Kendrick_LEAD

When following up a classic it’s important to be realistic with your expectations. To duplicate or follow the original blueprint would be unfair to both the artist (who should look to grow at every turn) and fan (who deserves something more than what the garden variety has to offer). It should break new ground and be unapologetic with its experimentation. Kendrick Lamar with his third studio album To Pimp a Butterfly avoids those common pitfalls by staying true to his way.

At times it can seem like an album of protest, born in a state of psychosomatic frenzy, but it’s more than that, it’s a personal account of his experience as a young black man on the rise — dark and enlightening at the same time, enigmatic at every turn. It’s a deep listen, experimental and genre bending, his Bitches Brew. But a host of guests and like-minded souls add broad appeal to its bottom line, making it relatable to anyone with an honest ear. The beats pull from every genre, and lays a thick seal on what is an early front runner for album of the year.

Wesley’s Theory

A knockout blow right from the jump, a story about the pimp game (aka the music industry) told through the experience of one Wesley Snipes. It’s a world that’ll take you through the ringer and turn you inside out, which the wildly psychedelic beat reflects. Uncle Sam’s treachery gets called out:

Wesley's Theory

For Free? (Interlude)

Uncle Sam’s niece gets her say, and she’s as sassy and materialistic as you’d imagine. She drills in, but his rebuttal is swift and on point — that the pimped is now doing the pimping. On a fundamental level the wordplay is bonkers, but it’s the lyrical thread that binds the narrative tight:

For Free? (Interlude)

King Kunta

Flexing his skills as a writer and slaying heads every step of the way. He makes bold claims and dares you to take the bait. Why? So he could make and example out of you. The whirlpool of funk underneath him has him sounding James Brown-ian both in righteous demeanor and grand encomiums. Pure funk:

King Kunta

Institutionalized

A beat like this makes you wonder what it would have been like to hear a Dilla/Kendrick collaboration. His voice is strong and the wordplay is vibrant, a different style for each verse. The theme of being pimped holds true and Snoop the 3rd person omniscient cues us in on the origins of our hero:

Institutionalized

These Walls

Three different narratives, all giving voice to a variant of madness. He explores vulnerability, regret and love in colorful ways, offering a platform for unheard stories to be told — a real life drama that is telling of the turbulent state we live in. All the walls have stories and these are a few:

These Walls

u

Like a candle melting down to a nub, the slow decline is steady and relentless. He reaches into some dark corners and faces feelings of fear and inadequacy. He wrestles admirably with the expectations he has for himself and those closest to him. Vulnerability unfolding over some moody jazz licks:

U

Alright

Bandying back and forth between complete destruction and cautious optimism. The light shines bright at times, reflected by Pharell‘s ascending vocals, but just as it’s about to reach its apex the seeds of doubt return with a fury, giving bloom to doubt and insecurities of all kind. A dire condition:

Alright

For Sale? (Interlude)

A thorough character analysis of Lucy who is the personification of evil and temptation, Lucifer likely. The sweet melodies twirling in the background are meant to seduce, and the words come fast and strong like lightening. It holds a forked tongue that the protagonist is looking to steer clear of:

For Sale? (Interlude)

Momma

The protagonist finds a brief moment of respite, musing thoughtfully, nostalgically almost over a percussive bed of broken beats. He’s returning home, which is an abstract concept. It could be Compton, it could be Africa, it could be his innermost thoughts. By the end however the madness returns:

Momma

Hood Politics

G-Funk sounds that help reassert his place in all four corners of the rap world, most importantly his own block. He holds nothing back and doesn’t mince words. A full force Mike Tyson hook aimed at the dome of those who say that he’s forgotten where he’s come from. As present as he’s ever been:

Hood Politics

How Much a Dollar Cost

The title is compelling and has the mind reeling. A heated exchange is narrated between a transient and a man who can’t help but feel contempt for him. In the end it’s revealed that the beggar is god who asks him the price of his soul. The question is the answer, and the answer is the question:

How Much a Dollar Cost

Complexion (A Zulu Love)

As thoughtful and compassionate a love song as you’ll find in rap, one that lays to waste any and all notions of colorism. And not just for African Americans, the message applies to all races, which makes the jam that much more sweet. The velvety vibes keep the emotions flowing like liquid gold:

Complexion (A Zulu Love)

The Blacker the Berry

Hypocrisy as told through the eyes of the hypocrite. There is plenty to sympathize with as the narrator tells his story through grit teeth, but the overall message is that you can’t preach justice when you yourself are a crook. The beat is minimal, but only so the message can hit home unimpeded:

The Blacker the Berry

You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)

On some Organized Noize level of smooth, but the prevailing lyrical themes are what resonate most. It appears he’s taking a shot at the mainstream, the wannabe’s who toot their horn the loudest. On the other hand it could be a self-sustaining mantra of his, to avoid the pitfalls of the one and dones:

You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said)

 

i

The top dog of Top Dawg returns with a mighty message. The Isley flip is a little hokey, but does capture the mood just right. What’s he’s doing is embracing the idea that the only way to truly love another is to love yourself first. Some, however, get stuck on the one and forget about the other part:

i

Mortal Man

A wild self portrait in relation to other prophets of the earth. The compelling angle is that he tries to undeify in order for us to realize that the common man can rise and do amazing things too. Kendrick is proclaiming his stake while simultaneously asking you when you will make your move:

Mortal Man