In the run-up to the release of To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar seemed different. Maybe he grew timid of the spotlight he so suddenly commanded since a few years ago, or maybe the controversial response to the album’s early singles — criticism that he was selling out, or that he was blaming the black community for their own disadvantages — was getting to him, but the consensus was that he appeared conflicted. In the press, during performances and on interview circuit, it was like we were witnessing a changed man. The caterpillar and the butterfly: “completely different; one and the same.”
Speculation about the album only grew from Kendrick’s enigmatic public temperament, and pre-release hype only made the album seem more mysterious. How could three songs as different as “i”, “The Blacker the Berry”, and “King Kunta” work together in the context of one record? Now it all makes sense: To Pimp a Butterfly is manic. It skips from G-funk to P-funk to jazz fusion to R&B to boom-bap and back over the course of its runtime, at times fluttering between the sounds of neo-soul and early Outkast records. Contemporary analogues span from Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead! to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, even to Kanye West’s Yeezus. Even Kendrick’s flow is different than before, affected by jazz influences, choppy and percussive like a scat singer. In a perhaps convenient bit of thematic integration, the album seems to struggle with its musical identity as much as Kendrick has himself. In the end, the early singles never revealed the secrets; To Pimp a Butterfly is not what anyone expected.
What we get instead is a world of greys, a universe in the margins, a place where everyone is sometimes a victim and sometimes a perpetrator. If good kid, m.A.A.d city was itself intimately personal, To Pimp a Butterfly is a direct line into Kendrick’s conflicted, decaying consciousness, a penetrating and visceral journey through a mind wracked with perceived guilt, hypocrisy and disingenuousness. Like his breakthrough record, it’s a personal story in service of universal revelations, but the narrative is tangled, less linear and more ambiguous. Even with the hosts of villains in To Pimp a Butterfly, the biggest threat to Kendrick is himself. Society needs systematic chan ge, he says, but the first step toward that goal is to find pride and acceptance within ourselves, or, as its said on “Institutionalized”, “Shit don’t change until you get up and wash your ass.” This is what happens when Kendrick takes the lead.
Unlike on good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick can’t provide answers or any kind of catharsis. The closest Kendrick comes to the tone of his previous work is “Hood Politics”, in which he goes back to the Compton streets to confront the petty concerns of his contemporaries and the apathetic public: “Everybody want to talk about who this and who that / Who the realest and who whack, or who white or who black / Critics want to mention they miss when hip-hop was rappin’ / Motherfucker, if you did, then Killer Mike would be platinum.” With a more traditional hip-hop beat and an antagonistic temperament similar to his verse on Big Sean’s “Control”, old fans will more likely to gravitate toward “Hood Politics” before much of the album, even though its lyrics provide a necessary insight into To Pimp a Butterfly’s greater message. Like with good kid, m.A.A.d city, people will be jumping to call To Pimp a Butterfly a masterpiece or declare it an overrated disappointment at the earliest opportunity. Kendrick wants people to cut out the bullshit and just listen, which is why he says as much in one of the more accessible tracks on the record, but he understands that many will still refuse to pay attention. The struggle to both stay real and get people to hear him on his terms only adds to the turmoil.
At times, Kendrick appears to succumb to the cynicism. Even his upbeat, empowering anthem, the polarizing “i”, takes a shadowy new shape on the album: shorter, dirtier, shrouded by crowd noise, and truncated by a skit where he cuts off the beat and shouts at an unruly crowd. Lamar even inverts the song’s message on another cut, “u”, where the once-strong battlecry “I love myself” is replaced with a fragile, bitter hook, howled over a chaotic jazz interlude: “Loving you is complicated”. In a strange but revealing irony, the dark and complex whole of To Pimp a Butterfly is almost certainly doomed to a more divisive reception than its poppy first single. Even Kendrick acknowledges that the message is bound to be lost on the album’s closing track “Mortal Man”: “Do you believe in me? Are you deceiving me? / Could I let you down easily? Is your heart where it needs to be?” The hook says it all: “When the shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?”
The narrative of To Pimp a Butterfly doesn’t end with “Mortal Man”, though. The album finishes, poignantly, with Kendrick faux-interviewing Tupac Shakur (using old audio interview clips), who at one point says, “We ain’t really rapping, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us.” Kendrick uses the irony of that moment to conclude the record by asking Tupac one last, long-winded question, expounding on the butterfly metaphor in the album’s title. But by the time Kendrick’s finished, his idol is gone and he shouts hopelessly for him: “Pac? Pac?!” Kendrick spends much of the album referencing other black political and cultural leaders, from Nelson Mandela to Michael Jackson to Richard Pryor, but in the end, he’s left alone, searching for answers, crying out for help from the icons who have passed on. More than searching for the universal love and respect touched on with “i”, Lamar is advocating for sincerity and honesty as well as a need for self-empowerment, all while struggling with those concepts within himself. The album is predictably messy, harrowing, and occasionally self-indulgent as a result, but it’s also incredibly meaningful.
There will be those disappointed in the lack of big beats and hard rhymes, those mad that the whole album isn’t “Backseat Freestyle” sequels, aggressive political cuts like “The Blacker the Berry” or uplifting radio-rap like “i”. Some people will shrug off the album’s nuance and gravitate toward the tracks that suit them, the bangers or the soulful jams, the experimental excursions or the more accessible cuts. Truthfully, yes, the album could shed some weight, and yes, the skits and spoken word sections could have been toned down. To Pimp a Butterfly could have been a tight half-hour filled with club tracks. It could have been good kid, m.A.A.d city Part 2, but even if that were the case, some people still wouldn’t have listened to what Kendrick has to say. Some people still wouldn’t have cared. To Pimp a Butterfly, for all of its chaotic, divergent nature, forces us to listen. Kendrick, in baring all his insecurities, in making himself completely vulnerable in a quest for self-acceptance, forces us to care. To Pimp a Butterfly is the result of one man’s sprawling journey, but it’s meant to empower us all to take our own. It’s a rare record that gives us a call to action, something to act on after the beats drop out and we’re left in silence.