Apparently not content to wait another week and release it when he said he would, Kendrick jumps out ahead of Death Grips as the first rap bombshell of 2015 (If You're Reading This... is really more of a warning shot). The eagerly awaited follow-up to 2012's masterpiece good kid, m.A.A.d city is finally here!!
GKMC is one of those breakout hip hop albums where basically everyone had to take notice. There's so many things about that are just obviously and objectively fantastic: the overarching plotline, the lyrical complexity, the flawless production, the social relevance, the emotional impact. We hadn't had such a sincere and direct attempt towards masterpiece since MBDTF, and we certainly hadn't had such a success at it. It was one of those "if you buy only one rap album this year, it'll be this" things: even people who were listening to, idk, Fiona Apple or Tama Impala earlier that week, people who had never heard of Gucci Mane, had to take notice. Hell, even my roommates, who usually listen to things like Walk Off the Earth or Weezer, will put on some cuts of GKMC at parties (I think they found out about him because of the Imagine Dragons performance, but whatever).
And that was the same reason that, at first, I was actually pretty cool on GKMC. Lukewarm at best. It just seemed like he was trying so hard to appeal to these audiences... always contextualizing it as something meaningful, when I had a preference for irreverence, or at the least, meaning that it felt only I could find. Stuff like the track names bugged me... or like, at the beginning of "Backseat Freestyle", with the "Martin had a dream!" stuff, it just was like... c'mon man. You don't need to do all this. You can just make a hip hop album.
So I didn't really get it. Because yeah, the stuff that makes it "objectively" a great album is pretty obvious. But the stuff that makes it a great hip hop album is way more subtle. Kendrick's flow is strange, like, at first it felt to me that he was being too controlled by his lyrics, with too much evidence of premeditation to have that really "free" spirit I like. But when it seeps in, when it gets stuck in your head, the real genius of it emerges. This album is, for all its heaviness and complexity, fiendishly addictive. Like, anthemic addictive, with the sort of wide application to your life that you can get out of any other banger. The substance behind it settles into you, rather than remains burdensome.
I guess this is all to say that I feel like this first impression will be pretty insufficient, probably borderline useless. In fact, it'll probably be... almost offensively simplistic. This is the real shit, right here. After perfectly capturing the Compton environment in the slice of an hour, Kendrick turns his view outwards to greater issues of race, class, etc. My view of Kendrick is this: after section.80 did well and he got some attention, he realized he had an extremely rare and incredibly powerful opportunity to speak out on gang issues and represent his community - just like his mom advises him at the end of GKMC. And Kendrick took this very seriously. He treated it like it was his only shot, and for all we know, it was. He knew that nothing less than a masterpiece would suffice. And he believed, he had faith, that audiences would engage with it sincerely, that they would listen to his words, that they would let themselves empathize, no matter where they had come from.
And, proving that sometimes the world is a beautiful worthwhile place, it paid off. Critical acclaim was endless, the tours gigantic (I saw him open for Kanye - an incredible performance, he put every drop of blood and sweat he had into it), and people were engaging with these issues in ways they probably would never have otherwise. So now, 3 years later, is Kendrick content? Is he just gonna hit another home run? Does he know the formula now?
Nah. He seems hungrier than ever. He still seems to be treating this as his "one shot" to make it, as an unprecedented opportunity to say something on his mind. Everything seems even more tryhard, and I feel like I'm bracing myself for certain song titles and such. Again, I feel like I want Kendrick to relax, I want to tell him that none of this is important, that he'd be fine just making a silly album that's fun to make and fun to hear. But I'd be wrong. And, more than anything, I'm excited for him to prove me wrong.
Okay now get on with it
Okay okay. I just want to talk about the title, which is sorta weird. I think it's an allusion to To Kill a Mockingbird. So, in that classic - if you don't know, c'mon - Tom Robinson, an innocent black man, is scapegoated for the rape of a white woman. He is paralleled with a mockingbird: he was doing no harm, so it was a sin to kill him. But, like a bird, the life of a black man in that era was a trifling thing. All you can do is reflect on the immorality.
