The anticipation and intrigue surrounding Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore album hit seconds after listening to his debut, Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City for the first time. Savouring those lingering moments of impeccable lyricism and a narrative that took you into the unsuspecting rapper’s upbringing in Compton, it was difficult to conceptualize what a follow-up would look like for something that was so satisfying. In the subsequent listens, the perfection became clearer and the legacy was inevitable; GKMC was a fast-tracked classic, and there were few who disagreed with its speedy labeling.
Anything that followed with Kendrick’s name attached to it was just straight fire (let’s conveniently skip over the rare pop feature on Robin Thicke’s “Give It 2 U”). Guest verses usually keep rappers relevant, but when “Control” rolled around, Kendrick ensured that he was the bar level to beat. Perhaps that’s why the response to ‘i’ a funky, self-love anthem, was so lukewarm; it didn’t uphold to the expectation that Kendrick set himself, not just through his own catalogue, but through the promise of challenging his peers. Redemption came in the form of the performance of an untitled track in the final days of The Colbert Report, another blues and jazzed tune with frequent collaborators Anna Wise and Thundercat, commenting on racial circumstances and success in America. An inkling of what was to come, but still, the timeline was unknown.
Within the matter of two weeks in March, the existence, title and delivery of the elusive second album were all confirmed; suddenly, it fell in our laps, a week earlier than promised, the welcomed mistake of Interscope. You could fans collectively inhale across the Internet before they hit play.
I still haven’t let my breath go.
Half-way through my first listen, I was quick to call To Pimp A Butterfly a political album. It appeared as a reflection of the protests social complexes, the deeply entrenched history of exclusion, class division, racism and the call for unity and positivity amidst the turmoil in America. I wasn’t incorrect. To Pimp A Butterfly is very political.
But in the days and listens that followed, including the ongoing experience in my headphones as I try to pen my thoughts, I unwrapped the contentions, frustrations and hopes of an individual whose connection with his community is pierced by his success, faith and brutal introspection on his place amidst it all. The poignancy of To Pimp A Butterfly is personally political as much as it is just political; you’re reminded of that at the turn of many songs on this album, which state “I remember you was conflicted.”
In the m.A.A.d. City anthology, this chapter is defined by its funk and jazz dressings reminiscent of old school east coast vibes that almost reiterate Kendrick’s claim over New York City. We haven’t heard someone so boldly lace the influence of that era in recent years, but Kendrick’s never been a low key dude on record. On To Pimp A Butterfly he zips around frantically in rap, spoken word and live recordings trying to reconcile his fame and fortune with the city he’ll never be able to leave behind. The ghosts of his stories and past haunt him as much as west coast figures; Dre appears on “Wesley’s Theory” via voicemail, Snoop is a near mirage on “Institutionalized”, and a Swedish radio station’s interview with Tupac is transformed into a post-humous conversation on “Mortal Man.”
Kendrick’s confrontation occurs across the seventeen songs in their varying forms. The speedy repertoire behind “For Free” conjured up images of Kendrick watching Whiplash repeatedly as he produced his album, only to be washed away by the forceful leadership found behind “King Kunta” and “Blacker the Berry”, the latter of which is the closest to standard hip-hop rhythms set ablaze by Kendrick’s evaluation on his impact in his community and hip-hop as a whole . This reflection, his mirror image, becomes the primary antagonist on the album, an enemy that’s easy to grasp.
Not all listeners can identify with Kendrick’s specific circumstances, but the constant toss-and-turn between self-deprecation and self-inspiration is a universal dance that drives the (perhaps somewhat sadistic) enjoyment of To Pimp A Butterfly. Feeling that curve extend and invert is an experience that culminates in the polarizing tracks “u” and “i”. The depths of Kendrick’s depression as he screeches “Loving u is complicated!”and floats the thought of suicide on “u” is unpredictably tangible and shocking. The admission sticks, but it doesn’t diminish words on vibrations and positivity; rather, it gives them more weight. Where there is darkness, there is hope.
The guiding line to righteousness is dictated by self-love. Individualistic, communal, intra and inner love. Within the context of the album, appearing in a live-version form, ‘i’ makes much more sense than it did when it initially released. It doesn’t mean perfection or idealism but acceptance. Reach out, reach in, and find something to hold onto that lifts you even when you are unclear about where you stand. Seek and deliver respect to yourself and to those who surround you so that you can rise.
My personal connection to this album is manifested in that message. The complexities of and relations between community, representation, and self-respect are concepts I have and continue to wrestle with in my life, particularly since entering my 20s. This period has proven to be the most trying time of my life so far, partially due to some of life’s unpredictable curve balls, but also because they challenge me to determine my self-definition, to take stock of the major influences in my life and to reflect on their impact. They challenge me to fill in blank spaces on what my hopes and desires are for my future in a variety of categories. I think of my family, I think of my community, I think of politics, I think of success, I think of morality, I think of security, I think of longevity. I think of myself.
Who am ‘i’? That is a big question.
We talk about music using legal jargon, overdressed criticisms, drum kicks and popularity, but to me, the most important conversation is the one that takes places between the artist and the listener. Call that framing cheesy or typical, but it is truest to my personal experiences with any art form. Although I have encountered the grander, individualistic and communal themes of To Pimp A Butterfly across other albums (Shad’s “Flying Colours” is one that immediately comes to mind), I think that the space in which To Pimp A Butterfly exists will be remembered and revisited by fans, press and the industry several decades down the road.
I wonder how future generations will reflect and analyze this period’s race relations, socio-economic conditions and human rights in America; surely the way that popular culture drew from political culture will continue to be a fixture in such discussions. Note that the opinions Kendrick presented are but one facet of a multi-dimensional exchange. I don’t want you to place all of your intellectual eggs in one basket, and I certainly encourage you to read other think pieces to help you determine your stance.
But regardless of whether you agree or disagree with his points, he used the album medium to his advantage and is not only a public figure speaking loudly, but is also being heard. It is a response, a proactive presentation, and most importantly, a fierce confirmation that Kendrick’s story is in some way everyone’s story.
Recall what Kendrick’s mother said at the end of “Real“:
“I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let ’em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back with your words of encouragement, and that’s the best way to give back. To your city…”
I think To Pimp A Butterfly‘s dynamism transcends what Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City set out to achieve. It is certainly not the last step in Kendrick’s promise fulfilment, but there is a tremendous force that pushes it past its predecessor. Maybe that’s because we live in a time where we lack the knock of positivity that is so desperately needed for personal and emotional well-being. Maybe it’s due to the fact that there is so much sugar coating, self-timing and monitoring that we need honest works, with artists who are willing to convey their emotional and mental demons. The best works out there warrant the complement because of that personal touch; To Pimp A Butterfly exemplifies that approach beautifully, especially in its politics.
In the days that have passed since I started writing this, I constantly revisited the double entendre that is the album. I keep finding new favourites and new ideas to latch onto as I get into the groove. That’s probably why I haven’t exuded my sigh yet; I just don’t believe I’ve unpacked everything that this album has to offer me. I’m truly not sure if I’ll ever finish sorting through it but somehow, I’m okay with that.