To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar ★★★★★

2015To Pimp A ButterflyKendrick Lamar★★★★★96Hip-HopWest Coast Hip-HopJazz Rap

I remember the night To Pimp A Butterfly came out. The album’s two lead singles helped build up hype in Kendrick Lamar’s fanbase — which had slowly but steadily grew in size since 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city was released three years earlier — and for music critics, who hailed the rapper as one of the genre’s most creative minds after just one studio album.   

Released a little before midnight and with work in the morning, I threw the album on, but didn’t know if I would have it in me to fight through my tiredness. Should I stay up, or just go to bed and listen first thing in the morning?

Within the first minute and a half of “Wesley’s Theory,” my mind had been made up. For the next hour and 18 minutes I knew I was in for something special. 

I don’t know what exactly I expected To Pimp A Butterfly to sound like, but whatever it is that “Wesley’s Theory” is — a funky, psychedelic, jazz experiment produced by Flying Lotus, with multiple layers of soul vocals, old school, screeching West Coast synths and Thundercat’s distinctive bass slapping — was something I had never heard before on a hip-hop record. That feeling is carried throughout the record, both musically and lyrically. 

Similar to what Kanye West did for hip-hop in the mid 2000s — expanding the understanding of what hip-hop as a genre could do, with more lush, colorful production, and bringing a huge roster of collaborators together to vary the sounds, voices and personalities found song to song — Kendrick here redefines how deep, how personal, how political and how innovative a hip-hop record can truly be.  

The beats and music are sometimes through-composed, constantly shifting and morphing to match his vocals. The lyrics are smart, powerful, memorable, sometimes catchy and sometimes unexpected, and Kendrick’s various voices and inflections perfectly match his themes and the characters he forms through his stories. Elements like saxophone and clarinet solos, background conversations, brief interludes and harmonies, are continuously added to the album to keep the listener on their toes.

He achieves all of this while staying true to himself and being grounded in his roots — West Coast production flairs, snippets from hometown heroes like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, and themes that revisit his old songs and Compton life. 

Compare almost any song on To Pimp A Butterfly with a typical hip-hop hit from 2013-14, and the chasm between the two makes Kendrick’s tracks almost feel like a different genre. But looking at some of the things artists have put out since, it’s impossible not to credit Kendrick for removing any preconceived constraints of the genre and inspiring the intricacies in storytelling and album building seen from the likes of Schoolboy Q, Vince Staples, Danny Brown, JID and others. 

That point, to me — the vast pallet Kendrick formed and made accessible to a wider audience, not only for himself, but for others — is just as impressive as any of the poignant and timely statements about racial empowerment, social justice and police brutality Kendrick makes throughout the album.

While every track on To Pimp A Butterfly is good, I do prefer listening to good kid, m.A.A.d city. Some of the weightier themes and slower moments on Butterfly drag at times, making the album feel long. And the best tracks on good kid are more fun and better to listen to on repeat, because To Pimp A Butterfly isn’t supposed to be an easy, laid back experience. 

Still, To Pimp A Butterfly is almost undoubtedly Kendrick Lamar’s most important album — the most important socially, the most important for the genre, and the most important for his own career — making it one of the five or six greatest hip-hop records of all time.

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