The best hip-hop record in recent memory opens with a simple sound bit, sampled off of the 1974 Boris Gardiner song, “Every N****r is a Star” [this song title was altered during the editing process]. Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” (2015) goes on to reaffirm, reject, tear, mend and scream this simple message of racial self-love. This is the record Kendrick Lamar has been waiting his entire career to make. It stands as a culmination of ideas previously established in Kendrick’s work and fleshed out in full here; ideas about society, music, duty, evil and the way all these trappings are intertwined and self-propagating within his psyche. “To Pimp a Butterfly” is introspective, but is also driven by a simple mission of spreading light in a space that is dark – whether that space is Kendrick’s own mind or the community that surrounds him.
Instrumentally, To Pimp a Butterfly is incredibly innovative, playing as a sonic tribute to the musical legacies of the African diaspora. Kendrick synthesizes funk, reggae and jazz to create a unique sound that is both familiar and slightly alien. Many tracks are fueled by the complicated bass-lines of frequent collaborator Thundercat. Kendrick also recruits a host of producers, from the cult famous Flying Lotus on the album’s opener to the fairly obscure Top Dawg Entertainment producer Love Dragon, who helped bring about some of the album’s darkest moments.
However, the real power of the record comes from Kendrick’s masterful performance and message. One of the album’s most moving works isn’t a song, but rather a spoken word piece, progressively recited in greater length as the album plays out. Each track is linked to this piece, which sees Kendrick struggling with the same issues that have constantly haunted him throughout his career. He talks about the troubles of his community, the struggles of being a black man, and his own difficulty in finding confidence within himself.
Mostly, though, “To Pimp A Butterfly” is about conversations. Listeners hear Kendrick talking to himself, to a young man from his neighborhood, to the devil, to Tupac and even to God. All these conversations occur in a common space, where both the devil and God manifest themselves as people that orbit Kendrick’s complicated mental processes. Somewhat ironically, these conversations are also the most introspective moments on the album. On “u,” listeners find Kendrick spending a night in a hotel room, drunk and self-loathing, screaming at himself, “loving you is complicated!” On the opposite hand, the euphoric track “For Sale (Interlude)” documents Kendrick speaking to Lucifer, disguised as a girl named Lucy, who promises Kendrick all the perks of a successful rap career in return for his allegiance.
One of the album’s more optimistic moments comes on “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” an ode to black self-love. This track is then followed by one of an opposite sound and message — “The Blacker the Berry” — a tale of anger at the systematic hatred that Kendrick asserts is routine within his environment.
As the singing on the album’s last track, “Mortal Man,” comes to a close, Kendrick continues to recite the album’s spoken word piece in full. We find out however, that the recitation was meant to address one specific person who has been invisibly present as an audience throughout the album – and is, in fact, the deceased Tupac Shakur. Kendrick uses 20-year-old sound bits to weave together a coherent and profound conversation with his idol. We listen as Kendrick talks with Tupac about race, society and the career of a rapper.
Kendrick goes on to offer Tupac one final poem – one that plays to the album’s namesake. Kendrick tells the story of a caterpillar and a butterfly, of self-transcendence and, as he states, “inner beauty.” The album concludes with Kendrick asking Tupac about his thoughts on the poem – but there is no response, as Kendrick hears empty space, bringing back the dark reality of violence that took the life of Tupac and is still ever present.
Even though the album’s last note is dark, the same isn’t true of the record as a whole. Kendrick acknowledges the evils that surround him. He ultimately decides to shrug off his tribulations in favor of a radically accepting and loving attitude. The album is built on a subtle interplay between darkness and light, but Kendrick ultimately decides that the latter is more powerful than the former. His mission is thus to advertise the good that exists around him. “To Pimp a Butterfly” is a complex and haunting record, but it stands as a musical and thematic juggernaut that will, without a doubt, remain important for many, many more years.