Updated: Jan 7, 2021
Today's throwback album review looks at Kendrick Lamar's 2015 masterpiece 'To Pimp a Butterfly'. This follows his hit record 'good kid, m.A.A.d city' which had amazing reviews - and somehow this concept album topped it. This album is a modern day classic and it's clear to see why - but just how good is it?
The production on here is full of jazzy influences, great bass breakdowns, catchy drum patterns and groovy bass guitars, as on the experimental 'For Free? (Interlude)' which has this really laid back jazz beat, brass and a quick paced piano as he carries on from 'Wesley’s Theory' talking on how black people have been pimped for money from the music industry and historical events like slavery. Again the lyrics are just poetic, complex and layered and it took a while to grow on me, and by no means is it my favourite on here but I think it’s a great song now, Kendrick’s delivery is a little weird but his flow fire - as is the content of the song. The production tells a story in itself - using it to signal different events or times, it's genius - as on 'For Sale? (Interlude)' which has this deep bass, light piano keys and crazy jazzy beat which is really hypnotising (reflecting the theme of Lucy trying to take over Kendrick) as the breakdown of the beat at the end suggests Lucy got her ways. The song follows on from 'Alright' as we get introduced to this Lucy character who turns out to be Lucifer (Satan). She is trying to get Kendrick to sell his soul – or sell out – by following common tropes in hip hop and making mainstream music while ditching his conscious side. She’s another character bought in to show the music industry and how they pimp out successful black artists – she is tempting Kendrick with money, thoughts of moving his mum into a mansion and more as Kendrick provides clever lyrics and is very metaphoric. It's a bouncy, catchy interlude as Kendrick uses different voices to portray Lucy and it’s an interesting listen. It's one of the smartest and best produced albums of all time. 'Wesley's Theory' has this jazz beat with these wet “mwoab” effects as it creates this very crazy atmosphere before a more sinister one when Uncle Sam comes in as the opener introduces the key themes with verse 1 showing Kendrick recently making it big, leaving the hood and spending loads of money in a reckless way before in verse 2 the Uncle Sam character is introduced (a metaphor for US government & music industry) to relay the key theme that Kendrick (the butterfly) will be used (pimped) by the industry or government to make them money, then once they’ve got that they’ll get rid of him (like Wesley Snipes when he evaded his tax). George Clinton & Thundercat will only do a bridge or refrain, but both add so much to the track and narrative with such little as it's a very fast paced, in your face song which reflects the fast paced lifestyle Kendrick’s had since fame. The whole song slaps with great content, it's a perfect introduction to this album - there's no way it could’ve been better with a catchy yet great flow and powerful message
The lyrics are full of poetic lines and incredibly vivid lyrics, as on the finale 'Mortal Man', "If the government want me dead, plant cocaine in my car // Would you judge me a drug-head or see me as K. Lamar? // Or question my character and degrade me on every blog?", as the song see’s Kendrick wanting to follow in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela – he questions his fans if they’ll have his back through any situation like Mandela’s fans did, as he wants to be the new black activist of the world. The deep bass guitar snf more swirling jazzy brass instrumentals makes this a murky and lowkey beat yet this is probably my actual least favourite song on here but it’s still great. It’s overshadowed by the following interview in which Kendrick’s poem is revealed to be read to Tupac, as Kendrick is interviewing him as the pair talk on: race, riots and fighting back - it’s an amazing twist to the tale, one of the biggest revelations in music history. He even drops some nice punchlines and wordplay where he can, as on 'King Kunta', "I can dig rappin', but a rapper with a ghostwriter? // What the fuck happened? (Oh no!) // I swore I wouldn't tell, but most of y'all sharing bars // Like you got the bottom bunk in a two-man cell (A two-man cell)", as upon making it big, Kendrick returns to Compton to flex his new found success on those who didn’t believe him before, claiming he’s the king of the rap game. This funky base line is lowkey but great and really just easy to bob your head to. The more upbeat track provides a really catchy hook, enjoyable verses (especially verse 3) and is one of the songs with the most replay value on here. He just uses his words to paint a story in your head with his immaculate storytelling and way with his words, as on 'Hood Politics', "Streets don’t fail me now, they tell me it's a new gang in town From Compton to Congress, set trippin’ all around // Ain't nothin' new, but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans // Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin'? // They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs // Make it they promise to fuck with you // No condom, they fuck with you, Obama say, "What it do?"", as Kendrick goes back to when he was younger and the hood was all he knew, talking on the politics of the hood – sex, guns and violence. Verse 2 takes a look at how the government and election is just a big gang war like Compton, but their mission is to fuck over areas like Compton and black people, before verse 3 talks about the impact of his 'Control' verse on the rap game. This has a darker beat, it’s fire with this whiny synth line and deep drums – evil feel but it’s great as we get a great flow from Kendrick, and he uses his voice to show he’s gone back in time here and the whole song just hits you so hard and it’s a key highlight on here. His flow is great, smooth and so effortlessly and just like with the production he uses his delivery to tell a story or talk from different times/perspectives - this is also genius.
