With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.
Best said by my bride as she swayed to the music, Kendrick Lamar’s new album To Pimp a Butterfly is “a mixture of a lot of stuff.”
It’s no surprise as this is the same man “dyin’ from thirst” in his previous album, Good Kid m.A.A.d City.
Heavy is the crown placed upon him since his breakout album. The weight alone brings up so many issues with which he has grappled. He believes himself to be the street-style preacher reaching as many young black men as possible. Past history of depression complicates the burden of being this new voice. Throughout the album he wrestles for control of his soul, at odds with the machine that made him rich and popular, the streets he grew up on in the city of Compton, and especially the self-doubt and fear that he’s not strong enough to handle the pressure. If I have changed, can I ever go home again, and if I am able to go home again, can I tell the people what I’ve seen and help guide them out of darkness?
Keep this loose narrative in mind as you listen to the entirety of the album. His second concept album in a row, it is meant to be absorbed fully over several full listens. It’s a mixture of a lot of stuff.
Wesley theoryWe start it off with his comfort zone of funk and free-style rapping, horns blaring and percussion thumping getting the party started early. Heavy influences from George Clinton’s P-funk, James Brown and OutKast make listening easy and familiar.
For free? (Interlude) Spouting free-style as jazz, a traffic jam of sounds alerting the listener we’re on a journey. “Hell fuckin’ nawl… this dick ain’t free” he sing-songs amidst the free-style jazz accosting our ears, a sonic traffic jam alerting us we’re on this journey with him.
King KuntaWe get the deep bass march goin’. The thump thump thump giving us the inspired funk with Kendrick’s all hail me bravado co-opting the life of the crippled Kunta Kinte.
InstitutionalizedOnly to quickly slow it down down down to southern jazz and rap, more of OutKast influence evident and especially as this poetic jazz jam unfolds the sounds and sensibility of Miss Erykah Badu, where soul marries hip-hop. Kendrick’s free-style showing his discipleship to master rapper the late Tupac Shakur.
These WallsAnd oh, how the funk comes sliding smoothly against skin, Kendrick taking the original Sexy Motherfunker himself, Prince as inspiration. Sick guitar licks with 80’s r&b throwback, the topic is sex as pleasure and entrapment juxtaposing the walls men are trapped in during sex and the walls of a prison cell, his lyrics beginning the confessional and self-conflicted path of his role, his purpose in life. One of my favorite tracks.
UTaking the existential conflict deeper within, Kendrick says over and over again “lovin’ you is complicated” while yelling, crying, tears burning his face, stifling the choking sobs telling the stories of his failures, letting people down, unforgiving of his past mistakes, quick interlude jazz free-style breakdown taking what Tupac created and re-inventing the game in harrowing detail.
AlrightWith spirituality intact, Kendrick able to take the broken down, broken hearted soul to the Lord murmuring “nigga we gonna be alright” in a straight up Tupac homage, seeing “the evils of Lucy was all around me so I went runnin’ for answers”.
For Sale?InterludeSlyly now as Lucifer takes the form of a seductive pitchman, oily pleading for his soul, recounting all the worldly gifts bestowed upon Kendrick in his success, the tone is sexy with shades of Prince once more, appropriated by the neo-soul vocalist Bilal, as a chorus of minions backing up Lucy’s serenade “Cuz I want youuuuu!”, ending with Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life-era sound, a mystical angelic comedown enfolding Kendrick and protecting him.
MommaWhere else to go when tempted but back to momma in this down home D’Angelo deep chicken funk, Kendrick tellin’ stories and convincing himself he’s still a good person.
Hood PoliticsStraight back to the Compton streets, home of the Crips and Bloods, home of N.W.A. and how Kendrick remembers “rollin’ wit da homies” and how things have changed, and growing older seeing the dark disturbance of pitting brother against brother.
How Much a Dollar CostWith confidence growing, strength in the Lord and self-awareness of what is really going on, we open on an abstract instrumental introspectively appearing to be inspired by Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” Amnesiac-era. The tone places us in a blank space sanctuary, where Kendrick spouts Bible verses supporting the struggle of the black man in these times. And a glimpse of the same conflict Kanye West felt in his best effort My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy can be seen here, though West’s album was fame and status-heavy. Kendrick gets help from old-school crooner, grown ass man, still smooth as silk Ronald Isley, as he takes a verse as if in church.
Complexion (A Zulu Love)Exploring the issue of blackness as a color, Kendrick spins poetic free-style so free, a gentle piano complementing as “complexion… don’t mean a thing” to the inevitable trail off and another song takes over, the female Rapsody, giving her take on color and beauty and what it all means as Miss Lauryn Hill once did in her tremendous album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
The Blacker the Berry Angry! Fed up! Fuck You! Kendrick is at the peak of his tolerance for hypocrisy from everyone including himself. He tears open the wound on the nation’s social conscience spitting out vitriol from the 1965 Watts riot chant “Burn baby Burn!” to “I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan!” to “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015!” . The drum beat marches while the dopest free-style in the album builds alongside the ghost of Tupac and N.W.A., “I’m makin’ a killin’, you makin’ me a killer, the emancipation of a real nigga!” unleashing raw feeling to the fist-clenching, muscle-straining point of exhaustion.
You Ain’t Gotta Lie( Mama Said) We’re on the other side of the anger now. As in, how do we turn the anger boiling inside into something positive? A come down song to find the complement that can unite people in hope.
I Kendrick of the recent past “u” when he was doubting himself, beating and berating himself has now embraced his confidence in an Isley Brothers-riff “Who’s That Lady” playfully shouting “I love my myself!” in the everybody loves confident mode over the funky bass. “Tell me what you see…” he asks the listeners, slowly asking people to look at themselves. I have looked at myself, now what do you see, taking on his street preacher role, a new crown perhaps, as the upbeat, energetic song transitions to an impromptu concert interruption, like his interludes. “Hold up, hold up… how many niggas we done lost… fo’ real, answer the question… how many niggas we done lost this year?” The question hangs for a second, Kendrick allowing it to sink before continuing. He forcefully pushes his way from concert to sermon, educating his audience “on the N-word” giving historical context from East Africa. The penultimate track paving the way for his grand closure.
Mortal Man We come to the end of an exhaustive journey. Kendrick chooses a classical soulful background to his final song in the style of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, low trumpet, sax, and piano playing, while pleading “when shit hit the fan is you still a fan?” As a prophet of goodwill, he has chosen to align himself with Nelson Mandela and legacy of leading a people through troubled times. His question relates to the good we do, the efforts we put forth, if we are lionized by our successes are we not demonized for our crimes. Kendrick cites Michael Jackson but we can extrapolate the current drama surrounding Bill Cosby for ourselves. How heavy the crown. To represent all black men when you are just a mortal man. Someone Kendrick can identify strongly with is Tupac, in similar free-style rap and struggle with being true to yourself, and for his final trick, once the music has stopped halfway through, he has the conversation with his idol he never had the chance to while Tupac was alive. So as Kendrick asks questions Tupac answers from an interview a couple years before his murder, an urgent tragic jazz piano plays. The message seeming to belong to the black youth and their responsibility to each other to carry the mantle, “you don’t see no loudmouth 30 year old motherfuckers”. And finally, finally, Kendrick shares with Tupac an explanation of sorts on the term “to pimp a butterfly” and how the caterpillar is a metaphor for the institutionalized black man and the butterfly is the image of America’s ideal, a false image of materialism, something the caterpillar nevertheless strains to achieve. A sad ending for this powerful album, Kendrick calling out for an answer… “Pac? Pac? PAC?”