Critic’s Corner Music Edition: ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’

Over spring break, Kendrick Lamar released his highly anticipated third studio album, “To Pimp a Butterfly.”

Lamar has garnered acclaim since releasing his debut studio album “Section.80” in 2011, and his 2012 album release “good kid m.A.A.d city” further cemented his role as a leading hip-hop artist. In a very short amount of time, Lamar established himself as one of his generation’s most gifted, intelligent and honest narrative storytellers. And arguably, the future of rap.

“To Pimp a Butterfly” is a voluminous album which deals largely with the theme of inheritance, specifically the cultural inheritance of one black man and what that legacy means for his future.

“I remember you was conflicted…” Lamar murmurs between the six poetic movements within the album. When it was first released, the album’s single “i” felt almost overly poppy, optimistic and nice. But don’t let the lighthearted single fool you.

Sonically, the album is more difficult than any of Lamar’s previous works. Thundercat, the producer responsible for many of the album’s 1970s wobbling, jazz-infused beats, works well with Lamar (see their performance together on “the Colbert Report”), and together the pair create a psychedelic, salient jazz odyssey that spans the length of the album.

Structurally, the album is arranged as a poem, beginning with the emerging popularity of a rapper from Compton (presumed to be Lamar himself) who begins to question the implications of his new fame and power.

The album follows Lamar through a poetic motion during which he wrestles with Lucy and his Uncle Sam—manifestations of Lamar’s inner demons and the capitalistic nature of the music industry. He worries that Uncle Sam and Lucy are contriving to pimp him out or use him. Lamar has inherited a history of broken promises and must contend with the implications personal success has for him when his community still struggles against a system that is robbing them oftheir futures.

Another poetic movement and Lamar returns to Compton, resolving to “write until I’m right with God.” His meditations lead him beyond his inner depression and the superficiality of the music industry. He moves on from the superfluous indulgences and vices that worked against the value of his music, and he gains the confidence that will allow him to lead and unify those who have been made slaves to Uncle Sam and Lucy in their own lives.

The final track on the album is “Mortal Man,” a prophetic and important song for the album and for Lamar’s career as a whole. He gathers the ghosts of important black cultural leaders around him, using their power and influence to add to his own.

“The ghost of Mandela, hope my flows they propel it,” he sings. The song evolves into an interview between Lamar and Tupac, the latter of whom suggests that the poor will swallow up the rich.

The Tupac interview, lifted from a 1994 Swedish radio interview, is given new life and significance in light of modern tragedies like Ferguson, and Lamar points this out to admonish society for not changing in those 20 years.

Tupac’s claim that black men have only five years of life during which to make a difference is important to Lamar in particular; it highlights the notion that he is only a mortal with limited time to carry on the legacy of cultural change associated with rap and hip-hop.

“What you think is the future, for me and my generation today?” Lamar asks the dead rapper.

“Next time there’s a riot there’s gonna be bloodshed for real,” Tupac responds. “I don’t think America can know that. I think America think we was just playing and it’s gonna be some more playing, but it ain’t gonna be no playing. It’s gonna be murder…”

Tupac’s candid response resonates today just as it did in 1994, and throughout his spectacular “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar echoes this
chilling truth.