Review by Yvorn Aswad
At the time of publication, there have been 38 homicides of Black people in Los Angeles county in the year 2015. In a city that makes up only 10% of the population, Black people account for nearly 40% of the murders.
These statistics answer a question posed on Kendrick Lamar‘s new album To Pimp a Butterfly. Posited on the song “I” (the very same song that seemed pop and tame in its affirmations of self-love), Kendrick a la James Brown circa April 4, 1968, breaks up a near altercation by simply asking “this year alone, how many niggas have we lost?”
To Pimp A Butterfly is not so much an album as it is a very public conversation with Black people, Brown people, poor people, and indeed, all who have ears to listen. This conversation is painfully wrought out with rigorous honesty, born from the ugly cries that accompany rock bottom. Taking on suicidality, violence, the temptations of sin, and the power of faith, the conversation Kendrick is forcing open comes at a critical junction in time when apathy and self-destruction seem to be the Black man’s greatest enemy. With agonizing details of authenticity, To Pimp a Butterfly is a dissertation to address Kendrick’s thesis that the marginalized people of this land will only be made free with radical love.
From the onset, Kendrick provokes the consciousness with the refrain “Every nigga is a star”. A double entendre, the underlying Motown inspired gravely sound of the phrase, could suggest that all Black people are entertainers, but it also operates to see something celestial about our existence. As the opening song that picks up after the good kid, m.A.A.d. City Kendrick returns Ali’s call and finds fame, the song “Wesley’s Theory” talks about the trappings of wealth and the more nefarious, economic oppression of a greedy government. This point is followed up in “For Free?” , an interlude that is a grandly raised middle finger to the exploitation of the Black man. From that moment on, the album explodes with subversion, pleading-with those who have ears to listen- to believe in our royalty.
What follows are songs like the snappy “Institutionalized” and “These Walls” and the harrowing “u” that tap into the depths of depression. These songs illuminate the guilt, doubt, and depression that has chased Kendrick since he was one of the last Black boys to fly out of Compton. In the same breath, they speak to the trauma endured by those trapped in the criminal injustice system. Kendrick’s testimony is powerful in that it counters the narrative that money can save us from the sorrow of our oppression. The duration of the album works to prove that the real healing and liberation comes in the form of returning home to family, to community, to humility, and to God.
The strength of this conversation turns on the brilliance of the sound to which it’s set. Assembling together a team of session players to crank out jazzy, funky, be-boppy, R&By sounds, Kendrick uses the sounds that have come to be identified as Black American royalty. Eschewing modern aesthetic, the album is loaded with sax riffs, snare snaps, bass strums, and every bit of instrumentation that sounds like souls splintering ship hull caskets. He plays not just with music, but with multi-vocality, creating layers in his cadences and delivery. Kendrick’s major player accomplices Bilal, Anna Wise, and Thundercat signature style and voices dance around the entirety of the album. The playfulness of all the instrumentation is something akin to Tchaikovsky, making music that cracks, but secretly tells a story of revolution. The fact that Snoop Dogg, Ron Isley, and George Clinton lend their legitimacy to the album speaks volumes to the credibility Kendrick has an artist, simultaneously demonstrating Lamar’s intentionality in constructing an anthology of Black musical wisdom.
For all of the beats and harmonies that construct the sound of the album, the most musical aspect of the entire piece is a poem that builds throughout. At each pivotal moment of the album, Kendrick signposts his direction with a new stanza, each building where the last piece left off. The content of this poem embodies Kendrick’s struggle, and is revealed in the end to be recited to Kendrick’s guru and guardian, Tupac. Seamlessly architected, the conversation between Kendrick and Tupac has this haunting surreal quality that seems like music has, if only for a moment, brought Shakur back to this plane. This earth-moving finale to the album is fittingly placed on a track “Mortal Man”, in which Lamar rightly identifies himself as a prophet.
To Pimp a Butterfly leaves no stone unturned when it comes to addressing the evils that plague Blackness. Greed, avarice, Willie Lynch, gangsterism, post-traumatic slave disorder, depression, and indifference are all of the assignments from “Lucy” that Kendrick enumerates. In light of these ills, Kendrick holds up a mirror for us to see our own complicity in the ills we suffer. This conversation that he is seeking to have at times seems blistering, harsh, and insular.
And that’s because it is. A prophet loses his ability and credibility if he does not speak with specificity of the evils that a people should turn from. The power of To Pimp a Butterfly turns on this truth; that the problems of our time are too great for business as usual. Kendrick, in a language that could seem hyperbolic to some, has used the platform of his album to make a passionate plea for radical action. And for what radical action does he advocate? Self-love. For a people who survived holocaust, apartheid, and generational suicide, to learn how to love again is the most powerful act of defiance. Kendrick knows this and implores us to follow suit.
As good music is, this album is part talk therapy, part overture to a revolution, part dinnertime at Grandma’s table, part frolic in Strawberry Fields, part wanderings in a desert called Wilderness. In the end, Kendrick acknowledges that this plot is bigger than him. But as the proverbial butterfly for which the album is named, he has found his wings and can see past the slovenly ways of the caterpillar and the confines of the cocoon. Kendrick’s butterfly is the harbinger that signals the end of the Winter of our Discontent, promising spring’s revival.
To Pimp A Butterfly is Not an album; It’s a Manifesto – Review by Yvorn Aswad
To Pimp a Butterfly, Track 3 “King Kunta”
To Pimp a Butterfly, Track 6 “u”
To Pimp a Butterfly, Track 16 “Mortal Man”