This wasn’t supposed to happen. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was supposed to be released March 23. So, when I found out that it was unleashed early, I wondered if it was just a leak. But no, the actual album was unveiled and thus, a week in advance, we all got to hear what K. Dot has been cooking since the release of his major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city. So even though it wasn’t supposed to happen, it did. And it makes sense. Something this powerful shouldn’t have to be contained.
It’s hard to describe Lamar’s potent To Pimp A Butterfly after a first listen for this “First Listen” review because of its many layers. There’s a lot to traverse on this album and it’ll likely take more than a few spins to truly understand the levels of depth and complexity that reside within each rhyme, within each instrumental and within each message. But after a first listen, it’s clear that Lamar was influenced by introspection here as much as he was inspired by the album’s powerful instrumentation, and that blend lends itself to an album worth analyzing.
Take a song like “u” and unravel the intricacies of the internal dialogue. There’s talk of suicide, inner rage and self-doubt that rains over jazzy production that fits the mental anguish Lamar describes perfectly. A song like that might save a few lives this year. Yes, it’s that strong of a message. And its point is only further strengthened when coupled with the cut that immediately follows, the Pharrell-assisted and much more upbeat “Alright.”
On the Rapsody-assisted “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” Kendrick says something that is quite possibly the project’s thesis. “I’ma say somethin’ that’s vital and critical for survival,” he rhymes. And so To Pimp A Butterfly’s layered with that in mind. Just probe into the humanity lesson in “How Much A Dollar Cost,” where K. Dot is faced with a challenge when confronted with homelessness. Or dive into “Hood Politics” where Lamar assesses the “DemoCrips and ReBloodicans” who run the government in “Red states” and “Blue States.” Or just embrace Kendrick’s words on “Mortal Man” where he references “the ghost of Mandela” and interviews 2Pac about metaphors, money, race, resistance and faith.
We should have known this was going to be a charged album listen when we received the first two singles, “i” and “The Blacker The Berry.” “i” was said to be written about suicidal teens and people locked behind prison bars. It was a message of love for oneself that both needed to hear, a song of hope from Kendrick’s point of view, and a message that was delivered with help from an upbeat, catchy hook that will get you to smile in front of a mirror. By the way, “i” changes on the album and comes with an incredible message from Kendrick about unity, compassion and respect, as if the song needed even more inspired passion. And of course, “The Blacker the Berry” was also a strong outing when it was released, a potent discussion about race in America that sparked thought and debate. These songs both exemplify some of the best qualities found on Butterfly, qualities that can certainly be heard on other songs as well. They are filled with thought provoking insight and an analysis of the world in a way that Kendrick Lamar seems to be perfecting.
But the whole album can be, should be and will be analyzed at length. It’s worth dissecting every portion of the album, because each piece to the Butterfly puzzle only adds to its depth. Perhaps on “Mortal Man,” Kendrick in rhyming about what he hopes you take away from this album. “The ghost of Mandela, hope my flows, they propel it,” he rhymes. “Let my word be your earth and moon, you consume every message.” So one listen isn’t enough to reveal all of To Pimp A Butterfly’s messages, but it’s enough to know we’ve got another incredible album on our hands, one that deserves time and care, so you can consume every message properly.
Stream Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly on Spotify here.