To Pimp A Butterfly – The Urban Music Revelation Of 2015 | Krazed Music
For longer than I care to remember, my disillusionment with US Hip-Hop has been troubling me at my core. I have watched perfectly good artists like will.i.am and Kanye West transform into self-obsessed, money-grabbing pop stars right before my eyes. Geniuses like J Dilla, Phife Dawg and Guru have been taken from us, and we’ve had an influx of trend-following, one dimensional rappers like Nicki Minaj, Wiz Khalifa and even Drake. The prominence of legends like Jay-Z, Dr Dre, Eminem and even Nas has withered, causing the art form to become as dead as most of them always predicted. So when a certain Kendrick Lamar came forward and very publically criticised individuals and the modern scene as a whole, in the Big Sean song Control, the ripples that spread throughout the urban music world were very pleasing to me and many other disenchanted listeners.
What followed was a one-man cultural revolution that has catapulted Kendrick into the stratosphere. His 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly – a title which is explained comprehensively within the album – is quite possibly the best Hip-Hop album that has ever hit the mainstream. It is a musical, poetic and artistic accomplishment that can’t be overstated, with a conceptual foundation and cultural/social significance whose message will always be relevant. Across the board of musical genres, there has been a lament at the death of the concept album; this lament has, of course been misplaced. Concept albums never ceased being made in the vast ocean of musical creation this modern world boasts, it’s just few (if any) have floated to the surface to be discovered by the average listener. Not to knock the brilliance of many non-concept albums, but there is something profoundly satisfying about being plunged into a musical message that can change your life – just ask fans of Pink Floyd!
So what is the concept of To Pimp A Butterfly? The narrative poem that gradually unfolds in between the songs tells us something of the message:
I remember you was conflicted,
Misusing your influence…
Sometimes I did the same.
Abusing my power, full of resentment.
Resentment that turned into a deep depression;
Found myself screaming in a hotel room.
I didn’t want to self destruct.
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers…
Until I came home.
This poem unfolds in small pieces as the album progresses, with songs that help galvanize the message of each new line splitting it up. This leads me to feel the entire album was based around this short expression of thought that Kendrick jotted down. An experience of pain that was so profound to him that, even though in his singular poem he can only express a somewhat superficial representation of a moment in time, it inspired him to embark on a project that would represent everything that was causing his suffering…and then tell us how he survived it. Many of us – I speak from experience – go through a period in our lives that is something of an existential crisis.
Why are we here?
How do we ignore all the bad in the world?
What aspirations are valid in a world that causes so much suffering?
Kendrick tells us that he’s been battling depression his whole life. Faced with the obstacles of a young black man in the USA, coming from a poor foundation, experiencing discrimination based on a racial background that he never received the opportunity to truly connect with as a boy. These were realities for Kendrick Lamar; a highly perceptive and intelligent human being with no outlet for his intellect and emotion. It feels as though To Pimp A Butterfly is the culmination of a coming-of-age journey that needed to be told. And Kendrick made every effort to make the music reflect the significance of his story, sparing no expense and never once rushing a single moment of play time. Every second of audio is painstakingly crafted by teams of great artists to realize Kendrick Lamar‘s vision.
This sentiment is reflected in the choice of artists chosen to be a part of the project. Extraordinary producers like Flying Lotus and Pharrel Williams combine with Top Dawg Entertainment‘s own Digi+Phonics team to drive the musical sound to its unique creative level. This sound is predominantly infused with jazz standards and soulful accompaniments, and very few of the songs proceed with just one sound throughout; one of the prominent occurrences of the album is change. Drums switch from old-school boom bap, to contemporary 808 sounds, to rhythmic African percussions and jazz sections, all creatively applied in ways that you won’t hear in the mainstream on any other occasion. Samples, synths, drum machines and live instruments combine with a range of backing vocal styles to create instrumentals that could easily stand alone for the listener, and this is a testament to the craftwork involved.
As a vocalist, Kendrick stands among peers such as Mos Def, Andre 3000 and Cee-Lo Green in that his voice possesses its own musical quality. And, like those great contemporaries, Kendrick is not averse to singing as well as rapping in his vocal delivery. Combining melody and rhythmic rap, possessing both aggressive and passive qualities to match the sentiment of a song, Kendrick Lamar delivers a vocal performance that is as good to listen to for its musical diversity as for its lyrical complexity. Every verse he performs is eloquent and profound in its message, and every one is unique. He demonstrates lyrical skill in songs like King Kunta and Alright; there is complexity and sophistication to the messages of songs like These Walls and How Much A Dollar Cost; there is passion and power in songs like The Blacker The Berry; and there is rich diversity in songs like Wesley’s Theory and Institutionalized. All of these vocal qualities are enhanced by feature appearances from artists like Snoop Dogg, Bilal and Ron Isley. In short, the brilliance of the vocal content of the album matches that of the music itself.
To Pimp A Butterfly is a rare occurrence; a project of profound artistic quality that breached the musical mainstream and held its ground against the usual bevy of indifferent commercial filler. Kendrick Lamar‘s masterpiece is unique not for its musical brilliance, but for the fact that it connected with such a wide audience of listeners who usually fail to see beyond the surface of their music. There have been past albums that shimmer with a similar artistic resonance to that of this album; you may like to check out Electric Circus by Common or Black On Both Sides by Mos Def, for example. But it has been a long time since a Hip-Hop album has reached my attention with so much power; it is an album that all Hip-Hop fans should hear, and all should seek to drive the music they love in this direction. Such motivation will bring the very best out of artists, and those passionate followers of the art form should do all they can to push Hip-Hop in this direction.
At least, that’s the opinion of this avid listener. I acknowledge that music plays a different role in the lives of everyone, and we all get something a little different out of it. To Pimp A Butterfly is a tremendous musical achievement, and whether or not you receive what I do from it, I have no doubt you will receive something. If you haven’t already, give it a try, and Tweet at me if you have anything to say about this review.