The “Black” Album, No Jay-Z Though: To Pimp A Butterfly

Initial reaction

To Pimp a Butterfly…“Stupid…a horrible attempt in sounding deep and creative”. At least this is what I thought. The ever so loyal Kendrick Lamar stans did not make me any less forgiving either with their justifications, but it is simply the high standards I have for the great artist that Kendrick Lamar is. K.Dot, the rapper with the most potential in the rap game. King Kendrick, the rapper that has consistently produced good to great music. Kendrick “I break the internet with a guest verse” Lamar, the rapper that is not afraid to take risks and push limits with his music, whether that is sonically or with his content. I cannot give him a pass and sip the Kool-Aid. He has to come correct.

Then it all came together when I pressed play. We as listeners are used to straightforward albums; Forest Hills Drive 2014 and Dark Sky Paradise. Both of these albums are self-portraits. But To Pimp a Butterfly… (The title sounds so much better since listening to the outro by the way) To Pimp a Butterfly is an abstract painting that’s not only a reflection of Kendrick Lamar, but his perception of the world. There are recurring themes, emotions, layered, beautiful beats, multiple perspectives, and all of these moving parts and I simply couldn’t do this album any justice by sitting down quickly half-assing a review. You know, label this album an instant-classic, crown him the King of Rap at the moment (that term is thrown around like a hot potato whenever a good album drops), then pat myself on the back. No, I committed myself to living with this album over the course of a few days to serve you right. Following is insight on each song along with a little subjectivity and a rating based off content and overall sound( “*” = rating based on a scale of 1-5) to bring some clarity and help you enjoy this album as much as I did. Let the dissection begin:

Wesley’s Theory ****:

The album begins on a Funkadelic note. Let’s go! Kendrick all out commits too, with a George Clinton feature and FlyLo production. This is a nice foundation for the album; setting the tone, but not too deep. Kendrick starts as an aspiring rapper in the hood; his aspirations are of what he sees on TV, misguided. The government or “The Man” takes advantage of his poor education and lack of guidance, providing a hedonistic life until his earning potential has been sapped dry. Once the artist has nothing else to offer to “The Man”, he becomes the next victim. This is the Wesley’s [Snipes] Theory. What makes this a great illustration is the betrayal comes in the last two lines of the last verse. That’s how quickly entertainers can be knocked off their high horse.

For Free (Interlude) ****:

Percival Jenkins is that you! This could’ve fit on Idlewild, though it’s not rapping, more spoken word. There are two messages in this song delivered effortlessly. In one way it’s a message to women who see Kendrick as a meal ticket, only providing what’s in between their leg. A step away from the song you realize it’s Black America talking to White America. White America views African Americans’ purpose as a stepping stool. Kendrick realizes both parties should instead act as business partners, because this “friendship” has been one-sided throughout history.

King Kunta **:

The come up. This is Kendrick’s claim from going from rags to riches. Not only becoming wealthy, but mentally freeing himself. People want to cut the legs off him like a runaway slave. It has already been referred to as “unapologetically Black”, or soundtrack to a Blaxploitation film. I cannot disagree. This is not a favorite. Out of context, it’s okay at best.

Institutionalized *****:

This song was everything I loved in 90’s rap all in one. I get vibes of multiple 90s rap groups. Kendrick is a student of the game. Then here comes that West Coast feel. It all flows so well. It’s intriguing the inner conflict Kendrick faced in the track was not represented in the beat at all, smooth. He’s conflicted. He is reaching success and wants to take the hood with him, but his homies (and at times even Kendrick) are prisoner to their hood mentality.

These Walls ***:

Haaaa, I don’t even want to give this one away, but screw it. This song is based on Kendrick’s sexual relations with a woman that for “some reason” was hesitant at first. A reference to GKMC reveals her man is actually serving life for killing Kendrick’s friend (the one that died at the end of Swimming Pools). Altogether, it’s a good song, consistent with the album with the funk.

*****:

This might be the heaviest rap song I ever heard. It takes a lot to write a song about yourself like this, so honest, so vulnerable. You feel the pain. As the poem continues at the end of These Walls, from there we find Kendrick battling with depression in a hotel room by himself (and some strong alcohol) not even answering for room service. He puts his flaws, failures, and fights he has to deal with every day for everyone to see. He wants to change the world, but can’t even steer his sister from bad decisions (referring to Keisha’s Song). He always refers to the love and loyalty for his city, but failed his friend when it mattered most. The battle ends with him tell his deepest secret of being suicidal throughout his life. Damn…this is such a raw, emotional song. The production, the screaming not even having a pattern at times cuts into you. Respect.