So To Pimp a Butterfly seems like some sort of modern update... like, now, instead of killing, black people are culturally exploited? And in the same way that killing the mockingbird silences its singing, which everyone enjoys, is harmless, etc... Pimping the butterfly commodifies it and makes its beauty an issue of capitalism, instead of just a positive presence in the world?
Man, I don't know, let's just listen to it. I'm up late enough at is lol.
Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly
1. Wesley's Theory
Ooh, vinyl intro, I love that. Some soul sample welling up. "Every nigger is a star" oh god what could this be sampled from, what regretful era... lol there's a guy I know named Wesley, and he really annoys me, so I'm disposed against this song already. HIT ME! This is... super funky lol. Like almost silly. There's the album title. "At first I did love you, but now I wanna fuck", this reminds me of... Shabazz Palaces, and then all the stuff that they were inspired by. Here we go, going in, I love when he raps in this range. Platinum on EVERYTHING. "Straight from the CIA, set it on my lap", and passing out M16s in the hood. "We should never gave niggers money go back home" oh god haha. Is Kendrick's words reflective of uhh.. "You were my first girlfriend", d'aww. Oooh, Dre voice mail. "You said you wanted a spot like mine", "The hard part is keeping it", oooooh shit "motherfucker you can live at the mall", this flow is bananas. "I can see the dollar in you" wow, like, there's a lot of shit there. "You better cop everything TWO TIMES", damn. Hitting the White House, like on the album cover. This is so pfunky, this outro, haha. Okay it feels like everything was a metaphor and I didn't get it lol. But still godly. **
2. For Free? (Interlude)
Oooh nice transition. This is pretty hype. Haha the DENSITY of this album! "I need that Brazilian wave, 28 inch!" Damn these girls are BULLIES! "My other nigga is on, you off!" Oh shiiiiiiit, "this dick ain't free!", and then SUCH FAST RAP. This is so jaaaaazzy! He's like, riffing! Jesus! This is like, just some slam poetry shit right here! His dick is 9 inches wow. In what way is this an interlude omg this FLOW omg what the djireugwc:Dou WSOIEDJWEoe "Oh America, you bad bitch, I picked cotton and made you rich, now this dick ain't free" HOLY SHIT. **
3. King Kunta
This was a single but I didn't hear it yet. Really funky beat. Already I feel like "Kunta" is a reference I prolly should understand. "The yam is the power that be!" YAMS, THE KING OF CROPS!! This is like that sort of p-funk back and forth. Ooh the way the beat levels up a bit when he goes back to the hook is niiiiiiice. I wonder if the yams are some sort of "little hen" sort of situation. Contemplating getting off the stage to go to the hood and see his enemies, damn. Hahaha at 2:00, that effect is so crazy. "Everybody screaming Compton", it's really crazy when you think about it. Hahaha the smooth criminal screams. "By the time you hear the next pop, the funk will be within you" daaaaamn. Wowowow this outro, I can hear the FlyLo assistance on here, only he can give us this sort of advanced funk. We want the funk! Hell yeah! Oh my god this album is basically stupid good. *
Prison banger! ??? Lots of things to say about the American prison system, I'm sure. Oh wait no we're stuck in the ghetto, that's the prison. Damn. "I could still kill me a nigga, so what". Wow. "If I was president, I would pay my momma's rent" ;______; Ooh the way the beat mixes up at 1:00 is HUGE, and all these funky little interjections. "Oh shit, flow so sick, don't you swallow it", and the saxophone in the background? My GOD. I can't even speak on this verse, "Something came over you when I took you the fucking BET awards", damn... "Shit don't change until you get up and wash your ass", good advice, thanks grandma. Storytelling flows, 5-foot-something. Jesus... it feels like every verse is the best one yet. "Remember stealing from the rich and giving back to the poor? Well that's me at these awards" haha oh god! This album is gonna sweep everything ever so I guess so hahaha. How is this verse starting again right at the end? "You can take your boy out the hood, but you can't take the hood out the homie!" *
5. These Walls