The features on here don't play a major part except one who does a great job, which is Rapsody on 'Complexion' as she talks on embracing your beautiful skin colour despite what the fact when growing up, black people were made to believe they’re inferior as she drops powerful verse with witty punchlines and metaphors, "We all on the same team, blues and pirus, know colors ain’t a thing", over these brass, jazzy instruments and this great bass guitar and slow drum pattern with piano keys that get added later and this whole beat just sounds beautiful. Kendrick talks on beauty standards of women, and how colour means nothing and shouldn’t even be noticed – he uses the reoccurring story of Kendrick being a slave in the field sneaking in to meet a light skin girl who’s a house slave to educate people on why colourism became an issue to begin with (slave masters pitting people of different shades against each-other so they don’t gang up on their master and try escape). This has a cute hook which is catchy and powerful despite being so simple. The whole track is warming as both rappers do great and it’s just so elegant and reinforces the narrative of Kendrick starting to find himself more by giving out important messages to those who will listen with vivid imagery, great metaphors throughout and some powerful lines, "Uh, Dark as the midnight hour or bright as the mornin' sun // Give a fuck about your complexion, I know what the Germans done". The other features only provide an outro or hook or even just a bridge - but they're so suited to their role and Kendrick does a great job at selecting his features, as on 'Institutionalized' as Bilal's hook was fine and added to the narrative though not the most memorable part of the album, Anna Wise did well and Snoop Dogg provided a vital part to the narrative of this song with his children’s story type bridge. Verse 1 see's Kendrick telling us to get where he had to, he had to work hard for it as he brings his friends from the hood to the BET awards and hears one of them is planning to rob some of the successful artists there, as in verse 2 he takes the perspective of his friend describing his urges to rob Kendrick’s co-workers because he’s institutionalised in the hood. It ends with a Snoop Dogg outro suggesting that at first Kendrick thought he could go on to do great things, but now he’s realising that hood mentality of his might never leave him as he himself is institutionalised. Kendrick drops some nice examples of wordplay and bars in there, as well as a very detailed examination in verse 2 of what’s going through someone with a hood mentalities mind, "Oh shit, flow's so sick, don't you swallow it // Bitin' my style, you're salmonella poison positive". Again it has high quality jazz production and it’s a great track, it really adds to the narrative and it's a casual listen but not the most exciting part of the album. 'How Much a Dollar Cost' see's Ronald Isley provide a legendary outro with great vocals and it just hits heavy as Kendrick asks god for forgiveness, while James Faunterloy hook adds to the story and acts as a nice interlude with some decent vocals. Kendrick raps with some amazing storytelling, punchlines and wordplay – the whole thing is one of the most vivid pieces of music I’ve heard you can picture absolutely everything in your mind, "The nerve of Nazareth, and I'll tell you just how much a dollar cost // The price of having a spot in Heaven, embrace your loss—I am God"", as Kendrick’s road to recovery from the evils of Lucy and Uncle Sam continue but he’s approached by a homeless man asking for a dollar, out of greed and selfishness (that fame has lead him to be) he refuses to give this man a dollar, subtle hints are dropped through the song that this man may be God – and that’s the exact revelation we get at the end as the cost of a dollar is his place in heaven. In the narrative of the album it comes after he escaped Lucy, went back home and is trying to find fulfillment in his life – but his toxic traits haven’t left him yet, and with this big revelation we finally see Kendrick start to change. This beat is amazing - the boom bap pattern with nice strings eventually builds up adding piano keys until it’s very dramatic for the big reveal – another example of Kendrick using the production to further the story and yeah overall this song is perfect, it has a shout for Kendrick's best song – it keeps you engaged all the way through, his delivery and flow are perfect and it’s such a creative and important song for this concept - 10/10 song.
The content on here follows a narrative and concept - it's amazingly put together. It starts with Kendrick post fame - spending his wealth, giving into his vices and misusing his fame as shown on 'These Walls' as this girl’s man is in prison and she’s horny, so Kendrick has sex with her to relieve her, but we find out in verse 4 that this is the baby mama of the guy who killed Dave’s brother in 'good kid, m.A.A.d city', so to fit into the narrative Kendrick is abusing his power here and still trapped inside the cocoon as he’s still focusing on the cycle of the hood and prison. There are extended metaphors that are great all throughout as he uses his words to really create a vivid image in your head, "If these walls could talk, they’d tell me to swim good // No boat, I float better than he would // No life jacket, I’m not the God of Nazareth // But your flood can be misunderstood", as this west coast, jazz infused beat sounds great with a catchy drum pattern and bass guitar until we get a breakdown before the beat gets more eerie for the final verse – an amazing beat which creates mood perfectly. The song has an incredibly catchy hook, really solid verses and is a banger with loads of replayable value and adds to the narrative in a unique way. He then realises his ways are wrong after a trip to Africa, and changes his ways to educate the children of Compton about the life they should live, as on 'Momma' as verse 1 reflects on his success and how he is grateful his rap career bought him home (either to roots in Africa or back to Compton). Verse 2 details his wide range of knowledge but ends up saying he realised he didn’t know anything when he went back home as verse 3 see's a young child resembling Kendrick giving him some wise words to help realise who he is – the whole song is about Kendrick returning home to Compton/Africa after escaping Lucy’s grasp, looking for self-growth or realisation, he ends up doubting if he’ll ever feel fulfilled in the outro of the track. Kendrick provides very detailed storytelling and really sets the scene as well as slick lyricism and bars over this gorgeous beat with a deep bass and these hollow, steel drums - it's hard to describe but it’s amazing, hear it for yourself. This really attractive hook as well as this song adds to the narrative in a clever and perfect way, we then get a beat switch which is more animated and jazzy as Kendrick’s whole delivery and demeanour becomes wacky and chaotic to reflect his thoughts as he desperately looks for what will fulfill him – an amazing song. It follows key themes of racial injustices, faith, oppression, fulfillment and being the best version of yourself, as on 'i' as he spits real lyrics and just uplifting bars and verses to talk on how despite the police brutality and hardships of growing up in Compton - you must love yourself, with a dedicated last verse to black community telling them to stop the gang banging and love themselves and each other. It has this catchy guitar and funky beat as the album version is so much better than the studio version - it's more atmospheric and less 'manufactured' sounding. It's a really happy, upbeat catchy banger to really sum up this album and it’s placed so perfectly and makes you feel so happy. You won't find better subject matter on any hip hop album ever to be honest.
