To Pimp a Butterfly (album review)

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Kendrick Lamar

 

I still remember clearly the day I was fully introduced to the force of Kendrick Lamar (K dot). It was a hot summer day, a few years back, in Chicago. His name had been mentioned to me a few times before, but as a hip-hop elitist I didn’t give his music a fair shot. In fact, I gave his music no shot at all. It’s rare for new rappers to truly move me. I may dance to a catchy single, but they won’t win me over as a fan. However, the person doing the introduction this time knew me well and took a different approach when proposing I listen to K dot.
Instead of simply recommending I listen to Kendrick, he pulled out his ipod and scrolled to “Keisha’s song.” He handed it to me and said “if you’re not a fan after this song I’ll never mention him again.” I listened and felt rocked to my core. It was poetry. It tugged at me, made me want to save Keisha—tell her that she was beautiful. It made me despise the many men who took advantage of her, and the mother that neglected to protect and love her. It made me text the women I loved. But more than that, it made me go download all of his mixtapes.
Soon Section.80 and O(verly) D(edicated) became my go to albums, and seamlessly he was in my top 5 for current new rappers. However, I will not pretend that I was in love with good kidd, m.A.A.d city when it first debuted. As I do with all artists I love and trust to give me quality work, I purchased the album without listening to it prior. Did I regret that decision? No, but I felt that my fear of him switching his style up once he became mainstream could happen. It had happened too many times before and I didn’t want to see it playout again—especially not on an artist with his level of talent.
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Thankfully, that didn’t end up being the case. As his fan base has grown, Kendrick has experimented with his style of musical expression, and with that has come speculation on whether or not his sophomore album would be able to live up to the hype. Well, the sophomore album “To Pimp a Butterfly” is here, and the telling moment of truth is now.
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Before even listening to the album one must take into consideration what the title is meant to imply. “To Pimp a Butterfly” is filled with a host of endless interpretations. The one that I prefer, and find most relevant, is the idea that the process of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly is one that the creature must go through alone. This idea becomes apparent in the opening song. The album begins powerfully with the provoking melodic singing of the statement “every nigger is a star” repeated multiple times before “hit me” is exclaimed and the beat drops. My immediate thought? ‘Oh K dot, I do love thee.’
To pimp a butterfly is to take something beautiful and exploit it. To exploit it on multiple levels. One way is to neglect the experience of when he was a caterpillar. To ignore the ugliness that made him. The ugliness that added to the beauty before you. To deny the process is to forgo the very essence of what you came to love. If you knew the whole picture would you despise it? What happens when you value parts of a thing, but ignore the entire being? If only part of a butterfly is beautiful to you, then maybe you hate what you say you love. You cannot accept only what is pleasing to you without invalidating the beauty and neglecting to nurture what is fragile; therefore making the object of your obsession valueless.
The first song “Wesley’s Theory” encompasses many facets of K dot’s experience and current stage in life. After the success of his debut album Kendrick was baptized and has stated many times that he feels he himself is a vessel for God and that comes out in his art. This is relevant to the title of the song. John Wesley is credited with being the founder of Methodism. Wesley believed that Christians could reach a state where the love of God “reigned supreme in their hearts,” which would give them external holiness and encourage them to experience God for themselves. The opening song talks about the experience of what happens once you experience things for yourself, and the consequences of the decisions you make as a result of it.
The classic line from the Chappelle show, “we should’ve never gave you niggers money” echoes throughout the song. One theory is that the song is to make reference to the fate of Wesley Snipes and being found guilty of tax evasion. Though I agree that this a part of it, I know that things with Kendrick are never that simplistic. People come into their careers not loving money, pursuing their dreams for the passion of it, then it consumes them, traps them, makes the individual a victim to the game they thought they’d conquered. If they don’t let the money control them they can keep it, but Jay-Z says “it’s the strongest drug known to man,” so how can you fight it? Be smarter. Don’t fall a victim to the system and become a modern day Wesley Snipes. A victim of the tax man, good ole Uncle Sam.
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The flow in “For Free?” demands a standing ovation equivalent to a speaker preaching on your life–hands raised and voice high. I imagine this is what salvation feels like. This is the song where feminist may hate me but I really like it. “This dick ain’t free.” Nothing in life is completely free. It may not cost you monetarily, but it will cost. You have to pay to get fucked. On every level. From primal to professional. You will get fucked and fucked over, and all of it will come with a heavy fine. The problem? Well K dot. the mastermind is at work again here. The entire album from artwork to lyrics is reflective of the Blaxploitation era. “I mean babyyyy” screams of The Mack or Super Fly. It’s genius because he again subtly hints at the technique of a pimp; I am doing nothing for you that you cannot do for yourself, but because I have made you dependent on me you will never be able to do it without me. Not only that, but I will become rich off you. You may hate me, but you won’t leave. GENIUS!
