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Junk Mail: Kendrick Lamar 'To Pimp A Butterfly' Album Review

by Music Times Staff   Mar 17, 2015 17:54 PM EDT

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Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Kimberley Richards and Caitlin Carter chat about Kendrick Lamar's new album To Pimp A Butterfly. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.

Caitlin Carter: Welcome to a surprise Junk Mail! Although we had planned to review this album after its scheduled drop date of March 23, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly came to us early. The hype behind this album was almost unprecedented. After the critically acclaimed good kid m.A.A.d. city and the verse K. Dot dropped on Big Sean's "Control," the hip-hop game crowned Kendrick their king. Even before the album dropped, those who had early previews promised it would live up to his major label debut, and in my opinion it certainly has.

Although Lamar's storytelling prowess was evident on gkmc, there seems to be a certain wisdom to TPAB. Lamar told the story of life in the projects of Compton, now he's had the opportunity to see the world, and the material on TPAB are the lessons he learned. Although I've listened to this album through at least five times now, I think it will take a while for me to fully digest it.

If you're looking for club bangers, this record isn't for you. If you're interested in a poetic, cinematic concept album about race, good vs. evil, depression, rap culture, government, the double edged sword of fame, how to use your influence for good and other realizations, then you will leave To Pimp A Butterfly satisfied.

There is so much to talk about here, it's hard to know where to begin, so I think let's just start with overall impressions.

Carolyn Menyes: I've been listening to this album pretty constantly since Monday morning (thank god it was never pulled from Spotify!), but I agree -- there's so much to digest.

Maybe it was the Monday morning in me, but my very initial impression was just that -- To Pimp A Butterfly is incredibly dense. It almost felt inaccessible to me because as a white woman, my life experiences couldn't be more different from Lamar's, so there wasn't really anything I could relate to. Upon further listens, though, I could grasp onto some of the themes and feel where Lamar is coming from, even if I'm just looking at this album as an outsider.

Whereas good kid, m.A.A.d. city was all about his rise, this album follows Lamar as he struggles with all of the things that fame brought him. Now, he feels distant from that kid that splashed big in "Swimming Pools." So, we get to hear about his relationship with Compton and his friends now and about how Lamar feels navigating such a racist culture and music industry. This comes up in basically every track, but I think "u" demonstrates this just the best. It's so emotional, it feels like the centerpiece of this album to me.

What did you think at first, Kimberley?

Kimberley Richards: Wow...just wow. I am taken aback. I agree, this album is a lot to digest. I was traveling home to visit my parents yesterday and gave it its first listen on the airplane. I must have looked completely in a zone because the gentleman next to me tapped me and jokingly asked if there was something spectacular going on outside from the view of my window seat.

This album will be one that I will play over and over to fully grasp every lyric, feeling and deeper meaning. K. Dot did it with this one. He so unapologetically tackled issues of society, institutionalized racism, his inner demons and the conflicting journey of a musician that we all in some way can relate to--regardless of career paths.

I'm really interested to hear that perspective Carolyn, it's one of the reasons I love albums and pieces of art like this because it allows people to connect with one another and learn how our cultural backgrounds and race impact the way we relate/not relate to things.

As a Black woman who has moved around as a child and grew up in different communities, I can relate to so many of the struggles, inner struggles and even anger he is expressing on some of the tracks.

So much to say here, but starting with overall impression... I'm both moved by this album. I think it's one of the greats!

CC: Before I get into the lyrical content, I want to point out how seamlessly this record flows. It's undeniable that Kendrick had a vision for the project. I've read that sonically, he was influenced by a bunch of beats that Flying Lotus showed him, However, he expands upon that free jazz-funk-soul sound and infuses the album with really interesting samples, spoken word poetry and dialogue. It is truly a piece of art.

When I listen to it, it's almost like a short film playing out in my head, or even something I would imagine being performed on Broadway. I was wondering how "i" was going to fit on the album, and even that song sits well in its extended form and holds much more weight within the context of the album.

I'd also like to mention how engaging and unexpected is flows are across each song. The rhyme schemes and cadences are so impressive. Each song sounds very distinct but fits within the album as a whole. This is one of the only times I've felt that every single song serves a purpose on an album. Yes, themes are repeated, but they are expanded upon rather than redundant. This is truly an album and not just a collection of songs.

CM: Yeah, I think that Lamar really expanded on what a rap album can be here. There's so much jazz and funk in the music, which I think is where you're Broadway thoughts come from, Caitlin. Like, listening to "For Free?" is interesting not just because of what Lamar has to say to the industry, but his flow is basically like a jazz scat. That's not something you're going to hear from Drake or Jay Z.