Other tracks to look at include 'u' as the song leads on from being trapped in a hotel room from the poem, as we see Kendrick is drinking away his problems in a hotel room as his inner conscience takes the narrator role assassinating Kendrick’s character and telling us all about his depressive and suicidal thoughts with true, heart wrenching and emotional lyrics, "...little brother // You promised you’d watch him before they shot him // Where was your antennas? On the road, bottles and bitches // You FaceTimed him one time, that's unforgiven // You even FaceTimed instead of a hospital visit // Guess you thought he'd recover well // Third surgery, they couldn't stop the bleeding for real // Then he died, God himself will say, "You fuckin' failed," you ain't try". The saxophone based, eerie beat for the first half is great until it switches to a swirly, emotional beat to reflect his drunken state with eerie female vocals. Firstly, Kendrick’s teary delivery really adds to the gut wrenching feeling of the song, and the first half is fine but that second half is something else – it's honest, raw and emotional - truly Kendrick at his best. 'Alright' follows on from the the depressive 'u', as Kendrick puts his faith in God to get him through his vices and problems and knows he’ll be alright until Lucy in introduced the same way as Uncle Sam and tries to tempt Kendrick away from God with promises of money and all he could desire – the actual song takes a focus on police brutality and how through solidarity we’re gonna all be alright and get through the situation over this jazzy upbeat instrumental with vocal samples – it becomes very explosive on the hook as well. There's some hard bars in there and just great verses throughout, "No preliminary hearings on my record // I'm a motherfucking gangster in silence for the record, uh", as Pharrell William’s powerful, simple and repetitive hook is catchy and this track is just fire all the way through with a great meaning and it is something of a hip hop anthem nowadays.
'The Blacker the Berry' talks on what black people in America have to go through, and how racism is still a thing in today’s society – but also leads up to this twist where he says he cried for Trayvon Martin but has killed black people himself and is a hyprocire. He’s saying racism is a problem but so is black on black violence and the black community need to come together in times like this, not against each-other with great bars and the whole verses are just so real, "So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street // When gang-banging make me kill a n**** blacker than me? // Hypocrite!", "I'm African-American, I'm African I'm black as the heart of a fuckin' Aryan". The whole song is angry, so is this aggressive beat which sounds fire with this nasty synth line and heavy drum pattern as Kendrick’s aggressive delivery depicts so much emotion and Assassin's hook sounds so full of pain and agony and overall this is one of the most powerful pieces of art I have ever witnessed. Finally, 'You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said)' is all about how you haven’t got to lie to fit in as goes at fake gangsta’s, people in the hood and even Kendrick's mum gave him this message as he was set to return to Compton – he has found himself and is authentic and true to himself now and is spreading a good message, which he was always destined to spread. There's some poetic lines and all around real lyrics and metaphors, "Circus acts only attract those that entertain // Small talk, we know that it's all talk // We live in the Laugh Factory every time they mention your name", over this stripped back beat, great groovy guitar bass, brass instruments swirling around the beat and it's really enjoyable as the whole song is simple but catchy with an important hook - the song is just so smooth sailing and I find it very enjoyable.
To conclude, this album is genius from start to finish and it's one of the best executed concept albums of all time. The music isn't as good as on 'good kid, m.A.A.d city' hence why I don't prefer it - but it still has great songs and incredibly high highs. The production, features, lyrics and songs are all carefully placed where they are - it's so pinpoint accurate and mind blowingly put together. Kendrick really reached legend status with this one, it's so smart and sounds so good and I can see why it got the hype it got.
FAVOURITE TRACKS: Wesley's Theory, King Kunta, These Walls, u, Alright, Momma, Hood Politics, How Much a Dollar Cost, Complexion, The Blacker the Berry, You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said), i LEAST FAVOURITE TRACK: Mortal Man
OVERALL RATING: Solid 9.5/10