Kendrick Lamar’s Butterfly Pimpin’
TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY (Review)
By Nyaze Vincent
From the opening notes of Kendrick’s already critically acclaimed third album To Pimp a Butterfly, it’s clear that the West Coast’s heir apparent is following the beat of his own drum (with a little help from the Top Dawg in-house production team and neo-funk luminaries Thundercat and Flying Lotus). The instrumentation of the album hearkens back to the 70s, full of live instrumentation, rich bass lines and psychedelic melodies that zoom in and out of consciousness. For subject matter, Compton’s young poet laureate serves a sumptuous buffet of morality-tinged tales of rags-to-riches, further distancing himself from the braggadocio and glitter-fueled lyrics of many of his peers. This distancing is intentional, a reflection of Kendrick’s self-conscious assumption of duties as the presiding moral compass for hip-hop. His rhymes employ their share of “niggers,” “bitches,” and assorted vulgarities, but never without a sense of irony, and rarely without a sense of regret.
It’s natural to compare Kendrick to his peers and predecessors. J-Cole is no stranger to politically charged lyricism, but he cannot speak to the nuanced facets of street life with the same fluency as K-Dot. You have to go back to Nas for an accurate analogy. And like Nas, Kendrick rarely revels in street life, but presents it cinema verite. Like Nas, Kendrick delivers blow by blow, detailed accounts of urban reality, but now from the perspective of a burgeoning star whose success threatens to separate him from the wellspring of his very creativity. Throughout the album, laments follow about losing touch with family, mis-use of his new power, and the desire to be good in an overwhelmingly evil world.
This evil at the heart of success is personified as none other than Lucifer, abbreviated as Lucy, and portrayed as a seductress with all the riches of the world at her disposal. Opposing her is the spirit of Tupac, invoked throughout the record and finally in an imagined Q&A closing the record. Tupac is portrayed as a conflicted guide, struggling with temptation, perhaps even ultimately a failure by his own standards, but the inspiration and spark of Kendrick’s odyssey. Tupac once famously predicted that not he, but one of his successors, someone sparked by his own work, would succeed where he had failed. Kendrick seems eager to step into this role and play Messiah to Tupac’s John the Baptist.
Interesting comparisons can also be garnered from Lupe Fiasco’s also recently releasedTetsuo and Youth, an epic piece of work, equally conceptual, even sharing some musical DNA with Butterfly. Both works fall into the category of “conscious” rap—material not excluding the consequences of immoral behavior—but where Lupe’s work is intellectual, cerebral, hyper-syllabic and grounded in the of-the-moment sound of trap music, Kendrick delivers a more visceral kick. Whereas the former evokes emotion through analysis, the latter is pure emotion. Kendrick literally weeps into the mic in character as a former friend chastising the rapper’s absence from the on-going realities of street life. Serving this is Kendrick’s inimitable vocal range. He goes from monotone to leonine growl to high-pitched yapping in the span of a single verse, sometimes within a single line, yet never seems to over-do it, always with his characteristic masterly restraint and punctuation. This loud-soft dynamic borrows more from rock music than rap and cannot help but evoke the ghost of another highly regarded iconoclast, Kurt Cobain.
Nirvana essentially shut the door on the narcissistic, egocentric, cheap thrills hair metal scene that had dominated rock for almost a decade. Much like popular rap today, in particular it’s guns and drugs glorifying sub-genre trap, there is a growing sense of unease with the casual degradation of women and exaltation of personal gratification. Issues of cultural appropriation aside, the thunderous elevation of artists like Macklemore for providing a break from the monotonous slander of gays, bitches and wack niggas proves there is a hunger for more substantial content such as Butterfly. That Kendrick succeeds with this while bringing back a sound we haven’t really heard since the early 2000s, when Outkast ruled the airwaves with savvy and empowering narratives delivered over essentially funk music, is a testimony to the creative rigor of Top Dawg itself, a modern Motown housing artists, producers, musicians and lyricists under one roof.
Some in the Black community have recently begun circulating the meme of New Blackness—a less angry, less confrontational version of Blackness aimed at smoothing over the rough edges of integration with the mainstream. This New Blackness is about wealth, success and affluence—an affluence unfortunately not shared by all. Butterfly seems to take square aim at this bugbear, forcing it to confront its dark reflection. Big lips, dark skin, red eyes, “a proud monkey,” as Kendrick spits, are all accoutrements of our greatness and not shackles to be discarded. He flips the word “nigger” by going even further back in our past to the glories of the Ethiopian empire where regents were called “Negus.” Butterfly challenges us to re-integrate with ourselves, to come to terms with the bitter fruits of Black history in the US, as well as recalling our original glory and potential redemption.