Though the jazzy leanings of To Pimp A Butterfly help to make this album distinct, it was also my least favorite part of this record, and it makes me wonder how well this will hold up in, like, 10 years. NOW, I'm not a huge hip-hop head, so I like a lot of pop in my everyday rap. But, I think what makes this album sound so much more like an album is that is is a collection of songs, meant to be heard in full.

Except for "King Kunta" and "The Blacker the Berry," pull out any song on this album and imagine it as a single... you can't. Even the version of "i' we heard last year is different from what ended up on the album. Nothing else is hard enough or even really musically pleasing on its own. Free form jazz ain't gonna chart.

KR: I agree with you both that this album is truly cohesive. I love records that you can play from start to finish without even thinking about hitting skip. Especially with the ongoing snippets of the "I remember you was conflicted" line that ultimately tied in to the Tupac Shakur interview at the end of "Mortal Man". That was amazing.

But sticking to the musical flow -- I think it works. It's SOULFUL, jazzy, funk-infused and reminiscent of the '70s but there's something about it that keeps it relevant for me. His sample of Boris Gardiner's "Every N****r is a Star" single in "Wesley's Theory" for an example, gives you clear hints of the original '70s song but his rap and the production gives it a modern feel that's relatable today.

I think it's hard to have an album with such deep and heavy lyrical content and still sound so good but I think Kendrick nails it. I love the flow -- even acknowledging it might not be appropriate for every environment and situation (i.e. the club). I also think that even though the songs flow incredibly well together throughout the album, they can still stand by themselves.

CC: I definitely think the songs are strong on their own, but that they are elevated by the context of the rest of the album. This album is very personal, but it also reflects a communal experience. Carolyn, I agree that aside from "King Kunta," "The Blacker The Berry," and the single version of "i," we probably won't hear much of this album on the radio (other than maybe urban radio).

Now onto the themes in the album. What were some revelations he had that struck you?

CM: Well, like I touched on earlier, this album hit me in a different way because I am so different from Lamar. I'm not the target audience forTo Pimp A Butterfly. I appreciate what Lamar did here by explaining what it's like to be black in America and in the entertainment industry. I feel weird commenting on all of this because, you know, I'm white and from a middle class home. But, what makes this interesting is that I get to really learn about a new part of society from an outside point of view. He talks about how you try and get away from the power of the white man but then end up just putting everything you earn back in the fatcat's hands. That's weighty, and I think it's so interesting.

I think that's what maybe brings me to a song like "u," which is lyrically my favorite. I think despite being so specific in his own experiences, Lamar can zoom out and bring it to something more universal. Who hasn't struggled with leaving home and losing contact with some of the people we love the most? His verse about the death of Chad Keaton hit me the most; it's so emotional. "You even Facetime'd instead of a hospital visit / You should thought he would recover, well / Third surgery couldn't stop the bleeding for real / Then he died, God himself will say 'you f*cking failed' / You ain't try..." Like, damn.

KR: This album hit on so many things. I think just having started listening to it yesterday, I haven't even fully analyzed it to its potential. Overall I think his point of how institutionalized racism and societal issues are so influential and at times crippling... is what really struck me.

Lamar just goes there hitting on what it's like living in a world with a history of overt racial injustice and institutional injustices that still exist today. He connects history of slavery and civil rights battles and how that influences the psyche of a Black person in America. So man tracks do this in such sophisticated ways. "Institutionalized" I feel gives a specific journey of a Black rapper affected by society but it's also relatable I think, to anyone who has societal pressures and the circumstances of their surroundings engrained in them. Like yearning to just be rich--whatever that really means.

Again, I feel connected to his truth and passion throughout the album. Lamar hits on issues that we deal with on a day-to-day but not everyone talks about the root of our circumstance.

It's so deep and so thought-provoking. I take it that Lamar doesn't care whether this album is a hit or not, he's just telling the truth.

CC: Yes. It's certainly clear that money and fame are no longer what inspire Lamar, therefore he probably isn't concerned with his album being a hit.

What's interesting to me is how many white, privileged fans he has (for example, Taylor Swift). Because he has the attention of these powerful white people, but in a way that is unapologetically black, I think there is a lot of potential for this album to effect change. I think one of the roots of racism in the modern age is merely ignorance, not hatred. People just fail to realize there are issues beneath the surface that continue to perpetuate stereotypes that lead to racism. I think that Lamar's white fans will come out of listening to this album with at least an acknowledgement of a systematic problem and their place of privilege outside of it.

I think the "survivors guilt" aspect of the album is also very interesting. Lamar feels guilty for having made it out of the projects thanks to his music, but having the people he cares about still living in it day to day destroys him up. You don't always equate rapid fame with depression, but it totally makes sense in the context of his personal history.

