercat. Before long, the funk drops in and it hits you that this is To Pimp A Butterfly. Kendrick sings a little in the background about his first girlfriend before breaking out into some rap. It sounds like the intro to a 70’s talk show or something, in the best way possible. Then the beat drops out and Dre comes in with some knowledge before Kendrick drops some himself. In less than 5 minutes, Kendrick establishes that this is gonna be a funky but versatile album, dropping some hot bars along the way.
Then For Free? (Interlude) keeps the genre experimentation going with some jazz before Kendrick starts rapping about how this dick ain’t free, and he’s really rapping over some shit folks just don’t rap over. It’s a pressure-filled chaotic interlude that’s probably the best I’ve ever heard on a rap album. This is followed by King Kunta.
King Kunta is a mad funky track that’s all about the yams. It’s one of Kendrick’s best tracks yet, and you should get this album just to hear this track if nothing else. It’s an excellent showcase of Kendrick’s performance ability and jumps between a few genres in less than 4 minutes. This is indicative of To Pimp A Butterfly — all (good) hip hop takes from funk and jazz, but you’ve never heard it like this. Kendrick did everything he could to make a groundbreaking rap album, and he did.
Then we get Institutionalized, which starts out with a slow melody and Kendrick rapping high-pitched, almost Quasimodo-like. Institutionalized features Bilal, Anna Wise and Snoop Dogg, and definitely chills out the album, even though Kendrick’s spitting mad real shit about being institutionalized in the ghetto and not being able to quit it. This is some revolutionary shit, even before the track goes “master take the chains off me” and switches into some down-tempo jazzy hip hop. This is Kendrick doing Mos Def, and absolutely killing it. He’s trying to make his mark on hip hop, music and society with his shit.
These Walls starts with the line that ends King Kunta, “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence”, and features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat. The slow snaps lead into a groovy, driving beat that’s mad optimistic. I (and some other people) were wrong thinking this whole album would be dark and edgy, cause These Walls is definitely some shit you can step to. Maybe Kendrick took his mom’s advice from good kid, m.A.A.d. city. This track has a similar message to Institutionalized, but keeps a brighter outlook. The lyrics still aren’t sunny, but damn the music makes you smile. It also isn’t afraid to slip into a few different genres for a bit every now and then, going into spoken word over smooth jazz to end the track, and again we get the line from King Kunta and Institutionalized, but a little more of the speech this time.
Then we get u, which we can assume is some sort of partner to i. All of a sudden it sounds like you’re listening to Miles Davis, with Kendrick repeating “loving you is complicated.” Miles Davis stretched jazz to its limits, and Kendrick’s trynna do that now for hip hop. Eventually he gets to rapping on the beat, but he kind of slips on there cause it sounds chaotic and atonal, but there’s a method to the madness. Again, this is more spoken word than rap, but really Kendrick’s already made it hard to draw a line on To Pimp A Butterfly. The track switches up to what sounds like some classic Marsalis trumpet and Kendrick spitting in a way I’ve literally never heard before, taking on the voice of an alcoholic on the streets and keeping shit mad real.
The 7th track on To Pimp A Butterfly is Alright, which continues the trumpet/spoken word combo, at least before it smooths out and starts popping. Even though he’s rapping and killing it, it’s clear that Kendrick didn’t want this to be just another hip hop album, and he’s trying to cram years of genre development into one album. It’s still hip hop, but literally the only reason to say that is because Kendrick’s rapping, again, fairly optimistically. If good kid, m.A.A.d. city was a portrayal of how dark it is where Kendrick came from, To Pimp A Butterfly is about how dark it was over a celebration of how bright it was and what could be. Then we get part of the speech again before the track ends.
Another Interlude (For Sale?) breaks up the album with the 8th track. Again, it’s some smooth jazz with some light piano dancing around it, but Kendrick doesn’t use interludes to take a break. They’re a soapbox for him to come in with some spoken word and maybe even sing a little. Talking about Lucy (not the TV show though), Kendrick sounds more like Section 80 than good kid, m.A.A.d. city, but I think it’s more advanced (musically) than anything he (or any rapper, really) has done yet. We get the speech again, for the first time with some music behind it (transcribed a little below.)
Then we got Momma, the 9th track. It comes in sounding like some Frank Ocean shit off nostalgia/ultra, in a real good way. Then Kendrick comes in with some rap about his coming up and current place. The rap in this is a lot more abstract than good kid, m.A.A.d. city, and I’ll probably drop an article after this review digging into the lyrics a little more, cause they’re a lot denser. Anyways, the track ends with some more Miles Davis-paced jazz for Kendrick to rap over for a second before it fades out.
For the 10th track of To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick gives us Hood Politics. I was looking forward to this shit for the name alone, and it comes in with some real slow funky shit sounding like some more blaxploitation nods after King Kunta. Kendrick talks shit from the first line about how he’s A1 and you boo-boo. He gets serious, talking about how he doesn’t care about politics in rap, cause there’s realer shit going on like death that trumps politics. From discussing condoms to Obama to gangbanging at 14 to ruling the West Coast along with Snoop (who’s already been on the album by this point), Kendrick succeeds in making you think while keeping up with this shit. Then we get the speech again:
I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence/
Sometimes I did the same. Abusing my power full of resentment/
Resentment that turned into a deep depression/
I found myself screaming in the hotel room/
I didn’t wanna self-destruct/
The evils of Lucy was all around me/
So I went running for answers/
Until I came home/
But that didn’t stop survivor’s guilt/
Going back and forth trying to convince myself the stripes I earned/
Or maybe how A1 my foundation was/
But while my loved ones was fighting a continuous war back in the city/
I was entering a new one.//
Once the speech has ended (with some more this time), we get maybe the best beat yet for How Much A Dollar Cost, which features James Fauntleroy and Ronald Isley. Shit, the beat almost sounds like something RZA and Radiohead would come up with. How Much A Dollar Cost is about what the title implies, and also about the pressure of a stare. It’s definitely a highlight on this album, but really the whole album flows so well that it’s hard to say that even. The track ends with a little soul, and anyone who isn’t sold on To Pimp A Butterfly’s different sound should be convinced by this point.
