“I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence.”
– Kendrick Lamar
Yes, I do rap albums too.
Let’s face it, hip hop was in its death throws. After gangsta rap’s influence hit mainstream media, we music appreciators found ourselves stuck with “Turn Down For What?” and other pop rap nonsense from megastars Lil’ John, Lil’ Wayne, T-Pain, where artists took what was once parody and made it serious. Sure, it’s always nice to think — at least, for me — back on classic 90’s hip hop. Then, Pac, Biggie, Outkast, and Wu Tang were annihilating the airwaves with lyrical genius, creative storytelling, and illusions to Hip Hop’s golden age. That’s what I miss in modern hip hop, the storytelling. You don’t get tracks like Gza’s “Cold World” anymore.
Place the discography from each of the previously mentioned artists in a blender, throw in a little Snoop Dogg, sprinkle on some 50 Cent powder, filter out the grain, and you have modern, mainstream rap. Luckily, Kendrick Lamar came in with a mission. And he largely succeeded with one of the most important hip hop releases of the decade, To Pimp A Butterfly.
Funky. So funky. If I could summarize Butterfly in one word, I’d say funky. Kendrick not only delivers his unique flow and wordplay — which, is of itself, brilliant — but shows off his talent as a songwriter, adding layers upon layers of influence. Just to list some of these influences: funk, jazz, soul, spoken word poetry, g-funk, gangsta rap. Rather than lazily producing a collage of different styles, Kendrick’s choice of samples and production technique mold into a singular message, giving the album a concept feel of African American heritage and frustration through time. After “King Kunta,” Kendric cleverly constructs a tragic poem at the beginning and end of each following track, dissecting the stages of his life and the effects of fame. This cryptic songwriting and poetry engages the listener and successfully molds each song together. Simply put, this album is cohesive throughout.
And now, to the lyrics. Give me a damn lexicon because this is going to take a minute. Bringing the record to a personal level, Lamar discusses alcohol, relationships, and personal finance. Often, he cloaks his voice with a persona. In “Hood Politics,” for example, the artist glances at life with the voice of a child, while “For Free?” shows his attitude towards racial exploitation with a more sarcastic, whiny tone. The lyrics are both simple and dense:
You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me/And this is more than confession/I mean I might press the button so you know my discretion/I’m guarding my feelings, I know that you feel it/You sabotage my community, makin’ a killin’/
– Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry”
When delivered, it’s hard not to feel the man’s frustration and/or think politically. However, he creates the most impact with the least amount of words, occasionally throwing in a metaphysical bomb here or there. Lamar is a wordsmith. He showed it on Section 8.0 and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, but here, his vocabulary and themes have matured to the point deep understanding of the human condition Good stuff, K.Dot, good stuff.
On a grander scale, Butterfly’s lyrics explore political themes and commentary on the state of the hip hop industry. Lamar attacks rappers with ghostwriters in “King Kunta,” and education in “Wesley’s Theory,” all while holding on to the album’s central theme. Taking in all of the album’s complexity, it’s a wonder the material never gets out of control. However, there’s enough southern California slang and references to keep the attention of the average listener. Not exactly four quadrant-style writing, but you get the idea. No filler, no nonsense, straight to the point, complex hip hop. That’s what the industry needed, and they that’s exactly what they got.
There’s not much to complain about. I’m not big on sampling in general, but To Pimp A Butterfly uses samples tastefully. Lamar’s voice takes some time getting used to. There’s a dry quality to his delivery — unique, but hard to get into if you’re more of a hard, clear delivery kind of person.
In all its frustration, passion, To Pimp A Butterfly stands as one of the most important releases in hip hop for its message, if not for its musical innovation. Pretty much anyone spamming A Tribe Called Quest, Wu Tang, Kanye West (you know, pre-Graduation Kanye) or even spoken word poetry will enjoy this album. Due to its accessibility, social/personal awareness, and consistent songwriting, I give To Pimp A Butterfly a solid 4.5.
Disclaimer: All rights, property, and content of the header image belongs to NRK P3 on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nrk-p3/9465944753/. I, in no way, have used the said image for profit. Image cropped for size.