Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly

Interscope / Aftermath / Top Dawg 2015

Feel so good inside myself Don't want to move
Feel so good inside myself Don't need to move
As I grow up I'm growing down. And when I'm lost,
I know I will be found.

--Sly and the Family Stone, There's a Riot Goin' On

The first time I ever heard Kendrick, or was even aware of him, was at a Fader Fort party in New York City for CMJ. This must have been 2010. I was very drunk at the time (damn open bars) and I cannot say I recall much of what I saw. I was more excited to see Wavves play. Several years later, during one of my five-hour drives from Montreal to Toronto, I put on good kid m.A.A.d city with relatively little expectation. I listened to it at least twice in that one drive, and I was actually disappointed when I reached Toronto because I had to turn the record off. It's an awesome feeling, listening to a record for the first time and just knowing you've experienced something truly special. There are few musical experiences I can equate that to. That record has since gone platinum and established Kendrick as hip hop's Golden Child.

A lot has happened since then, in hip hop, in music, and the world. But To Pimp a Butterfly is not about hip hop, or the world at large. To Pimp a Butterfly is about what it means to be black in America. It's almost impossible to write anything coherent about this record so I will not attempt that, and I suppose this is an accurate reflection of the record itself. While his previous records, including his debut Section 8.0, explored broad sonic structures and lyrical themes within a consistent production style, To Pimp a Butterfly feels insular and contained within itself, despite its profound sense of chaos.

Hip hop has become the vessel for Kendrick's message, instead of its central component. The record has a conversational tone that's directly engaging and remarkably absorbing. Musically it's all over the place, taking inspiration from recent Flying Lotus records, Miles Davis' freak-out opus Bitches Brew, and the insularity and pulsating tension of There's a Riot Goin' On. The weirdness of the record recalls early Outkast records, with The Love Below already frequently mentioned as a touchstone for the record.

While its predecessor was stacked with massive singles fit for clubs and parties, To Pimp a Butterfly has not one single I can imagine nearing the top of the Billboard charts or Taylor Swift singing along too. That's not to say there aren't standout tracks. "King Kunta", "U", "For Sale-Interlude", and especially "How Much a Dollar Cost" are stunning and haunting. Previously released singles, including the polarizing "I" take on a new life and meaning within the context of the record. "I" sparked an interesting conversation with how people, minorities in particular, perceive themselves through the adjusted lens of North American society. In the context of the record it becomes an affirming, self-reflective and hopeful moment in an album enveloped in confusion, weariness, and darkness.

At the start of this write-up are the opening lyrics to Sly and the Family Stone's landmark 1971 release, There's a Riot Goin' On. That record was a direct response to Marvin Gaye's equally seminal What's Going On. The DNA of those records are all over To Pimp a Butterfly. At the time, Sly Stone had fallen into a deep depression and hard drugs. Receding into his mind, he delivered a record that reflected the tension, murkiness and sense of deflation felt by an entire generation left dazed by unrealized promises of equality, the blistering aftermath of a failed war and broken economy. Sound vaguely familiar?

Kendrick did not, however, completely retreat into his mind like Sly. Instead he went in and looked out, moving forward to create something that serves as a proclamation and a reflection of the increasingly worrisome reality we live in. It's always framed in the context of his experiences, making it more stinging and deeply affecting in the process. This reaches a climax in the devastating final track "Mortal Man", where Kendrick has a 'conversation' with Tupac. It's impossible to listen to without having a chill run down your spine. Rarely does a musician of this caliber and stature give this much of themselves so openly, honestly and bravely. Kendrick leaves us with more questions than answers, which creates a vacuum that demands to be filled with thoughtful discourse. The conversation has already begun and one thing is clear: we'll be lucky to receive another record like this any time soon.

Rating: 5/5
Best For: I don't even know, man.


--Kenny Chatoor is a regular magazine contributor and former CJLO radio DJ currently living in Ontario, "Yeah, things are good, there's definitely nothing like CJLO in Toronto though, which is a bummer."