“King Kunta” let’s talk about it! “Where were you when I was walking?” is equivalent to “you wasn’t with me shooting in the gym.” Everyone has expectations of you, some that may even restrain and confine you, but that’s your problem–not thiers. As the old saying goes, “to whom much is given much is expected.” The yams? Power. People would love to cut his legs from beneath him. As Jay-z once stated, “most kings get their heads cut off.” It’s usually those closest to you that will bring about your downfall. Not always through treachery, but often through selfishness or disregard. Success can be a double edged sword, made worse if you don’t have the right team of people around you. On one end you have “people look at you strange and say you changed, like you worked that hard to stay the same.” But on the other end you have “Money didn’t change me, it changed the way those around me treated me, so who really changed?” There is no easy answer. Navigation of this path is highly dependent on self and those you entertain. Solution? Choose your allies carefully and stay as grounded as possible.
Making it past 25 in America, if you’re a Black man, is unfortunately a huge accomplishment. The beat in this song pulsates and pushes you. A king is coming. You tried to destroy him, but he’s here and now everyone wants the “funk” but they couldn’t see the king that was developing in the young prince that everyone overlooked and passedby when he was walking. A huge nod here is to Tupac’s poem, “A Rose that Grew from Concrete,”: Did you hear about the rose that grew/ from a crack in the concrete?/ Proving nature’s law is wrong it/ learned to walk without having feet./ Funny it seems, but by having its dreams,/ it learned to breathe fresh air./ Long live the rose that grew from concrete/ when no one else ever cared.
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“Institutionalized” comes in with a mellow tempo that forces you to slow down from the initial pace of the album, it forces you to reflect. Hood mentality is equivalent to being institutionalized, either way you’re stuck in a pattern that was created for you that you can’t seem to escape. “Master take the chains off me.” How ironic? Did it ever occur that you could find a way to break the chains yourself? Well, did it? It has always seemed rather foolish to beg the person imprisoning you to grant you freedom. If that were a viable option you wouldn’t have been sought and captured to begin with.
I would argue that you’ve never really lived until you’ve left home. That’s why in other cultures they send their young out to explore the world, and then return home enlightened. I never really knew my true capacity until I left Chicago. At home there are multiple things that can keep you from greatness, but a big one is comfort. Going out on your own forces you to fly or fail. And oh, the feeling when you fly is incomparable. I say that to say, like granny said “shit don’t change until you get up and wash your ass.” You have the power to change any situation, but you have to make the effort.
“These walls” is a song built around its epic features–they are pretty much everything. Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercats add to the strain required to dive into memories. If these walls could talk they would cry, but also be elated when you’re around. Double entendre? I would say so. These walls give you salvation whenever you return, but rather than give in to it you create a demolition and knock them down. Not because you don’t love it when you’re in it, but because you do. These walls that give you a pleasure can close in on you and lead you to a wall with bars that will never give you freedom. These walls have the potential to collapse in on you as you watch the world pass outside of them. These walls have the capacity to remind you of all you’ve lost and all you could never have. That resentment easily leads to depression capable of breaking the soul. Are you capable of facing yourself and these memories when there’s nothing around to distract you? If only these walls could talk.
“U” is a constant flow of the pain from memories and missed moments. “Where were your antennas?” where were you when we needed you and it was all going down? “Loving you is complicated.” “Loving you, not loving you, 100 proof.” …Up…exposure…betrayal…alcoholism…pain. How much do you give up to chase your dreams? What do you leave behind? Who do you neglect? How does the pain eat at you? Can it push you to alcoholism, depression? What happens when you have to deal with the consequences alone? “I’m fucked up but I ain’t as fucked up as you.” Who actually gets to make this determination? As one of my favorite quotes states, “the difference between a hero and a victim is the perspective of the person telling the story.” One cannot quantify what is subjective. So yeah, you’re fucked up too…equally, and no view of the situation changes that. Each person is accountable for their decisions and actions, so don’t condemn when you have a limited view of the others frame of mind, or spirit.
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“Sneak me through the back window, I’m a good field nigger.” That line literally made me ‘whoo’ on “Complexion”. I can’t say I’m the biggest Rhapsody fan. Honestly, I’ve listened to her lightly so I don’t feel adequately prepared to analyze her skills, but I can say I appreciated her verse. Race should not be an indicator of superiority at all, but it is validating to see others who resemble yourself in positions of power. Media is a powerful force and the messages of worth can be subtle or overt. I don’t have to say you have no value here, I will show you by neglecting to show you in positive images. Or how about I make you love me so much that you self deprecate and love those of your own race who are closer to looking like me? How does it feel to hate yourself? “Let the Willie Lynch letter reverse a million times” sums up the concept of self hate. Learn to love yourself completely, all of you from the lightest to the darkest of hues. There is nothing worse than an intelligent fool, so wake up!