The land of landmines
The 12th track is Complexion (A Zulu Love) which has got Rapsody featured on it. Complexion is a little smoother and a little more low-key than the last track, which is good cause it gives you time to take it all in. That doesn’t mean it’s shallow though, from the Willie Lynch reference to the general theme of complexion in the track. Rapsody keeps the social commentary going, and all of a sudden this shit sounds like it’s Mos Def and Talib Kweli doing Thieves in the Night. Aside from West Coast, jazz and funk influences, Kendrick seemed to listen to a lot of Black Star before making To Pimp A Butterfly. He finished the track by keeping it real and calling Compton “the land of the landmines.”
The Blacker The Berry
Then we got The Blacker The Berry as the 13th track, which we’ve all heard by now. It’s a mad racial track referencing all the cop shootings, gang relations, Kendrick’s own past and hypocrisy. This is an incredible track, and is one of the standouts on the album. It’s representative of the album for how good it is, but the sound is more old Kendrick and less funk/jazz than the rest of the album really is. Luckily it’s fucking incredible.
Kendrick then takes us to You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said) for the 3rd-to-last track on the album. It takes the album back to a smooth but funky sound, showing that The Blacker The Berry is an outlier and doesn’t mark a shift in the album or anything. It’s really a summer love song that shows Kendrick can groove as well as anyone and that he can really rap over anything about anything and sound like the best doing it. This track is about confidence and honesty, and it’s sweet.
i (new and improved!)
Then we get i as the second-to-last track, but not like we heard it a few months ago. It has a little intro which doesn’t sound like it’s about to kick into i’s groove, but then it totally makes sense. The track has switched up a bit, with some different vocals and a little more energy in general. With the slight changes and the rest of the album, i makes a lot more sense from Kendrick all of a sudden. This is a much different track than u, which could represent Kendrick’s personal development considering this is near the end. He drowns out his dope rap near the end a little more, letting it leak into conversation before Kendrick kills the music. Then he talks about how many black people we’ve lost in just the last year, calling out judges (the album cover makes sense) in the process. Considering the low volume, it’s Kendrick trynna put out a message but knowing it’s gonna get drowned out by other shit, so he goes into some mad powerful spoken word, talking about how “N-E-G-U-S” means royalty and black emperors. Think on that.
Mortal Man finishes off the album with 12 minutes (much like Sing About Me/Dying of Thirst off GKMC and as the last track like J Cole’s Note to Self.) Mortal Man comes in sounding like 808s and Heartbreak in a complete departure from the rest of the album, before being brought back in with some bass, piano and horns and all of a sudden it sounds like some old West Coast rap shit. He starts by shouting out the ghost of Mandela, and asking “when shit hits the fan, is you still a fan?”, which is funny cause this whole album is kind of a test of Kendrick’s fans. Some really won’t like it, even though he’s bringing the whole genre forward. Mortal Man’s got some similar themes to Sing About Me/Dying of Thirst, with Kendrick wondering what would happen if he died soon.
Then Kendrick goes from rapper loyalty to relationship loyalty, as the horns start doing more and more work in the background. Then he goes back to talking about his anger against judges before saying that’s not like Nelson. Kendrick’s venting on this track but always brings it back by reminding himself what Mandela would do. He runs down a few decades of fallen heroes, from Huey Newton to Michael Jackson, before the beat dies down and he goes back into his spoken word again. This time there’s a lot more to it though, with Kendrick pleading black gang members to respect each other for their blackness, not their gang color. Then he ends his not really a poem, and continues to interview Tupac.
At this point my mind was blown, realizing that this was not an album but an interview with Tupac, Kendrick’s mentor through music even if he couldn’t be alive to do it the conventional way. Kendrick really thinks he’s taking up Tupac’s torch (not just the West Coast crown), and he talks with Tupac about blackness in America while some background music casually flows. Then he calls himself an offspring of Tupac’s legacy and tells him about all the turmoil then asks about the future. In response, Tupac predicts revolution and Kendrick predicts that music is the only thing that can save us before they talk about how they ain’t even really rapping, just telling stories. Kendrick ends the track and his album with the story of a caterpillar who is less appreciated than the butterfly, so the caterpillar starts pimping the butterfly in the mad city. From the cocoon, the caterpillar is instititutionalized but has time to think, and once its wings emerge it can shine light on situations the caterpillar never considered, ending the eternal struggle.
Kendrick ends the album with “what’s your perspective on that? Pac? Pac? Pac?”
Even before the Tupac shit ties it all together, this is a monumental moment for hip hop with all the different beats and genres being used. Then the story of the caterpillar and the cocoon gives you a whole new perspective on Kendrick’s life and of course the album, forcing you to listen to it again. I played it again instantly after finishing it and noticed the album starts with the cocoon, showing just how fucking much is packed into this album. It’s a lot more subtle than good kid, m.A.A.d. city, because it’s about way more than just Kendrick. I’m not sure when I’m gonna start listening to other music again, but it doesn’t matter cause this album has everything. Hip Hop will never be the same.