Kendrick Lamar instantly launched himself into the ranks of the elite MCs with the release of his stellar album good kid, m.A.A.d. city, where he weaved with exceptional skill a complex narrative of a young man’s struggle to escape from all the various negative influences trying to entrap him. good kid managed to avoid the primary problem that plagues most concept albums, as it never felt weighed down by the potential constraints of its central narrative; it was an album filled with hit singles (“Backseat Freestyle”, “Swimming Pools (Drank)”, and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” are just three of the record’s modern classics) that could be enjoyed on their own, but gained an additional weight when placed in context with the underlying story. Kendrick’s technical skills as both a rapper and a writer ensured that there would be heavy anticipation for its follow-up, and for months fans and critics were on the edge of their seats with each revelation.
To be sure, To Pimp A Butterfly meets and possibly exceeds all these expectations. It is more ambitious than its predecessor, moving from documenting a personal struggle to a more universal one, as Kendrick analyzes the trials and tribulations that face black people in America today. The result is a denser, less accessible album than good kid, but represents a true artistic statement. It might best be explained by using the old music critic cliche of the analogous connection to a completely unrelated artist: if good kid, m.A.A.d. city is Kendrick’s The Bends, then To Pimp a Butterfly represents his OK Computer.
The music on Butterfly is a heady and thrilling mix of numerous jazz, funk, and R&B influences, veering from one style to the next and capturing a gamut of emotions and moods. Though Flying Lotus is only credited as a producer for one song, it seems as if the experience of their previous collaboration rubbed off on Kendrick, with the free mix of jazz and electronic elements dominating a significant portion of the record. As the album progresses, the music shifts from a smoother, freer feel to a more deliberate beat, and provides an excellent counter to Kendrick’s growing anger. Spoken word passages also play a significant role, with Kendrick periodically adding lines to a poem that begins each time with “I remember you was conflicted”, and it creates an interesting effect of breaking the album into sections while also providing a connective tissue with narrative thrust.
Butterfly is an album that takes a lot of effort to unpack, but the effort is worth it; though it runs close to eighty minutes, it never feels like a chore to listen. There are not a wealth of singles like good kid, with most of the tracks sounding better in context; “i” works as a single, but it sounds even better as a culmination of the album’s themes and as a response to “u”. As a result, in the future I can see most people (including myself) throwing on the other album more often, but the times we do listen to Butterfly will still be appreciated. After all, this is an album that ends with Kendrick “interviewing” Tupac, and it makes perfect sense that the legend finally has a true successor.