Ooh, the return to this line... "I remember you was conflicted"... the snaps... feels like a jazz trio in some cafe. Oh shit the way they stuttered the vocals for a sec before the beat changes makes me SO HAPPY. I really like these vocals, there's right on the exact emotional range I love. Holy crap man, how can he nail this aesthetic like this? Extended swimming metaphor, cool. "These walls are vulnerable!", I'm not really sure what this verse is about lol. Seems like the walls of a human being? You wall yourself up?? Like when Scout called her dress "4 pink walls" in To Kill A Mockingbird?/?????? "I resonate in these walls", feels really real. I feel a little hypnotized atm, funk-hypnosis being very real and well documented. I love the noodling around 3:30. Kendrick has become my inner voice. I will reflect on the things he has addressed to me I suppose. And now there's a prison. Hooooooo boy, Kendrick is becoming self-referential, at just the right level, ohhhhhhh man. He is going to become a singularity. As soon as he says "like on the first verse" or whatever. "Resentment that turned into a deep depression, finding myself screaming in the hotel room" **
I guess this is the counterpart to "i"... "i" as a single seems like spoilers for the narrative arc of this album, lol. This is pretty crazy. This is on some Yeezus trip. The way the beat sort of synched up with his flow here is mysterious and powerful. Oh man this is brutal, he must be talking to himself. "I fucking hate you, I hope you embrace it", "loving you is complicated", and the way the rhythm becomes complicated too... geeeez. "Loving you, not loving you, 100 proof!" geeeeeeeeeeeeez. And then at 2 minutes, housekeeping shows up... he's been screaming in the hotel room. Ohh snap, it's THIS FLOW. The one he drops for like one line that I thought was to signify having hit the pcp blunt. Oh man this is brutal, I have never heard a rap song like this before. "Then he died, God himself'd say you fucking fail", Kendrick please it'll be okay. The sound effect of him drinking is so sad... Oh my god... This is an unprecedented realness. ***
"Alls my life I had to fight!", damn man... the way he fell into the beat there is nuts. This is pretty slick, the way he doubles up and goes fast is perfect, like, the perfect sort of aggressiveness that feels natural and driven. Nothing is showing off. All is to convey emotional meaning. "I'm at the preacher's door, my knees getting weak and my gun might blow, but we goan be alright". Oh man, he goes back to the verse in the first song, with even more cynicism. And Jesus this flow oh My God. It's relentless! He has such a good understanding of the sonic qualities of the lyrics, but he doesn't compromise the meaning for a second. I love the way motifs are being created, especially this spoken line here at the outro, which inches along... it's sort of like the phone messages in GKMC. **
8. For Sale? (Interlude)
Running for answers from Lucy, who I guess is Lucifer. Huh. This breathing effect is very close and claustrophobic, sounds like a Swans effect. Oh wow this is gorgeous. "What's wrong nigga? I thought you was keeping it gangsta!" Hahaha. Heading into church! And Kendrick coming on, with, of course, an intricate verse with tons of new flows and great lines. Because he is Superman or something, jesus. "You said Sherane had nothing on Lucy, I said you crazy", the little connections with GKMC are great. "Oh no, not the show", hahaha. Or is Lucy... LSD too? Nah probably not. Just seems to be a sort of feeling of giving in to something, anything. Oh also the one that has you sign a contract, VERY INTERESTING. Idk what label Kendrick is even on, Sony Music maybe? This is really really nice anyways. Just a very gorgeous and lush environment. And this gentle scatting on the outro... It's really very nice and grand, in a way. And now we hear even more of this poem, or whatever you want to call it. "Until I came home", damn. *
"I need that sloppy!", huh? "We don't share the synonym? Fall back". References to previous verses and such. There's this performative, "riffing" sorta flow, very very jazzy, I love it. "Thank god for rap, I'd say it got me a plaque, but you know what's better than that? It brought me back home". Nice. Wow. "I know everything", I believe it now. It does feel like a sort of comprehensive return to the home, a feeling of mastery. "Until I realized I didn't know shit, the day it came home". He sees a kid who looks like him, awwww. "Oh I forgot, "Don't kill my vibe", oh right you're famous", oh man this kid IS him, I get it. "Tell your homies to come back home", and then some really "retro" instrumentation, like, all eras of throwback fused together. I originally spelled "fused" as "fewsed", haha I should go to sleep soon. This last verse is nuts, almost a sort of James Brown sorta energy. *
10. Hood Politics
