16 Jun 2015

Kendrick Lamar / To Pimp A Butterfly (album review)

Now I understand that this review is pretty late to the party. Almost 3 months late, in fact. However To Pimp A Butterfly is an album that deserves to be written about, that deserves to be read about and frankly I just wanted to write about such a unique and ambitious piece of music. In the lead up to this album, the sky was the limit for Kendrick Lamar. He was one of the hottest and most exciting names in music, achieving crossover success from hardcore hip-hop fans to people such as myself who only dabble in the genre. A support slot on Kanye West’s USA tour, 7 Grammy nominations and an incredibly brave verse on Big Sean’s Control lead to extremely high expectations for TPAB. I’m going to talk about whether or not it reached the heights it was destined for.

To Pimp A Butterfly houses beats from Pharrell Williams, vocals from Snoop Dogg and an interview with a man who has been dead for nearly 20 years. These guest features give a small indication of how ambitious and varied this album is. There are songs you can dance to, songs you can sing along to and songs that force you to sit and listen intently for Kendrick’s next line. The first track alone has the balls to introduce itself with a repeated sample of “every nigger is a star”. And yes the sample is of “nigger”, not “nigga”. 30 seconds into the album and Kendrick has already shown he won’t be pulling any punches or holding anything back in the next 80 minutes of music. For a man so young topics including love, alcoholism, crime, injustice, racism and corruption are dealt with in an impressively mature manner. The Blacker The Berry concludes with a shockingly blunt and real reference to prejudice and violence  in America, naming the 17 year old African-American male Trayvon Martin who was murdered to widespread outcry in 2012. Kendrick confidently takes on ambitious concepts throughout this album, for instance one song How Much A Dollar Cost features a conversation with a homeless crack addict who turns out to actually be God. It’s hard to imagine many other artists in modern music making such acute and challenging music with as much success as Kendrick manages.

The musicianship and creativity on show throughout the album is extremely impressive, especially for a hip-hop album.The beats sound rich and full and provide a perfect contrast for Kendrick’s largely dark and negative lyrical mindset. One particular sequence of songs Alright, For Sale? and Momma blend perfectly into each other, smoothly transitioning between instrumentals that have a similar sound and theme but are each individually brilliant. This is where the quality of To Pimp A Butterfly is truly shown: tracks 7,8 and 9 are far too often filler material on albums, but here they go from strength to strength and it’s a genuine pleasure to listen to. Sure, there are tiresome hip-hop cliches dotted from time to time on this album: “At first I did love you, but now I just wanna fuck” and “This dick ain’t free” spring to mind as two of the album’s most disappointing hooks. However these cliches are surrounded by such insight and individuality that they are easily excusable and if anything, the albums ‘simpler’ or less inspired moments can come as a well-needed break from the near-constant barrage of sounds on display.

As far as I’m concerned this album is near flawless. The vocal ability that Kendrick possesses is incredible and surely takes as much talent as any singer in pop or rock music. He changes up his rhythm, flow and accent with such ease that he makes almost every other rapper out there sound very one-directional and bland. Comparing his helpless drunken wail on u to his self-assured cool and pacey delivery on i reveals a truly astonishing vocal talent; the lyrics on this album are given the clarity and voice that they deserve. Kendrick’s discussion of deeper issues and controversies are written in a mature and thoughtful way that bowls the listener over and ensures that their ears are firmly pricked up. On the other end of the spectrum, the wordplay and puns on the album are so creative and playful that they’re reminiscent of The College Dropout era Kanye, which is high praise indeed. Even if this album fell short of expectations and couldn’t deliver on all the promise it conceptually has, I would have to credit it for ambition and originality alone. How many other rappers could even dream of performing a spoken word poem that grows and expands to create a story parallel to the lyrical topics as the album goes on?

Who else could attempt an interview with Tupac Shakur using clips from an old radio interview nearly 20 years after his death? And furthermore who could manipulate and harness Pac’s words to sound profound and relevant in this 21st century environment? Not only does the album’s 12 minute long closer Mortal Man leave the listener with their jaw open in awe at the last 80 minutes of music they’ve just listened to, but also with a sour taste in their mouth. The truths and ideas that Kendrick and 2Pac speak about are so worrying and thought-provoking that the album becomes genuinely important as a political and cultural event. It is tempting for me to write paragraph after paragraph about the messages conveyed in this album, but it would be vastly more entertaining for everybody if you heard it through Kendrick Lamar so you should probably go and listen to To Pimp A Butterfly. Because being honest and educated has never sounded so rich and entertaining.