Alex reflects on what made modern classic To Pimp A Butterfly so groundbreaking at the time of its release, but also enduringly relevant.
1994 is argued by many to be the best year for hip-hop releases in the genre’s relatively short history –both Nas and The Notorious B.I.G dropped their seminal and historic debut albums Illmatic and Ready To Die respectively, while Outkast, Gang Starr and Public Enemy also dropped critically acclaimed albums. However, I would argue that 2015 is the best year of them all. Travis Scott’s Rodeo and Future’s DS2 revolutionised music with their introduction of trap to the mainstream; Earl Sweatshirt, A$AP Rocky and Joey Bada$$ cemented themselves as the new face of boom bap; and to top it all off, releases from Dr Dre, Mac Miller, Logic, Action Bronson, JME and Tyler, The Creator saturated the market with an abundance of high quality lyrical hip hop. Even with the top tier releases already stated, none of these fantastic albums compare to the masterpiece which is Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly.
To Pimp A Butterfly was released at a time in American history in which the issues of race and division were central in American politics. Barack Obama was in the final year of his presidency, with the nominees of both parties poised to be some of the most unpopular candidates in electoral history. According to The Guardian, black men were 9 times more likely than white men to be killed by the police in a country where black men accounted for 37% of the prison population despite only making up 12.1% of the overall population. Amidst all this comes Kendrick Lamar, three years out from the release from his critically acclaimed major label debut good kid m.A.A.d city and more eager than ever to portray the worldview a childhood drenched in racism and injustice in Compton develops. Unlike his previous release, TPAB is not an easy listen. It’s an inherently experimental album with deep roots in jazz, while the prevalence of production from underground artists such as Kamasi Washington and Thundercat distinguish it from its contemporaries, which increasingly rely on more EDM inspired beats (nothing against them, JPEGMAFIA and Pi’erre Bourne have been behind some of the best projects to release in recent years).
The main draw of TPAB however, is its lyrical content. I’m going to be controversial here: in my opinion, there is no rapper (bar maybe Black Thought and MF DOOM) who can rival the poetry which Lamar put together on the entire project. u, How Much A Dollar Cost and The Blacker The Berry are the standout tracks in this aspect – I would argue the latter is in the running for the best hip-hop song off all time. Coming back to u, the way in which Lamar uses a metaphorical lover to describe his own complicated relationship with his conscience is an incredibly clever and original approach to a relatively common theme within all genres, and the delivery is truly original. The crying vocals in the second half of the track from Lamar bring emotion which could rival any performance from someone like Bob Dylan (I’m looking at you Post Malone). The fact that a track this experimental and frankly weird can rack up 43 million Spotify streams on a platinum selling album about America’s relationship with blackness is a testament to the intellectual genius that only Kendrick Lamar can bring to the mainstream.
'To Pimp A Butterfly was released at a time in American history in which the issues of race and division were central in American politics'.
TPAB is as much an album about America as it is Lamar; institutional racism, sexism, depression, suicide, poverty, capitalism and the drug war are all covered in a way which would not be out of place coming from the mouth of Martin Luther King or Noam Chomsky. Opening track Wesley’s Theory comes out swinging instantly, targeting the CIA for the disease of gun crime which kills so many predominantly black men every year. The line ‘When I get signed, homie, I'ma buy a strap, straight from the CIA, set it on my lap, Take a few M-16s to the hood, Pass 'em all out on the block, what's good?’ is reminiscent of the sentiments expressed by Laurence Fisburne’s character Furious in John Singleton’s outstanding film Boyz N Tha Hood, who suggests that there is a reason there is a gun and liquor shop on every corner in black neighbourhoods.
Lamar also brings much needed attention to the role of the government and the media in keeping young men in the horrific school to prison pipeline – so much so that the generation defining track Alright has become an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. ‘We gon’ be alright’, chanted protestors against police harassment in Cleveland. The Pharrell Williams produced track takes aim at blue on black violence: ‘and we hate po po, wanna kill us dead I the street fo sho’ raps Lamar, referring to the depressing and frankly disgusting figure that being killed by police is the number one cause of death for young black men in America. The cultural impact of this song is telling in the response it received by right wing media, as shown by the famous sample on DAMN’s DNA. of a Fox News presenter responding to the song by saying ‘hip hop has caused more damage to African Americans in this country than racism’. The sheer amount of pissed-off, rich, white men this album triggered cements it as a standout moment in American pop culture, one which artist like Dave and Stormzy are currently experiencing over here in the UK.
'The sheer amount of pissed-off, rich, white men this album triggered cements it as a standout moment in American pop culture, one which artist like Dave and Stormzy are currently experiencing over here in the UK'.
Overall, To Pimp A Butterfly is so much more than an album. It is a piece of poetry, a love letter to black America and a landmark which any artist is going to really struggle to beat. It positioned Kendrick Lamar as one of the greatest musicians – not just rappers – in history. I’ve talked more about the context than the music here, and that’s deliberate. Musically and technically, it’s perfect, but what makes it truly special is the reaction it caused and the conversation it created. No one since Rage Against The Machine has garnered the attention Lamar sparked around injustice in the world, and I don’t see anyone else managing it at this level for a long time to come.