Hahaha this voice mail is pretty cute. "Don't tell me they got you on some weirdo rap shit", "skinny jeans and shit", hahahahaha. And then oooooooh, wow, that beat change. "I been A-1 since day one", and all these boo-boos? Huh? For the dead homies, you gotta go hard every time. That's basically right. "Skip, hop, drip, drop", the white tube socks. "Hopped out the caddy, just got my dick sucked", hahahahaha. The way he's able to paint a picture of a broken system only through a few images is amazing. "From Compton to Congress", yup. "Obama say what it do!" hahaha oh my god, what a message. I hope Obama hears this album, I feel like 90% sure he will by the end of the year, 50% by the end of the month. Ohhhhhhh man, calling out critics, saying if they practiced what they preached, Killer Mike would be platinum. Only one next to Snoop who can press the button. I like how he sorta brings it to a more solid traditional flow through the verses. Oooh, now there's some low rumbling bass chords under the spoken word section. "That didn't stop survivors' guilt"... *
11. How Much A Dollar Cost
How much a dollar really cost, i.e., is it worth moving on from your family of impoverishment? Holy god this beat. Speaking Zulu, there's like, a sort of double narrative with the original journey from Africa. "Tell me how much a diamond cost", oh man, I think there is a cohesive double narrative. Jeeeeeeesus. This is like Finnegans Wake then, lol. The way he can tell a metaphorical story with all the detail and reality of a true incident is amazing. "A stare is contagious", wow. "Have you ever opened up Exodus 14? A humble man is all we need", but is God enough to save Kendrick now? C'mon he already got saved in GKMC enough deus ex machina lmao. This is a great inquiry into emotional state... "I smell grandpa's old medicine leaking from your skin", i.e. alcohol. "He looked at me and said your potential is bittersweet", oh man, yet again, the intensity of this verse has snuck up on me. "Tears of a clown, I guess I'm not all I was meant to be"... The narrative of this album is just... holy shit wow. **
12. Complexion (A Zulu Love)
I love the scratching wow. This feels like something Andre 3000 would do... actually that applies to a lot of this stuff, and obviously that's a top tier compliment. I love those swelling horns. The idea of complexion differences within black culture is entirely mysterious to me, I don't know the signifiers or anything. "Two step"? I love this breakdown at 2:00, the piano and the vocals and the heavy clap is so luxurious... it feels like I could float right into this track. Ooh, who is this rapper? "Excuse me on my Tupac", oh shit! "Enforcing my dark side like a young George Lucas", and then a woo-hah reference, good density. I guess this is Rapsody, really great stuff. "The new James Bond gonna be as black as me!" "Blues and Pirus, no colour ain't a thing". A nice message that doesn't downplay real issues. Oh man that outro. **
13. The Blacker the Berry
Ooooh there was a new vocal at the start, neat. I have heard this like 500 times so I would notice pretty much anything. I LOVE the "you you you you" adlibs. In the context of this album, this song is EVEN CRAZIER, in the context of the narrative. This is the crux: this is the direct attack on Kendrick by Kendrick, this is the reconciliation of survivor's guilt with his personal feeling of personal responsibility. This is also a huge break from the aesthetic of the album so far like OH MY GOD Assassin on this hook is GODLY, "Remember this: every race start from the black", like, nothing else on this album has been in that mode yet. Like so far everything has been in a sort of funk/jazz session... Idk I'll talk about this more later. Why is Assassin so good, like, he's absolutely perfect at what he does. I hope he's on the new Kanye too. "I'm black as the heart of a fucking Aryan" is soooooo goooood omg. The double narrative is really strong here too, I didn't realize when I heard it out of context though. This last verse is SO BRUTAL. "Gangbanging made me kill a nigga blacker than me, hypocrite!" ;;;;;________;;;; And then this smooooooth outro, I really hope it transitions into this next one. ***
14. You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said)
Nah now we're on a whole new groove. So now he has attacked his central hypocrisy that makes him suffer, where are we now? I love these flows, I can quote nothing, everything is important lol. "You ain't gotta lie to kick it", "You ain't gotta try so hard" HEY THAT'S WHAT I SAID. "The loudest one in the room, nigga, that's a complex, lemme put it in the proper context: you ain't gotta lie to kick it", wow this is pretty beautiful actually, when you think about it. But is this the solution? or will it be dismantled too? "You sound like the feds, homie", "This is for the Fugazi", lots of stuff I will come to understand. Oh man at 2:40 this verse construction is pretty impressive, one of those things that has to be perfect or it's hella lame. Damn I am vibing out on this haaaaard. The vocals at the end here are just so rich and nice and peaceful. Ahhh, it seems like this was the lesson all along? **
