This is not a review. Please remember to keep this one fact present in the front of your mind, as you continue to read what will surely be a pretty substantial diatribe. I repeat, this is not a review. I’ve never been one to connect all the (K) dots in music quickly, which makes me envious of those internet rapgenius scholars. I still discover something important in Demon Days each time I listen; “Memory Lane” might be my favorite song, but I have never bothered to learn the lyrics. So, to think that I would be able to adequately deconstruct and analyze Kendrick Lamar’s sixteen ton work of art, he named To Pimp A Butterfly, would be foolhardy on my part.

However, if you are in dire need of someone’s opinion on the matter at hand, there are number of great pieces at your disposal, including this one published on DJBooth. I’m sorry for any disappointment that this might have caused, please come back when you are ready…I’ll wait…

Ready? Okay, lets begin.

Since 2013, a significant portion of the hip hop landscape have been obsessed with Kendrick’s sophomore studio album. A few wanted more music, their hunger growing more insatiable with every feature and finally reaching its climax at the “Control” feature. These fans were ready to carve Kdot’s bust into the Pantheon of Rap Greats, he became the modern GOAT; nobody could convince this group that his next album would be anything less than pure hell fire.

Another camp developed, who were much more reserved in their anticipation. They didn’t doubt Kendrick’s ability (it’s hard to find anyone that does), but they understood that Good Kid M.A.A.D. City was a hard act to follow. Often they would hold up Nas as an example: “at the time people didn’t like It Was Written as much as Illmatic, they thought he fell off”, they would say. Once “i” dropped, they could sense some doom, even though they were vibing with it…sort of.

It has been two years, the war these two groups have waged converted forums and barbershops into heated battlegrounds; thankfully, the conflict is nearing its beautiful, tiring conclusion. Today, a glorious mishap or an ingenious intern set the world ablaze, with the untimely release of To Pimp A Butterfly (“TPAB”). The internet world loves a surprise release, but this was even a shock to those at the record label, Top Dawg Entertainment,  and the artist himself. Golden opportunity, the greatest mistake of the year, or a shit-show of a roll out, whatever you call it doesn’t matter—just know that the music is here and it is interesting.

Both of the previously mentioned group’s obsession and incessant need to predict the Kdot’s future, annoyed the living hell out of me (in a way that only Kanye Stans that I don’t know can). Everyone seemed to speak from a place of power and knowledge, like they already had access to TPAB’s stems or something. I’m open to one listen reviews, but screw these no-listen theses and dissertations.

These past few years I, like everyone else, waited to hear what Kendrick was going offer up. I’m a big fan (once again, it’s quite hard to find a hip hop fan who isn’t), although I’m more or less satisfied. I would always accept and inevitably geek out over the Compton emcee’s new music or catch his latest interview; yet, deep down GKMC was already enough for me, he is an artist that I will force down my kids’ throat.

GKMC concept attracted me right from the start, in a way that most of you readers and listeners are keenly aware. It was a tale of a young black male, searching for peace in the world that the crack epidemic left in shambles; a coming of age story that didn’t end with an amazing shot to win a state championship or a fist pumping rebel walking through a field after detention, instead it concluded with an ode to the city that stole his friends’ lives and almost took him under. GKMC was conflicted, its party anthem was unabashedly championing an anti-drinking message and its most in your face banger featured Kendrick nervously screeching his lines, then literally lying in your face and enticing you to call him on it.

I could go on for days about the greatness that is Good Kid, but nothing could come close to the actual listening experience. Just know that on one album, Kendrick was able to touch the hearts of millions and become more than a household name, but a member of the household. He looked out of his window and saw more than just the gangbanging ripping his neighborhood to shreds, but he saw all of us lumps of coals squeezing under the immense pressure of society.

TPAB has a lot to live up is obvious. When the word classic is thrown around, it means your work has transcended; it could also be a euphemism for “we like that a lot, don’t change that, give us more that, new coke sucks.” Since the music business is glorified retail, many artists fold and follow the “customer is always right” logic; never realizing that they have now pigeonholed themselves in mediocrity. No one only likes burgers and fries, no matter how good your potatoes and beef are, you have to shake it up a little.

When “i” came out, I can’t lie, I was a little hesitant. It’s poppy, happy-go-lucky, it made me feel way to go to be a Kendrick song; thankfully, I kept listening and grew to love it, yet those initial moments of shock would return later. I spoke about “Blacker the Berry” in a previous post; I was a little put off from the message towards the end of the track, but it still had me optimistic for what he was going to do in the future.

Today, I was able to listen to TPAB in full for the first time. I knew he was hanging out with Flying Lotus and Thundercat, but didn’t anticipate this behemoth of an album. This is as much a Flying Lotus album, as it is a James Brown album, a Parliament/Funkadelic album, a John Coltrane album, a Miles Davis album, a Nina Simone album, and a Tupac album, yet it all seamlessly fits into a unified vision, Kendrick’s vision. I came into it with the intentions of listening to a good hip hop album, what I walked away with was a lesson in Black Artistry throughout history.

After hearing so much about “King Kunta,” I assumed it would be sample heavy and include radical beat changes. I was right about the latter point, but couldn’t have been more wrong about the former. Kendrick was like “forget just simply sampling James Brown, I’m going to channel his ghost and act like I’m at the Apollo real quick,” and that is exactly what he did. I can’t even talk about “Alright”, those horns came down from heaven and blessed our ears.

There are 14 other tracks that deserve mentions, but damn it’s too much, way way too much. I mean, Tupac not responding at the end of “Mortal Man” sent shivers down my spine. “i” has been on a regiment of steroids since it was originally released, it’s much more powerful and the acapella is right on time.

This all engrossing sense of excellence and joy, only came about after I was done listening to TPAB all the way. When I turned it on and “Wesley’s Theory” began, I was nervous that this record was not going to be hip hop enough for my sensibilities. I’m open minded, but I wanted to hear Kendrick spazz on another “Back Seat Freestyle.” TPAB sounded more like something my mother would play me, reminiscing about the good ole’ days of doing the hustle, instead of some brand new fire emoji rap album.

However, I couldn’t deny the fact that I was shimmying my way down the street and bopping my head at the same damn time. It was then that I realized the true genius of Kdot and his vision; instead of appeasing one of the two camps predicting his future, Kendrick decided to subvert them all and create something wholly unexpected. In doing so, his work will now be put under the same scrupulous and polarizing knife that many of greats have had to face (notably…Kanye).

 

If you stated that you expected this TPAB  to turn out this way, I would call you a liar. It is so rich in tradition, wordplay, thematic scope, and messages it is almost impossible to grasp it all. Whether you enjoyed it or felt it was a little disappointing, you have to admit that Kendrick did something beyond special. As he has moved from stoop to stadium, his gaze has widen to reflect his new perspective. Kendrick isn’t only seeing those outside his window, but now a world and a people that have a history untold and uncelebrated; a collection of stories ready to be tapped and shared; a group of humans in need of edification.

Kendrick didn’t just make a new album with a nice concept, he made the audio textbook on black life, experiences, and struggles in America.