Top 15 Albums at 15 | #3 To Pimp A Butterfly
Dec 11, 2016 • Kendrick Stan Matthew Wang • ~ 18 minute read • 2196 words
We gon’ be alright
Album #3: To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar
Objectively, I think this is the best album on my list. I also think this album has had the widest impact on the rap game, the music industry, and on society. If so, why isn’t this #1? Let’s go into a bit of context first.
Kendrick Lamar is not your average Compton rapper. He’s not the rapper that parents are afraid of corrupting their youth by glorifying molly and orgies, and he’s not ridiculously gang-affiliated and he actually has lyrical ability. But you probably already know this; Kendrick is one of the, if not the most famous rapper of “our time”, and is definitely a GOAT. But unlike other GOATs, he’s only released 3 studio albums in a short, 4-year studio career (Section 80 in 2011, To Pimp A Butterfly in 2015). He doesn’t have the prolific career of Kanye, or Jay-Z, or Lil’ Wayne (that was only kind of a meme). Then, why is cornrow Kenny so good?
Let’s take a look at Swimming Pools (Drank), courtesy of Genius:
Pour up (Drank), head shot (Drank)
Sit down (Drank), stand up (Drank)
Pass out (Drank), wake up (Drank)
Faded (Drank), faded (Drank)
In this chorus, it seems like this song is about drinking. Maybe it’s negative, but it seems like one of those songs you hear in a club telling everybody to drink. Didn’t I just say that Kendrick wasn’t “this kind” of rapper? What’s going on here?
Now I done grew up ‘round some people livin’ their life in bottles
Granddaddy had the golden flask, backstroke every day in Chicago
Some people like the way it feels, some people wanna kill their sorrows
Some people wanna fit in with the popular, that was my problem
I was in a dark room, loud tunes, looking to make a vow soon
That I’ma get fucked up, fillin’ up my cup, I see the crowd mood
Changin’ by the minute and the record on repeat
Took a sip then another sip, then somebody said to me
Now it’s a bit clearer: this isn’t actually a drinking son, it’s actually a song about alcoholism and peer pressure, with a hook that disguises this song as a party song. Taking this verse into account, the hook makes a lot more sense: it’s not actually about wanting to drink, but because the narrator has to, since he needs to drink to fit in.
That song isn’t actually on TPAB, it’s on good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick’s second studio album after Section 80. But it showcases how Kendrick is able to make songs that engage with social issues on a deep level, but still have songs that are lyrically complex and sound good.
To Pimp A Butterfly is Kendrick’s masterpiece, or at least so far. It’s a 16-track concept album that engages with complex political and personal problems, mainly focusing on the discrimination that African American people face in today’s society, with tie-ins to Kendrick’s personal life, celebrity status, and black culture. I’m not going to pretend that I comprehend the entire album and all of its subtleties, but there are some key features that make this an amazing album (from a conceptual standpoint). TPAB is ridiculously cohesive: while each song touches on very, very different topics, there are common artistic elements that repeat themselves, and ground them as “feeling” like a song from TPAB; it’s stylistically very different from his songs from GKMC, or Section 80. But more importantly, Kendrick targets actual problems in today’s society, and analyzes them with a surprisingly high level of depth. In King Kunta, one of the more famous songs on the album, Kendrick likens himself to Kunta Kinte, a black slave and protagonist of Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Famously, Kinte’s foot is cut off as he is caught escaping from his plantation; Kendrick has also faced the struggle of institutionalized racism, but now he runs the game (a play on Kinte’s missing foot). It’s a rallying cry against institutionalized racism, using Kendrick as a rallying cry against the metaphorical and literal slave owners. We switch themes to Alright, where Kendrick tells us that “we gon’ be alright”, even with police brutality and racism against African Americans still plaguing society today. He tells black America to unify itself to promote racial equality, even in the face of all that has gone agains them so far. I like how the songs i and The Blacker The Berry play into each other. i is a song about self-love and empowering people to reach their full potential, and to beat the negativity to get the most out of life. The Blacker The Berry, on the other hand, delves into self-hate, regret, and anger, and is the kind of “violent rap song” that parents don’t want their kids to listen to. Kendrick wants us to know that the choice between good and evil is a false dichotomy: good and evil coexist in life, it’s all about perspective. Black people are often told that they are both the good and the evil in society, and Kendrick displays both these facets of life working in tandem.
Something I want to especially highlight is Kendrick’s finale, as it ties the entire album together. After the end of each song, Kendrick reads a small part of a poem, one that’s fully recited at the end of the last track (Mortal Man), accompanied by an “interview” with Tupac Shakur. In this last song, we see all the pieces fall together: Kendrick becomes a star, feels lost, and then finds himself in a very typical heroic story arc. We finally see why the album is called To Pimp A Butterfly: Kendrick is a caterpillar, young and fragile, in a broken home in Compton. Through his rap career, he transforms into a butterfly; throughout this transformation, people try to take advantage of him, they themselves being caterpillars that have yet to transform. We realize that this album is not only about society as a whole, but an autobiographical one about Kendrick’s own rise to fame, much of which parallels with the black community in America. If only the butterfly (Kendrick and other public figures) could educate the caterpillars (the general population, Compton) about how to break free of the system, and truly understand what’s going, then the world could truly live in harmony. Pac doesn’t answer Kendrick’s last question in this interview, on whether or not this butterfly metaphor rings true: we’re left open-ended as an audience. But, through listening to this album, we get told this beautiful, yet haunting story of black America and Kendrick Lamar.
