To Pimp a Butterfly: Reflections

I haven’t done an album review yet and that isn’t what I’m about to do. But whenever something in music really gets me thinking I gravitate here to write another post; in this case, it’s predictably regarding Kendrick Lamar’s album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” released a week early on March 16. As a disclaimer, I don’t allow myself to read any professional critics’ album reviews online before forming personal opinions, and in any event I don’t find most to be all that thought-provoking. Often times they delve into long-winded analyses of each individual joint on the track list, or else look at the elements of composition and dissect their veracity, from production to delivery to lyricism. Regardless, I’ve spent a couple days mulling over this project and I’m still listening right now as I write — whether that’s because I simply can’t let the music rest, or otherwise, so I can get some inspiration for this post… honestly, each reason is equally valid in its own right. Essentially, reflecting upon my own listening experience, “To Pimp a Butterfly” is both chronically addicting and audaciously inspiring.

The ‘addiction’ part of this equation comes from the fact that the album is an artistic effort that must be actively evaluated as an intellectual masterpiece. I think that hits on one of the great appeals of Kendrick Lamar: to really love what I’m listening to, I first have to comprehend it. The act of understanding what he’s saying and why he’s saying it, how the production behind him buttresses the lyrics and intonation, and in what ways the album works as a whole, is all part of my own personal decision to take part in that intellectual challenge. The beauty of Kendrick Lamar’s music is that the listener is incorporated into its creation and success in making the work take form as an enduring, valued piece of art. Listening to Kendrick is not easy, nor is it free (not just in the sense that I bought it on iTunes without any attempt at copping a leak, all for my desire to pay my dues to the master) — just listen to the first interlude.

On “For Free?”, Kdot repeats seven times: “This dick ain’t free.” It took me about six listens to accept this song as tolerable, and another seven for me to actually appreciate it. One thing Kendrick accomplished with “good kid, m.A.A.d city” is that he permanently convinced us that his version of hip-hop is never rappity-rap; the rhymes are real, they paint a picture, they are Kendrick. With “To Pimp a Butterfly” (TPAB), he pushes us past the picture frame, instead forcing us into the complexities of his own mind: a bold and vulnerable task. So then what exactly is he pointing us to when he says “This dick ain’t free”? Sure, the obvious answer can be confused for a desperate call of masculine pity over the hardships of chasing elusive and easily-judging women, which of course fits right in with the intro to the song, delivered by a salty girl who peppers Kendrick with scalding remarks hearkening back to the infamous conversation on Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” (Oh my god, Becky…). But that doesn’t sound like Kendrick to me, especially taking into account substantial evidence of his recognition of the woes of women trying to make it through any means, with “Keisha’s Song [Her Pain]” on Section.80 and its follow up in “Sing About Me” on GKMC. In the light I’m painting it, the frequent, crude line, delivered in an irritable, almost frantic tone, represents a warning. Kendrick is telling us: “Get ready for what’s coming, I’m gonna flow so hard that this might not even be coherent, and on top of that you won’t even like this song, which is too damn bad. AT LEAST you know it won’t be free, you’ll have to work for it, work to understand it, work to respect it, work to find meaning in it.” In this, Kendrick laughs at the ignorant fool who decides after one time through (“no, I seriously listened to the whole thing, even the 12 minute finale”) that the album wasn’t close to as good as GKMC, and probably not even Section.80. Arguably, the album doesn’t really begin until “King Kunta”, which closes with the first instance of the album’s developing theme: “I remember you was conflicted.” The point that I’m trying to illustrate is that took me more than ten listens to gather my own ideas as to what “For Free?” implies, and all the while I still considered it the worst song on the album, forcing myself into his head. But the point isn’t that the song itself sucks, but that the concept of the song, as it sits in the second slot second on the tracklist, propels the listener forward, intrigued as Kendrick begins to tell his story.

The other bottom line is that it takes time, focus, critical analysis, and complete application to the music to decipher his work. And for the people, for the masses who take part in this exercise of the mind, he’s delivered something so provoking and packed with this stuff that it takes a whole month of listening on repeat in order to finally realize that its worth it to try, cuz this guy is the real deal. That’s what makes TPAB addicting, not because I can immediately say I feel the flow and beat selection, but rather because I am curious enough to let him challenge me. Constantly, it’s like I’m fighting to keep up, like I’m always a step behind what he’s saying or where the beat is going. Basically, it confirms my opinion of Kendrick as a god. The entire time I’ve been plagued by the fact that this isn’t experimentation, but that he’s been working on this for two and a half years and what he’s now released is absolutely air-tight with no loose ends.

So finally to my latter claim: inspiration. As I start to compose this paragraph, I’m still listening to TPAB and have just reached the opening 30 seconds of “Hood Politics,” which from the first time listening has been my favorite 16 bars of the entire album. The smooth bass, the acoustic guitar, and straightforward drum pattern.. OOF, oof is all I can say —  but when the instrumental changes course, I used to think to myself every time, “why didn’t Kendrick just rhyme over that for the entire song??” Only now do I acknowledge that that’s the crux of the issue. It’s an unfortunate display of his maturity, unfortunate because two years ago he would’ve murdered that beat, yet today he donates a half-minute of floating supremacy, and then ruthlessly drowns the temporary elation with a journey into his past, laying down words spoken from the vocabulary and thought process of the kid that grew up in Compton. But those thirty seconds were all it took for me to find inspiration: I’ve already spent a lot of time in thought about my next instrumental, which will undoubtedly feature a mash up of those distilled riffs (dropping summer 2015).

Truthfully, I can imagine any given person finding any sort of inspiration from any single song on this album. There are places where that inspiration may take form of motivation to get off your ass and change whatever you are doing that isn’t working (“Institutionalized”), or to denounce the power of selfishness and embrace humility (“How Much A Dollar Cost”), or to heed Kendrick’s final call to action to promote activism among future generations (“Mortal Man”). It doesn’t quite matter what one takes from “To Pimp a Butterfly,” but it’s impossible for a listener to successfully channel Kdot’s rush of raw emotion and social agenda and self-critique in this album and not have some sort of revelation.