Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” First Listen Review

Those of us in the UK woke up to the crazy news this morning that Kendrick Lamar dropped his highly anticipated new album, “To Pimp A Butterfly”, a week early. We at HipHopHub have taken a few deep breaths, composed ourselves and let K.Dot’s latest work wash over us. Here is our review of To Pimp A Butterfly.

Before we look into the tracks that make up Kendrick’s latest offering, there are a few points that need to be established. Some of the instant internet response to the album have (predictably) bemoaned the lack of ‘bangers’. Prior to the albums accelerated release, the tracks “i”, “The Blacker The Berry” and “King Kunta” hit the net and clearly defined the tone of To Pimp A Butterfly. The combination of his mixtapes, Section.80 and Good Kid m.A.A.d City provided the world with countless certified trunk rattling, club dominating anthems. To Pimp A Butterfly was never going to be in a similar vein to the work that had gone before it. Times have changed and Hip Hop has been crying out for a voice that mirrors the angst of a new generation. Now to the music. Let’s see if To Pimp a Butterfly delivers.

What is clear from the first few listens of To Pimp A Butterfly is that true appreciation of this album won’t be understood on the day of its release. However, as is human nature, we love to throw out our opinions and impressions in a heart beat, so, yeah, here it goes…

After a first run through, the most striking thing is the feel of the album. Unlike a lot of hip hop in the charts that is bass-line led and rather thin on instrumental depth, To Pimp A Butterfly is dripping in rich and complex instrumentation. Right from the off, the album opens with “Wesley’s Theory”. The influence of Funk royalty’s George Clinton is obvious, as the wah pedal licks that helped to define the sound of P-Funk are strewn throughout this opening track. Clinton isn’t the only music legend that lends his talents to Lamar’s 3rd album. How Much A Dollar Cost” is given a sprinkling of vocal class from Ronald Isley. To Pimp A Butterfly musically, is a clever fusion of the great, old and new. Producers such as Pharrell, Flying Lotus and Boi-1da keep the album relevant and stop it from being merely a pastiche.

Lamar has always earnt his rep first and foremost from his lyrics and this album is no different. Hours could be spent delving into the double entendres, references and vocal quirks that are in every song. There are a few tracks however that will steal the most attention. “u” opens with Lamar’s trademark impassioned and volatile delivery, this then transitions into a vulnerable and raw rapping style as Kendrick’s voice breaks with emotion. “u” is the sort of heart on the sleeve hip hop that is so often missing from the genre. As much as Big Sean would have you believe, love and heartbreak can’t always be waved away by saying “I don’t give a f**k”. The final track on the album “Mortal Man” features a cleverly constructed interview with the late Tupac. It samples highly politicized and inflammatory thoughts on class and racial struggle from the late great that sadly, still ring painfully true almost two decades after his death.

Verdict

Kendrick Lamar has been brave. Commercially To Pimp A Butterfly may flounder in comparison to other notable recent hip hop releases. It would have been very easy for Lamar to drop another album similar to GKMC, appeasing the mainstream and making him a pretty penny. That however is the mark of the man as an artist. He isn’t interested in treading water. He is a throwback in the best kind of way. Largely shunning social media and the shallow trappings of society that have come to define modern hip hop and the music industry more generally. He is a socially conscious musician who lets his work do the talking, and does not feel the need to live his life through TMZ articles. As an individual he is innovative, refreshing and educated and his music reflects this.

Every once in a while a piece of music comes along that transcends both a genre or in fact, music entirely. It’s impact is far more profound than just creating something to dance or relax to. To Pimp A Butterfly fits into that category. Adjectives like, good, bad, mediocre, a slow burner aren’t appropriate, or even relevant. To Pimp A Butterfly is important, a statement, a social catalyst. It makes for sobering, humbling and sometimes uncomfortable listening.

It is often easier to recognise greatness and talent when it is no longer there. At only 27, people won’t be comfortable to place Kendrick Lamar on the same echelon as some of the greats of bygone decades. That’s fine, but sit down, listen to To Pimp A Butterfly with an open mind, then try to remember the last time a piece of mainstream music has made you feel like this.