If you’re interested in a more detailed explanation of this album (it’s very complicated, and I barely scratch the surface), I’d suggest checking out the Genius listing for this album.
This “review” is already super messy, and that’s partially because I’m not a great writer. But there’s more, so bear with me.
I don’t like music on message alone, it has to sound good. Luckily for me, TPAB does a great job on both fronts. The album is critically acclaimed for it’s amazing production; Kendrick goes against the norm of Atlanta-trap focused production, and instead uses elements of jazz, funk, and soul layered with amazing vocals and features to make an awesome-sounding album. I’d delve more into the amazing production of TPAB, but this is already the longest article I’ve written, and I’m not even half done. I’m also not an expert in production, and I can reasonably say I don’t know much about funk and jazz, but trust me, it’s good.
It was interesting to be around
/r/hiphopheads when this album came out: the hype was unlimited! I felt like I was part of history: even when the album just came out, many people seriously thought that this album was GOAT, and I was inclined to agree. This level of social commentary is almost unheard of in previous rap albums, and Kendrick really goes hard in the paint on the album’s narrative, even when making a really, really, really good album from a musical standpoint. I also think that this is going to be one of those albums that defines and characterizes the period we live in right now: art is once again being used as a tool of political discourse, and social progressiveness is becoming more and more pronounced in society. During this album’s release, Black Lives Matter was gaining controversy as an organization. Police brutality became a big talking point, and people were questioning whether or not society this utopia that we paint it to be. To Pimp A Butterfly does an amazing job of addressing these problems in society, and using his music as a platform to create discourse, to convince the listener to buy his narrative that there is a problem in society right now, and how to fix it through unity and not being assholes to black people. Soon after this album’s release, Black Lives Matter has used Alright as a rallying flag for what they stand for: he tells us:
N**, and we hate po-po Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’
Which relates to the struggles that Black Lives Matter fights for. This idea of public discourse through art is often downplayed, but I think the impacts of TPAB still haven’t been fully felt yet. I believe we’re going to look back on this album and Kendrick as a person in the same way we look back at MLK (or maybe Malcolm X), a someone who’s made a change in society through talking to the public about problems in society right now. Bold move cotton.
I wish I had Kendrick’s ability to make something flow well and have good structure (because we both know this article isn’t), but let me finish this off talking about how this affected me, and why if this album is so good that it isn’t #1. For me, this album gave me a lot of insight into the depth of rap. I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people do believe that rap is just about drugs, money, and garden tools, and I was no different for a long time. Eminem was the first rap artist to change that attitude for me, but Kendrick cements it: rap songs can be analytical, they can delve into deep issues, they can be masterpieces of art. After TPAB, I paid more attention to the lyrics and message of rap, and music in general: I think that’s been beneficial for me as a rap listener.
I can appreciate that this album is GOAT, and that it’s objectively an amazing album that dives into amazing issues. But for me, this album isn’t something that I vibe with. I’m not a huge jazz and funk fan, and I can’t particularly identify with songs like These Walls that describe sex, or songs like The Blacker The Berry that describe institutionalized racism, because I haven’t experienced either of those things. A lot of the subject matter in this album has a ridiculously wide scope, and it’s not one I fully understand or appreciate. But that’s a bit of a cop-out. The other criticism I have of this album, that really isn’t a criticism, is that individually the majority of these songs aren’t “good”. Songs like Mortal Man or Complexion (A Zulu Love) don’t work without the rest of the album to back up the aesthetic and the message, and as a result don’t sound very good when you’re listening to a playlist on shuffle on Spotify. It’s not a fault of this album, but it means that for me to truly appreciate how good most of this album is, I would have to listen to the entire album, in order; and that’s not something I always have the time for, or something I want to do. It’s not something I can casually listen to, or listen to while I’m playing video games, because then the album just doesn’t work.
I still think this is the best album that’s been released while I’ve been alive, and I think this album is a turning point in rap music. I think this album is important. I think this album is deeper than just rap. I think this album is going to be one immortalized forever, a masterpiece not unlike the Mona Lisa. I think this album is great.
And that’s alright.
Favourite Songs: Listen to the album.
Next, we’ll look into an album with a very different message and a very different audience. Don’t Panic.
Until next time!
P.S. Deciphering this album was really hard. I used a lot of resources on this one, including the Wikipedia page, the Genius listing, and Anthony Fantano’s review. Thanks for helping me understand this work of art.