Oh cool, new intro, I love this... I love this crowd noise, I love the sound of this guy's voice. Hahaha here we go!! I am actually so excited to hear this song now!! This is the triumph! The victory anthem! The song that plays when you see all the exp you get. It's so wild and stuff! I remember when it came out and I heard it alone as the single, I thought it was pretty corny lol but now it feels REAL! I feel genuinely happy that this album seems like it'll have a happy end!! "Dreams are reality's peace!" What a nice idea! And Kendrick just letting everything go all out, "All y'all come to the front", I love that. This song is really damn good man, I don't think I had realized until now. It's just so... overwhelming! It's the overwhelming feeling of finally being able to appreciate yourself, a feeling that consumes and grows itself, a feeling of excited spreading celebration. Oh mannnn this breakdown. How many niggas we lost this year alone? We don't have the time to waste time. We gotta appreciate the little bit of life we got left, man. Some spoken word stuff. The way the crowd fades away here is niiiice. Negus: black emperor. He has come into himself. "Realest Negus alive", King Kendrick, hell yeah. **
16. Mortal Man
Ah, but that wasn't REALLY the finale, you know. Now we got the Impossible Soul of this album. "When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?" damn... "Make room for mistakes and depression" okay I think that line might have changed my life a little. Black cocaine... "I freed you from being a slave your mind, you're welcome", haha. It only isn't arrogant-seeming because he's talking to himself. Like, this is about... will you remember to love yourself through the hard times? Cause wow that is some real shit. "How clutch are the people who say they love you and who pretending?" There's all these aspects to fame that I never think about. I love that the end, the message is really beautiful and reasonable and feasible... Ahh, I can't believe there's still another 9 minutes of this song, it's already so beautiful. "How many leaders you said you needed and then they left you for dead"... "He gave us Billie Jean, you say he touched those kids?" This "cultural leaders via Control namedropping" verse is nuts. Ahhh, and then we return to the spinal poem. How can you convince yourself... of anything? The word was respect. Will this be the rest of the album? Respect, unity... "Shit, and that's all I wrote!"... wow... who has been writing to? What does the ground represent? I'm not sure who is speaking now? Oh mannn, the way the music comes in, and when they start laughing? Oh man, I feel like I could cry! This whole album has been encapsulated in the message Kendrick wanted to have in this conversation. Who is this guy? Is this Dre? Uhh, nah, I don't think so. Somebody super successful. "My faith in God, my faith in the game, and my faith that all good things happen to those who stay true". "I was pushing the right buttons, and it was happening". Good Melee advice. "It's in my veins to fight back". Wow... this is too real man. You gotta strike when the iron is hot. Oh shit... race riots... This is the realest possible shit. The only hope we have left is music. "We ain't really rapping, we just letting our dead homies tell stories through us", one last thing to read. Oh shiiiit, the album title. The hungry caterpillar. The butterfly is the talent, thoughtfulness and beauty within it. Pimping out your talent. Growing wings. And the final unity, the final reconciliation. "Pac?!", I guess it was an imagined conversation with Tupac. OH SHIT, that's it... My god. Wow. ****
Okay let's break down what we just heard, nice and simple
(While I immediately replay the album from the start)
-Kendrick, who has been haunted by depression since adolescence, is having a breakdown as he becomes successful
-This creates an emotional world where the unbearableness of life is assumed, and something must be found to make it worth it (ala Swans, Sun Kil Moon) (beautiful and moving and more important than anything)
-He realizes the only way to truly work through this is by creating music
-He creates an album where we follow him through this breakdown, as he tells stories of meeting himself in different contexts, unable to reconcile himself into a whole person
-This narrative is paralleled with archetypal narratives of black slaves coming from Africa, and any kid coming up in gang-heavy areas. And every narrative that exists in that spectrum.