I love the flow of the album and the story that it tells. Some what of a warning. A cautionary tale.
The ending of “The Blacker the Berry” is relevant and historical. Like history many of us still navigate being Black in America through a lens of double consciousness, or wearing a mask. It’s difficult and nearly impossible to remain true to separate identities. “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015…you hate me don’t you? You hate my people. Your plan is to terminate our culture…You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me…You sabotaged my community, make a killing. You made me a killer. Emancipation of a real nigger.” What?! “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015…this plot is bigger than me it’s generational hatred…I’m Black as the names Tyrone and Darius…So no matter how much I say I would like to preach with the Panthers or tell Georgia State that Marcus Garvey got all the answers, or try to celebrate February like it’s my B day, or eat watermelon, chicken and koolaid on weekdays, or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements, or watch BET because urban support is important. So why did I cry when Trayvon Martin was in the streets when gang banging make me kill a nigger darker than me? HYPOCRITE!” For anyone doubting whether or not this album is a classic, this song alone should quiet your nonsensical doubts. But if it doesn’t, what he does at the end of the album definitely confirms Kendrick’s place as one of the most innovative and talented artists of our time.
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“Mortal Man” is your mother warning you “I’m sending you and your brother/sister out of this house together, I expect you both to return together.” That is to say, I am entrusting you with each other and no matter what happens outside of this house I am trusting you to look after one another and to return home to me safely. “When shit hits the fan is you still a fan?” If you’re only supportive or down to ride in the good times, then you’re counterproductive. As humans we often deify our heroes and forsake them once they show us their human characteristics. We are all but mortal men who are capable of greatness. We have to support the whole of each other. We have to accept our heroes as men. In order for true acceptance to occur we must acknowledge their flaws without devaluing the contributions and sacrifices they have made for the family. We must view each other as family. We cannot send the caterpillar to build a cocoon alone and not teach it the proper way to fully become a butterfly. If so, then the result will be the discontent and disconnect that currently prevails. It has always taken a village, it will always take a village, to truly raise a child–a whole child and not the half broken, unaware humans that a lack of love and support creates.
“Want you to love me like Nelson, want you to hug me like Nelson. I freed you from being a slave in your mind, you’re very welcome.” What makes this song perfection, and a flawless way to exit the album, is the interview Kendrick conducts with Tupac Shakur (2 Pac). How many times have I said genius during this review? Well, this is Basquiat, Malcolm, Assata level of ingenuity. 2 Pac once said, “I may not change the world, but I will spark the brain that will change the world.” The seed has grown and Kendrick used this album to show his teacher how he has grown from his knowledge and what he has learned. The flow on this song literally made me wave my hand back and forth in the air, then pause the song because I was literally about to go in. This must be what the holy ghost feels like. The gospel of Kendrick Lamar! This is Socrates teaching Plato who eventually teaches Aristotle. This is the fruit from the tree of free thought and labor. This is revolution epitomized.
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The album moves you in ways sometimes forgotten. It’s like the first air you take stepping off the plane on an island. Hours ago you were in your city hoping for this moment, and now you’re breathing the air and relishing in the glory of what’s before you. Allow yourself to relish in it. The next journey is over the horizon, but for now allow yourself to enjoy this landslide victory. The war has been hard fought, and it was a long time coming.
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My rating? A. Go buy the album immediately! Your soul will thank us both later. Agree? Disagree? Share your feedback below!

– Ms. Malcolm Hughes


Ms. Malcolm Hughes is the editor-in-chief of For Your Black? Conscious. She is a Chicago, IL native–from the city, not the suburbs–strategizing in Washington, D.C. She strives every day not to disappoint or defer the dreams of her 13 year old self. Because at that age, more than any other, she just wanted to see her people win. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, & Twitter @fybconscious.

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3 comments

  1. This piece on Kendrick Lamar is brilliant! This review not only proves music has a profound impact on our lives but how a single artist composition can have multiple layers-socially, intellectually, and culturally. I love Ms. Malcolm Hughes’ interpretations and musings of this album and can’t wait to hear more from this young talented writer.

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