It tore me apart listening to "u" and having him feel guilty for not being around to prevent his sister's teenage pregnancy and visiting his dying friend in the hospital. The demands of his job have forced him to not be the friend, son, brother, etc. that he wants to be. However, he is conflicted about his role in the world. Is he meant to be home or preaching his truth to the masses outside of Compton?

CM: Yeah, he touches on that in a very poignant way, too, and that's why "u" is the real standout of this album to me. This whole album is very honest, but that's really the most in your face track. And that's saying a lot for an album that's very in your face.

And, I'm not so sure about any music causing real change anymore, call me jaded. But there's something about this album that makes it so incredibly relevant in 2015. I mean, a song like "Complexion (A Zulu Love)" is on this album. Just look at that title.

This album is so about the African-American experience, and that's why it's weird that I like it so much. But, it helps people like the Swifts of the world understand something they definitely wouldn't otherwise, at least on some level. Beyond all of the race discussion, which is so important, there are other things happening here.

I think the interesting dichotomy of this album is that it almost feels bipolar in a way. One second, Lamar is deep in self-loathing and then, he comes out with "Alright." There's rampant violence from the police and racism and poverty, and even though Lamar has left his home, he's going to be fine. It just makes for a very interesting listening experience, and it helps to flesh out the personal turmoil that Lamar can feel. Even though I can't connect to the deepest meanings of this album, he still manages to establish that one minute we love ourselves and are hopeful and the next everything can feel the total opposite way. And who hasn't experienced that?

KR: I agree that this album is 100% relevant today. That's what's so thrilling about it. To have an artist use his public platform to discuss the issues and frustrations that are commonly topics of discussions in private homes or coffee shops. I think this album is really about Lamar uncovering how important his role (as an artist) is.

I had chills listening to "Mortal Man" because I felt the most connected to Lamar during this track. I feel his anger and frustration in justice, equality, empowerment--through his reference to Nelson Mandela and finding clarity in Robben's Island. The system has let him down at times but he acknowledges the "Nelson-Like" characteristics of Mandela where his resilience (to say the least)--allowed him to continue for what he believed in despite the many years in prison. Will his fans/people who believe in what he believes in stick by him? Such genuine questions and points he makes there.

His "Tupac interview" represented not only what it would be like for any of us to have the opportunity to let our excited inquisitiveness free as we ask the questions we always dreamed of asking our heroes or past leaders who are no longer with us. It also connected us to how the same struggle Tupac poetically described is something we see today. I love when he says, "There's nothing but turmoil going on." It makes me think, how would someone like Tupac respond to the Trayvon Martins or Mike Browns happening today.

I can't detach my personal narrative and connection to this album but I feel it's still inviting to everyone. I agree with both of your points of reaching the Taylor Swifts of the world. It's rawness does not scare away. It's the time of rawness we should always aim for.

To your question Caitlin, I think To Pimp A Butterfly shows that his message is needed for the masses but I think both can be accomplished.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

CM: It's hard to get in to the real meat of To Pimp A Butterfly in a series of 12 or so emails. It's just a dense album. But, with two days of listening to it, I feel like I understand Lamar better as a person and an artist. And while I can't directly connect with his plight, I can see into his world through a little window. Musically, sure, To Pimp A Butterfly is not going to find Lamar with as much chart success as good kid, m.A.A.d. city, it's not pop accessible, but it is powerful and wise, and there's more than enough credit to give to Lamar for that.  

CC: Boy, this is a tough album to give final thoughts on, having had it for a less than 72 hours. Lamar was right to say that there will be college courses taught on this effort. I think this was the perfect timing for Lamar to use his platform to explain the plight of his community and bring that experience to those from different walks of life. I think the album is solid through and through. It is sonically cohesive, lyrically strong, socially conscious and undeniably personal. His use of different voices, spoken word poetry, and imagined conversations really works across the board to bring this story to life. Kendrick is the boy who lived, and now he's trying to find out why. I can't even begin to imagine what he'll give us on LP3. 

KR: With 1.5 days of To Pimp A Butterfly, I feel like I only read half the chapters of a book. I'm excited to continue to play this album to get more from it, because it's dense, honest and enlightening. Musically, I think this album is a winner. Every track had a dynamic composition that gives us music we just can't hear everyday. Lyrically...well.. Kendrick, you know what you did.

Kendrick Lamar... thank you, thank you for using your artistry to express the inner turmoil so many of us feel. We may not have your exact narrative but by you being so personal, you alllowed your fans and listeners to connect to your music in a way that enlightens our personal narratives and struggles. Your unapologetic expression of what it's like to be Black in America is what having a platform like yours is about.  

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