Alright ****:

Exactly, what I needed. This is the most perfectly placed optimistic, feel good song. He admits that he has battles and does get stressed, but if he keeps his faith leaving it in God’s hands, he’ll be alright.. Pharrell did his thing. Kendrick came with the flow and content. Dope. Sidenote: Lucy is introduced and promises the same exact thing that the government did in the first track

For Sale (Interlude) ****:

Just erase interlude, must have been a typo. Kendrick, using a very corky voice, is confronted by the devil, Lucy, trying to seduce him to sell his soul. This time the betrayal will be worse than the tax man coming. Kendrick refuses to sell his soul for he has faith in God that is demonstrated throughout all of his projects. This still does not stop Lucy. Nicely done, a different way to attack a concept that is brought up in a lot of rappers’ music.

Momma ****:

This is the reality check. He is realizing the delusions of grandeur that fame brought, but coming back home proved to be the remedy. He realizes his power and how to use his “antennas” to make a positive impact. This leads to the reintroduction of Kendrick Lamar. This is similar to the theme of J. Cole’s album. Love, spiritual growth, peace, these are what we should strive for.

Hood Politics ***:

Hmmm…Reminiscent of K. Dot with delivery and rawness. As the “hood politics” are described, there is a bigger message. Kendrick is not worried about beef because there are bigger issues at hand. Kendrick talks about losing homies, institutionalized racism, staying true to himself, the perception of good rap, and avoiding violence by avoiding a rap beef altogether.

How Much a Dollar Cost *****:

Don’t we all fear this happening to us? A very persistent bum happens to be God in disguise. How much does a dollar cost? How about your spot in heaven. Kendrick once again showcases his superior storytelling. It’s a song you sit back and have to appreciate. I get chills at the end.

Complexion (Zulu Love) ***:

The only real rap feature on the album comes from Rapsody. We are in the midst of the album where Kendrick is being direct in his message. In short, he wants to reverse the effects of the Willie Lynch theory. Colorism divides the Black community and we are oppressing ourselves doing so.

Blacker the Berry ****:

Speaking of oppressing ourselves, this song sort of personifies what Complexion was about. Why do we fight the power and protest, yet we embrace destroying our own community? People say “Hands up, don’t shoot!”, yet in the hood people are shooting each other. If you fit the description, which doesn’t have to be as drastic as being a murderer, you’re a hypocrite. Think…

You Aint Gotta Lie(Momma Said) ****:

Be yourself. Kendrick had an epiphany when he came home to Compton about being true to himself and what really matters. He advises all those who fake it because their low self-esteem to do the same. In reality, all that bullshit they talk does not go by unnoticed. It ain’t cool. This is something effecting a lot in the Black community. Don’t live life doing what you perceive to be cool or “in”, it’ll just lead to isolation and emptiness. Kendrick takes a micro approach for solutions of problems in the Black community which is explained furthermore in…

i ***:

I felt sonically “i” fit more with the first half of the album, but the content is the reason it is placed where it is. Though I don’t agree with live performances on albums the acapella ending adds something special to it. Fixing problems in the Black community starts with each and every Black man. Have respect for yourself and others, know your self-worth, value history and rebuild our culture into something positive. This is how we can progress. Is it possible?

Mortal Man*****:

Mortal Man bridges the gap between every song as Kendrick reveals the big picture (though most songs revolve around his experiences, there’s a bigger, general message). I thought “u” was heavy, but this may be just as heavy for different reasons. First, Kendrick sees himself as an activist, a servant for humanity. He realizes there may be consequences in his actions and speaking out on this album. Are we still going to stand behind him or will we alienate him when higher powers damage his reputation, throw him in jail, or kill him? Now as a follower, is your support system still going to stand behind you as the same happens to you for standing up for the people. He knows he will only know when the time comes stating “how many leaders you said you needed then left ‘em for dead?” He then lists martyrs throughout history, each name like a dagger getting pushed further in your heart. Are we that afraid as people…of death…of being alienated…are we all spineless?

The poem that is said throughout the album is now delivered in its entirety. This poem is the foundation of the album. Each song captures each part of the poem, the story of Kendrick Lamar and his path to this new way of thinking (or back to his original). The rise to his blinding fame and manipulation was met with resentment, self-hate, and depression. The devil and the government were persistent in tempting Kendrick, but Kendrick found his refuge in his faith in God. Along with his religion, a trip back home (which can take multiple meanings) transitions his way of thinking, similar to Malcolm X. He wants to use his influence to change his world for the better inside out starting with the Black community. We have to restructure our culture and the mental chains we place on ourselves at times. This is the only way to fight the outsiders holding us back, lets reverse the Willie Lynch Theory.

(Hey, this is a twelve minute outro that is ridiculously dense)

Pac is now being interviewed by Kendrick. It’s pretty straight forward, but beautiful. The fact this conversation can still apply with the world today shows the lack of progression doesn’t it. Countries with the wealth disparity that U.S. has in history has all led to revolutions, which is what the outro infers may be among us, even provoking a sense of urgency in this generation to act now, because there may not be a later for us in this targeted age group. The highlight is Tupac saying “we ain’t even really rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories through us.” We all collectively say “damn” with Kendrick.