-It is also musically paralleled through an aesthetic that crosses all temporal boundaries to fuse soul, jazz, funk, and rap. And probably some others.
-At the end, he realizes that he is merely a mortal man: he is fallible. He doesn't have the weight of the world on his shoulders. And he loves himself. He is doing things he's proud of, and he should be happy. But that he also needs to make room for depression and mistakes. That he needs to love himself through it.
Nice and simple?
Not at all what I expected, haha. I got him completely wrong: I figured Kendrick was just hungry to weigh in on a variety of things... I didn't realize how personal this would be, how necessary it was actually for him to make this. And again there's this weird feeling where like... if these are his sincere actual emotions, that what drove him to make the album is what you hear on the album, how could it be so orchestrated, so planned, so intricate? But at the same time, the emotions are so intense, the delivery, how could it be anything less than spontaneous, real? And, even more importantly, does it even matter? The richness of the production, the depth of the lyrics, the tightness and cohesiveness of the whole project - these are the things that will make it engrossing and bangable for decades.
But how are you actually supposed to listen to this album? Like GKMC, a lot of service is paid to advance the overall "plot", the "spine poem" that we keep returning to. But GKMC had a lot more distinction to it, and a feeling of service also being paid for things to be bangers... like, GKMC had the space for kids actually getting wasted at parties to sing the hook on "Swimming Pools", which might be the most critical irony in hip hop of this decade. It sorta feels like he knew not to make that "mistake" again, haha.
And at the same time, this is funky af! Most of the tracks have this HUGE continuous groove in them, which varies from improv minimal jazz to grand space-funk operas to transcendental gospelly stuff to banging hip hop beats... on one level, it almost seems... strangely embarrassing? 'Cause, for me, at least, this is stuff that I'm more familiar with in the context of reference than in the "original source", or whatever... that is, Kanye can sample some old soul classic, and I'll hear it 100 times, and then when I hear the original, it feels... strange, somehow. Like, exposed, sort of? And this production gives me the same feeling, that it ought to somehow be boxed in as a "sample" instead of it being just what I'm listening to. I don't know how to describe the feeling. It isn't bad, but it does take a bit of negotiation. Like, think about what you'd do if you heard "Hey Ya" for the first time right now today.
And the feeling doesn't counteract the overall sensation of listening to the album which is: 1) holy crap Thundercat and FlyLo are geniuses at production and 2) holy crap Kendrick is a genius at rapping. Every track has transformations, every track cannot settle for one memorable moment, or even like five. No verse is good enough that he can resist flipping up the flow into something you'd never heard before, one that shocks you in content and delivery. This is mastery of the highest imaginable form.
So yeah, I liked it, and I feel like I'll like it even more as I explore it and read lyrics and stuff like that. It is a beautiful, moving, awesomely kinetic attempt to answer some of the most meaningful questions any of us will ever struggle with. Listening to this is good for your heart and mind and soul.