To Pimp a Butterfly

What we’re listening to (#20): ‘If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’ by Drake

I went back to listen to this album after I had a friendly debate with good friend of mine about two of hip hop’s modern day heavyweights: Kendrick Lamar and Drake.

I’m in the camp that absolutely adores Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but my friend made some valid points about the anachronistic nature of his instrumentation when compared to many other artists around today, and how his delivery is seemingly too forced at times – he said that he was ‘too conscious’ at times, and at first I wrote this off as complete rubbish, but I began to think about it a bit more.

If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and To Pimp a Butterfly are both albums that I can listen to the entirety of the way through, but they provide such different experiences – To Pimp a Butterfly is a more memorable experience, complex composition, social-lyrical wizardry, and interesting vocal inflections make sure of that, but Drake’s album is a fluid experience, one that I can lie on my bed and listen to, downtempo vibes throughout. Drake and Kendrick are two sides of the same game, both bringing forward different things.

This record releases Drake of his commercial restraints (well documented on the album); there aren’t too many club tunes on this one, you get stripped down and filtered production from his frequent collaborators Boi-1da and Noah 40 Shebib. The backbone will often be a simple piano or synth line, or a tender chord progression. Stuttering high-hats and some sub-bass round out the instrumentation, resulting in eerie, captivating, yet easy to listen to beats – ‘Star67’ and opener ‘Legend’ in particular take on this role. That’s not to say that you won’t be getting hyped at some points in the album, the still powerful ‘Know Yourself’ provides the best hook on the album and brings great energy, whilst the fast-paced synth of ‘6 God’ provides a much more menacing feel.

On some tracks Drake vents and rants, ‘Energy’ clear in this aspect as he goes in on those things which drain him, and ‘No Tellin”, where he talks of his record label issues, saying “Envelopes coming in the mail, let her open ‘em, hoping for a check again, ain’t no telling”. The highlight has to be on bonus track ‘6PM in New York’, where he comes out with a now infamous line against Tyga:

“It’s so childish calling my name on the world stage, you need to act your age and not your girl’s age”

Yes, the rough Drake is not convincing as the ‘Drake the type of n-gga who…’ Drake, and yes the first half of the album is in fact much better than the second, and yes the guest producers on the album really don’t do as good as a job as they should have, but we have to remember; this was just a stopgap, a mixtape, almost a track-dump. The fact that he felt confident to put such compelling songs on this album should make us all feel incredibly excited for Views From the 6.

This article was written by Mo Hafeez. 

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Album Review – ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ by Kendrick Lamar

After good kid, m.A.Ad city, the world of hip-hop was at Kendrick Lamar’s feet – Lamar said that album was basically a short film about his life, following his journey during his time in the Compton, the city where he was born and raised. The narrative was so personal that listeners felt as if they’d known Lamar their whole life, his lyrics projecting powerful images of faith, struggles, and family. Now, after months of anticipation (and a release a week earlier than expected), Lamar has released To Pimp a Butterfly, the title a reference to Harper Lee’s seminal work To Kill a Mockingbird.

To Pimp a Butterfly isn’t quite as clear cut as GKMC narrative-wise, with a whole host of characters being heard – Wesley Snipes, the government, Lucifer in the form of “Lucy”, and Kendrick himself all feature, and along with featuring artists Dr. Dre and Snoop (amongst others) there’s a lot of personas to take in.

The contents of the tracks on this album loosely track Kendricks journey from caterpillar to butterfly – the caterpillar being self-centered and only self-concerned, driven by consumption (as told by 2Pac on album closer ‘Mortal Man’), Kendrick believes he has found his way out of the hood on tracks like ‘King Kunta’.

He progresses further, starting to realise what consumption-driven existence can lead to on ‘Institutionalized’, where Lamar deals with the issues of money.  He speaks how people are brainwashed by the idea of getting rich. He goes on to reveal that it is not just the rich who are enchanted with this negative spell, but that, on a grand level, we all are, the poor also chasing wealth and being envious of those who hold power. .

“I said I’m trapped inside the ghetto and I ain’t proud to admit it, institutionalized, I could still kill me a nigga, so what?”

Tracks then move on to how such things affect Kendrick, ‘u’ providing an extremely depressing perspective. Lamar’s confidence is non-existent, shattering on marble floors, the worried inflections in his voice making him sound as if he’s almost in tears as he tells himself he let his sister down, that he was not a role model for anyone and that no-one in the world needed him. His voices fully breaks on the second verse as even God tells him that he has “fucking failed” – indeed, after the release of ‘i’, many were worried about the focus of the album, the soul-brass and very positive vibes that were littered throughout the song not appealing some.  Once listened to with some context, ‘i’ is much more easily understood, a track about self-love in contrast to self-hate. The fact that he has been through so much and yet still holds faith, the fact that he has staved of the evil of Lucy, is conveyed extremely well here in an burst of optimism.

“Every nigga is a star”

The turning point of the album probably comes before this however, after Lamar remembers where he has come from and tries to fix the problems he has spoken of in tracks like ‘Complexion (Zulu Love)’ – he explodes in anger and confusion on ‘The Blacker the Berry’:

The fact that on top of this Kendrick experiments with free jazz compositions beneath his rap on songs like ‘For Free?’ just confirms that this truly is an incredible album – this is not album that can be picked up and dropped when you’re on your first trip through, and the pay off in ‘Mortal Man’, an interview’ with 2Pac, is both revealing and worth the wait.

This article was written by Mo Hafeez