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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

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