Classic Albums: 'To Pimp A Butterfly' by Kendrick Lamar

By Jacinta Howard

His subsequent album DAMN. may have the Pulitzer Prize, but TPAB, with its experimental concepts and production, is the album that elevated Kendrick from supremely talented rapper to one of the most intriguing, and yes, trite as it sounds, important artists of our time.

Kendrick called on his regular producer Sounwave to shape the album, but this go-around he pulled some of the most talented artists shaping jazz music today, including saxophonist/producer Terrace Martin, who greatly shaped the album and added layers of depth to the jazzy sound that permeates the entire project. Combined with the sliding, west coast bass lines and Kendrick’s affinity for his hometown, it makes for a unique sound that felt familiar but impossible to emulate.

Martin pulled in some of the best names in jazz to work on the project, including his longtime friend, pianist Robert Glasper (“Complexion (A Zulu Love),” “Blacker the Berry,” “Mortal Man,”), producer Flying Lotus, and bass player Thundercat. Together, along with a few others, they’re the musicians shaping the current jazz scene, and it’s apparent when you listen to the experimental cohesiveness of TPAB. Dexterous singer/songwriter Bilal shows up on some of the album’s most memorable entries, lending his signature soulful, outer space vocals (“Institutionalized,” “These Walls”), while regular collaborator singer/songwriter Anna Wise shows up on the same tracks, adding an air of wispy depth to the tracks. Producer Knxweldge, who was on the cusp of dropping his stellar work with Anderson.Paak as NxWorries, also lends production on a standout track, “Momma,” (which also features soul greats Lalah Hathaway and Rashaan Patterson).

Lyrically, the album is just as dense as it is musically.

As with most of Kendrick’s works, his sophomore album is conceptual. His major label debut, 2011’s good kid mA.A.d city focused on Kendrick as he teetered on the cusp of adulthood, reckoning with his place in society, his surroundings, and his spirituality. Ultimately, he finds God, witnessed through the salvation prayer led by the late legendary poet Maya Angelou. Three years later, on To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick has been found spiritually but now the real test begins because Lucy (his short name for Lucifer) is now in hot pursuit. Lucy appears throughout the project in spurts, on verses, in some of the chilling interludes, as Kendrick tries to outrun the carnal temptations that come with fame, and from simply being a Black man in America. 

And later, we see him bring the idea of being tempted after seeking salvation on his first album brought full circle:

His spiritual reckoning continues on tracks like President Obama’s pick for song of the year,  “How Much A Dollar Cost?” featuring fantastic, seamless features James Fauntleroy and Ron Isley, where he spins an eerie morality tale about a woman, a story concept that he later follows on his trippy opening on 2017’s DAMN. On that album, he’s essentially succumbed to the weight of the world, and its many temptations, and we meet Kendrick in a place of apathetic distress as he realizes he’s essentially lost his battle.

But throughout TPAB, we see Kendrick in a constant state of turmoil, fighting with himself and his baser desires while craving to be the spiritual man he thinks he should be. You can hear this clearly on “U,” where he takes a tangled, painful journey to finding self-worth.

“Loving you is complicated,” he cries repeatedly.

By the album closer, “Mortal Man,” he finally finishes the poem that he’d been scattering throughout the project, seeming to come to terms with himself and his oppressor as he realizes what gives him peace. While Kendrick takes a complicated deep dive into his psyche as he wrestles with this spirituality and the man he wants to be versus who he’s becoming, he’s simultaneously weaving a narrative about a young Black man who’s trying to carve out his place in a country that’s always sought to exploit and then destroy him. In that sense, Lucy is also American whiteness.

At times, he’s boastful when he declares his worth. On the lead single, “King Kunta,” which properly samples fellow Compton king, DJ Quik, he declares: “Bitch where you when I was walkin'?/Now I run the game got the whole world talkin', King Kunta/Everybody wanna cut the legs off him, Kunta/Black man taking no losses.”

And on “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” Raposdy shows up to help him defy America’s gross, colorist beauty standards, while on “Alright” — this generation’s civil right’s anthem, and one of his signature songs — he proclaims Black folks are going to be okay over the sharp drums of Pharrell’s slow-moving production.

Other times he’s cunning, as he is on one of the most memorable, creative interludes ever, “For Free '' where he scat-raps over Terrace Martin’s smooth, yet somehow raging saxophone while pianist Robert Glasper glides in the background. Here, Kendrick cleverly bashes America for exploiting Black culture: “Oh America, you bad bitch, I picked cotton and made you rich/Now my dick ain't free.” 

One of the richest musical experiences of our time, even with its rare misses (namely “i” with his very on the nose messaging about self-love), To Pimp A Butterfly is an album that will be talked about for years to come. It’ll be studied, dissected, and placed in the discussion of all-time greats, regardless of genre, as it should be.