It’s been two-plus weeks since Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly did its preemie birth thing and provided hip-hop with a precious bundle of tracks that we’ve held dear ever since.
Enough time has passed to get used to the game-changer that is TPAB, but we’re still learning about it — for one, its selling as well as a rap album can sell nowadays, helping to debunk the belief that creative risk doesn’t pay in popular music.
2015 isn’t 2014, Kendrick is King once again. There are no lame messages coming from Macklemore, only plaudits from critics the world over. The album that would have been called TuPAC has managed to live up to the standards of universally black provocation that was mastered by the long-lost Shakur and we’re all the better for it.
Lamar’s unerring instinct to string together past sounds to create a sonic bed for his continued ruminations of what it means to be black in America — the price of it, the blessing, the responsibility, the lack of autonomy — are easy to feel if you share any of the background or the current outlook of the artist behind it.
We at WARR have ran the album back and forth many times since the initial link and a lot of things about it have stood out to us. In this post we’ll let you in on what we feel makes TPAB one of the most important musical works in a long time.
Those albums were able to point out the adversities many young black men struggle with on the daily while also suggesting a major way in overcoming those struggles is to first take a look at ourselves. The sense of responsibility I gained from albums like Pac’s and Cube’s was resonant — they taught me to be more than a number, a stereotype or a tragic tale of black youth. To Pimp a Butterfly takes me back to those days.
Black youth has been starving for something of substance and meaning in hip-hop music and Lamar has answered that call. I have many songs that I love on the album, but King Kunta really sets the tone for the album. The sound of it takes you back to the days of James Brown and it really captures the power of his voice as he proclaims his anger at the beginning of the song, “I’m Mad! But I ain’t stressing!”
Sonically, the music, wordplay and content of the lyrics is unlike anything we’ve heard of an emcee from this current generation of rappers and it readily sets himself apart from the others, so much so that I don’t even want to mention them by name right now.
Only Lamar is able to address issues of concern for black people in a manner where we want to listen and think about the things he saying. Others are welcome to try, but even if they are successful they’ll need to recognize whose head the crown is sitting on.
— Joe “Champ” Tanksley
“For Free? — Interlude”
Early in the album this fast-paced, jazz-infused spoken word interlude serves as a rebuff not only to gold diggers — represented in the song by a shallow, caustic female who scolds Kendrick for not “being on” — but to America as well, to any one who gets it twisted, Kendrick wants them to know that black man’s contributions to the country are not free.
Nor is providing sexual gratification a one-way street, reparations and reciprocity are due.
Lamar effortlessly weaves a narrative of a black man’s interpersonal struggle within a specific context while prioritizing the importance of obtaining economic freedom, escaping poverty and fulfilling his carnal needs.
On a purely structural level the rapid-fire spoken word, chock full of alliteration and double-time rhymes — reminds one of Denzel Washington’s spoken word ode to the fading institution of radio, “Pop Top 40” in Spike Lee’s Mo Better Blues as does the fluid classical jazz that lays underneath Lamar’s speech.
Lamar’s versatility as an artist shines through on this song, showing that he can effectively rap in other styles than his traditional Compton-bred dark and raspy flow.
— David Evans
“How Much A Dollar Cost”
We have heard this story a thousand times, a person’s morals being put to the test when they least expect it, but for some odd reason the particular story of this song stuck with me. Kendrick comes across a down on his luck man asking for help, or in his words, a homeless crackhead hustling.
The down man only wants a dollar — “nothing more, nothing less” — Kendrick says no, their eyes lock and the story really beginnings. Kendrick gives him the most selfish Ebenezer Scrooge speech you have ever heard and the previously unnamed man lets him know that he is actually the one and only God and Kendrick has lost his place in salvation because he wouldn’t help a man in need.
Now I’m not a religious a person at all but a song like this was a great morality check for me. With his easily relatable story and his superior raps Kendrick reminds us not to judge, remain humble and help those when in need. Hopefully, listeners of To Pimp A Butterfly came away with the same message.
— Demonze Spruiel
Don’t get the beat and catchy hook on this track get you twisted into thinking its just another pre-summer ride around song.
Underneath the abundance of bounce found on “Alright” is a track that has just as much substance and soul as anything on this album full of those traits. This track could have easily been the album’s kick-off track or its rousing conclusion.
It all starts from the West Coast in “Alright,” you can hear Kendrick tap deeply into his inner West Side, revisiting a broad range of influences by delivering a taste of what Pac’s delivery was like in his early catalog (see “Holler If Ya Hear Me”), mixed with the feel good funk and and life affirming qualities provided by O’Shea Jackson’s work when he was still a rapper before anything (“It Was A Good Day”).
All this is done while Lamar opens his emotions to the listeners and provides a transparent glimpse of the morality struggles pulling and pushing those who find themselves in today’s pop and urban elite.
Not many of us ordinary nine-to-fivers can relate to the same vices that K-Dot may flirt with on a daily, but we all deal with our own moral struggles while trying to stay sane and balanced in this crazy world. Moreover, all of us have at some point done some wrong and foul shit and for those past acts we have to deal with our individual karma.
Embracing the magnitude of one’s own life decisions while attempting to grow into better individuals is no easy task; but sometimes a seemingly impossible challenge is best rectified by a simple solution and in “Alright,” Kendrick helps us connect the dots and keep our difficulties in perspective.
Take each day as one step at a time and deal with what’s unhealthy for you square on — it can be eating too much fried chicken, sustaining unhealthy relationships or taking too many drugs. Stay connected with God in your own way and live your life to the fullest and at the end of the day everything else will take care of itself.
— Sean “Pharoah” Terry
Regal Selector: Butterfly Pimps
To borrow a phrase from the original Flyboy in the Buttermilk, Greg Tate, in his review of To Pimp a Butterfly for Rolling Stone, “Black Musicians Matter” on this album. In particular, the forward-thinking black musicians forming the platform of which independent West Coast music (if not left-of-center urban music in general) will work off for years to come.
I was lucky enough to have more than a working knowledge of cats like Terrace Martin and Thundercat and Flying Lotus and Knxwledge well before Kendrick assured them Grammy nomination certificates by putting their credits in TPAB’s liner notes.
Having all that knowledge at hand made for one of the most revelatory experiences in listening to an album as this writer has had, it didn’t stop at any time — from wondering who was that saying “Every Nigger is a Star,” to feeling the same urgent disappointment Kendrick had in the album’s final words as he realized that Tupac wasn’t going to answer any more of his questions.
The issue of not getting what we want in favor of getting what we need and then realizing our pleasure in that is truly what makes TPAB stand out among the id-obsessed and self loathing works most rappers and other musical play-actors produce for the masses week after week.
You can put on a front well and make the world dance to your tune, but when it comes to music still nothing beats a raw excavation of emotion, a well-theoried delving into inner thought and a super-committed expression of talent.
Those are the things that TPAB gave us in spades from its conductor down to all his collaborators, and like in the game by that name when this spade was played it managed to trump much of what’s come before it from everyone’s hand.
Who’s got next?
— Kyle Means