Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore album ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ was released a week early a couple days ago. I finally managed to give it a listen for the first time last night. I started listening to it at around 10pm. I was still listening to it when I fell asleep sometime after 2am. A whole 4 hours later. I listened to a couple more times when I got up in the morning and have been listening to it most of today. That I gave it a couple of spins on first contact is testament of how immersive the listening experience has been so far. So is the fact that I have voraciously read up on anything related to the album in between listens. That I am sitting here writing about it also speaks to how much the album has hijacked my attention and titillated my curiosity. However, this is not a review per se. But more an attempt to unpack and process some of the initial feelings I had listening to the album in the last 24 hours.
This is one is going to be a doozy.
Even after the repeated rotation I can’t seem to make up my mind (yet) how I feel about this album. I know it is special and I really appreciate its musicality. I just can’t figure out if I love it. But I do know I want to love it, badly. I am also sure that is it a great piece of art. It’s cinematic in its scope and shares the same unfathomable complexity of some of the books I have felt compelled to re-read. ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ is a demanding and at times challenging listen. And I can’t stop listening to it. And therein lays its genius and appeal for me. With each listen I find myself trying to dig deeper so I can catch every reference, idea and emotion. I’m still hearing new stuff and I’m sure I’ll continue to discover new things weeks from now. ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is an album to contemplate and examine as much as it is a groovy album with beautiful musicality. And for me that was as intriguing as it was contradictory. Which I suspect is what Kendrick was trying to go for, especially when you consider the album title itself.
‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is a really evocative title. Not just for an album, but any work of art. Period. The writer in me loves the contradictory nature of that statement. There is so much imagery packed into it. The title seems more literary than anything, and the album seems to fall into this discussion of life and the ills of both success and blackness. Kendrick himself has alluded to it being a play on ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’ a novel by Harper Lee that deals with racial inequality and is considered a modern American classic. Kendrick himself has stated that he believes ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ will be taught in university course in the future. No pressure there, I guess.
‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is an album that is as multi-layered as it is richly textured. Musically, contextually and lyrically. It is as colourful as it is monochromatic. It hijacks your attention 80 minutes at a time. Sonically I love the direction that Kendrick went on this album. I found the jazzy and funk influences refreshing. Although from the get go I did pick a sombre and at times melancholic vibe which is an interesting juxtaposition to the funky beats. There are also parts of the album where Hip Hop meets neo soul. And even some spoken word. Admittedly these parts can feel a bit pretentious, if not cheesy. And I can see that putting of those who want that hip-hip, it don’t stop. But in the bigger picture of the album, it works. T
Contextually and lyrically ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is a lot to process. Even as a black person I found the ‘politics of blackness’ of it confrontational and overwhelming in parts. Although I suspect that might have to do with different nuances of my personal African experience and the wider African-American experience. Kendrick though makes a strong case for the universality of the broader black experience with his comparisons of the Xhosa-Zulu conflict with that of the Blood and Crips gangs of LA in the fantastically belligerent ‘The Blacker The Berry’ which had been released as a single prior to the album release. The ‘politics of blackness” is not the entire focus of the album though. Throughout the album you are can pick up more universal themes like dealing with societal pressure, being lost and consumed by the situation you’ve been put into, finding yourself and achieving self-fulfilment. Like I said before, this is a layered album. And I am looking forwarding to peeling back those layers over the next couple of weeks.
The highlights so far….
‘Alright’ is the early stand out track for me. Mostly because it has such a positive vibe to it. ‘How Much Does A Dollar Cost?’ is also such an introspective song and resonates the most of all the songs on the album. Finally the interview with Tupac and the explanation of the title knocked me off my feet.
Consider this butterfly pimped.
One more thing ….
‘This dick ain’t freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee …..’