The essence of the last poem is the story of the album. Compton, every ghetto, hood, 3rd world country, there is a man that the world looks down upon. They hate him, but love what he can do. This can be music, comedy (Sony Picture Studio Executive email about Kevin Hart), athletic ability (Kobe’s image during accusations), everything. We can hate ourselves and resent it, sometimes falling for the fake smiles of approval. We also can use it. We have to stay humble, in tune to the caterpillar’s reality, and use our experiences for the greater good. This is how you pimp a butterfly, we use this spotlight to tell our stories, influence the world, and bring change. This can be comedy (Dave Chappelle with his countless socially conscious skits), sports (Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fist at the Olympics), music (Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Lupe Fiasco are the few mainstream rappers that have albums with the intent to bring change) and there is the rest of us. We have so many educated men, but we are brain draining our communities. We have to use the talent we have to make the changes in the community we want to see. The Black community has to learn to pimp our talent and not be pimped. Such a powerful message, and we are not going to be spoon fed the answers. Sometimes we are left to find out things on our own, fail, learn, and prevail. This is shown as Pac does not answer back.

Wrap Up:

That’s all she wrote. This is a true Black album, no disrespect to Jay Z at all. The album integrates almost all Black music in America throughout time. There was funk, jazz, blues, old school hip hop, gangsta rap, neo soul, and of course the content matched. This is an album that speaks so much about our culture and what can become of it. It’s optimistic, pessimistic, and ambiguous. There is so much emotion. It is hard to understand it all in your first-listen or if you did not hear Kendrick’s prior albums/mixtapes. I never rate an album a 10/10 because part of the scale is longevity, meaning right now the rating is incomplete. With understanding of the album and appreciation of the music, this is an 8.5/10 for me. Some people are not as impressed, but maybe this insight will change their minds. It’s downright inspiring, heartfelt and I haven’t felt this way a well-known artist in a long time. He effectively challenged every Black musician to pimp their butterfly. Now will the rest of the music world follow suit? Will we all unify and find a way to fight modern oppression? What’s next? An album like this is going to be viewed by its impact. With that being said please let me know what you think. I missed some points to save myself from writing a thesis. I want to discuss how you perceive the album, what direction we are in as a society as a whole and the Black community, am I reaching with my interpretations, did I not go deep enough… I’m just a mortal man I do not know everything. Feel free to enlighten me. Let the discussion begin…

By: J. Taylor

@C00L_JO

Music Enthusiast

#AreYouVSOP


9 thoughts on “The “Black” Album, No Jay-Z Though: To Pimp A Butterfly

  1. Very in depth analysis bro. Honestly, I just liked the fact that the album was funk themed something you don’t get in hip hop anymore & while it may not get much radio play this album to me is a certified hit.

    1. It definitely was a hit, I think it says a lot to make something that people could call a classic one day with not one radio hit. #Gamechanging

  2. Very interesting read…it makes me think about how the album is tethering on thoughts, emotions, ideas..etc on how actions can lead to larger scale consequences (individual, community, etc) and with the album being called to pimp a butterfly, I cant help but think of the butterfly effect. Which is a theory around small events that can have larger, widespread consequences. Not saying that this was Kdot’s intention but it made me think about it when you mentioned “He effectively challenged every Black musician to pimp their butterfly” Charging people to create their “small events” to “change the world” and he touches a little on this in Mortal Man. Great review, thought provoking… The album is definitely dope.

    1. I also said he focused on the micro, I think the Butterfly Effect and Pimping a Butterfly both have the same base that one person can change the world. It’s like a domino, that first domino looks insignificant until the next domino falls. I won’t say they are one in the same, but they intertwine. Thank you, I hope to soon discuss Black culture and rebuilding it to what it could be. I feel that’s something the album really wanted to bring to the spotlight. How toxic are the places we live in? Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t our streets be clean, why are we the ones littering? Why can’t it be safe? There’s a lot we can change.

  3. I like how you left room for interpretation and sparked a conversation. You could have went deeper but that would have defeated the purpose. Good stuff overall

    1. The album is so dense, I’m sure I could’ve missed something. I love music, but I’m not Kendrick Lamar. I could’ve misinterpreted. That’s why blogs are such a neat tool. I’m trying to teach, learn, and build with everyone

  4. I myself listened to the album and I caught myself being thrown off of a lot of the messages within the songs because of some of the funk / jazz themes. But after reading this I can appreciate the album a lot more knowing what I know now , Im going to listen to it all the way through a couple times and see how different it is to me now. Thank you. My first take i would have given it a 6.5 at the most but I will take another listen and re evaluate.

    1. Thanks Kai, that right there just made writing this (idk what you really call this, it’s not the typical review) worth it. The production and flow seemed a bit busy and too much at first for me too. After a couple listens, everything became clear.

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