Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp A Butterfly

topimpabuterflyI don’t really know what’s going on here. And what’s more, I don’t really have much of a hip-hop history on which to rely when trying to comprehend what’s going on. And the times I think I do know what’s going on, I think I might disagree or dislike it. And that’s cool, because I don’t think Kendrick Lamar was aiming for a 40-year-old white software developer as his main audience. But I want to get it, and I really do like it.

I mean, given that hip-hop sits where rock and roll did as cultural influence when I was growing up, I feel like it’s important for me to make an effort to get into it. And I liked what I heard from Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, so yeah, let’s take some time with the top of the genre and work our way in.

This is a sprawling beast of an album that actually seems to achieve, if not surpass, its lofty ambitions. It’s all over the place lyrically and musically, yet remains cohesive. There’s jazz, beat poetry, and Prince and George Clinton influence oozing throughout the live instrumentation that dominates this disc almost as much as samplers and drum machines do. There’s a Black rags-to-riches story set in 2015 America containing on the order of 15 or so characters that’s probably more than a little autobiographical. Lamar (and his collaborators?) weave in and out of the characters, imbuing them each with a personality and diction that keeps each distinctly recognizable. Throughout there’s a poem Lamar (or his main character?) wrote given in pieces, finally revealed in its fullest in a pieced together imaginary interview between him and Tupac Shakur, using actual audio from a Tupac interview.

There’s a lot here. I’ve been listening to this for weeks, and I keep grokking more. There’s a ton I know I can’t get, at least in part because I just don’t know the dialect. It’s a rich universe. And yet I find myself getting hung up on a few misunderstandings here and there. Like, in “How Much A Dollar Cost,” is this an anti-panhandling, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps song, or is that just the surface and I’m missing that this is told from a character’s perspective? Or is the character going through some kind of development I’m not picking up on?

And then there’s “Mortal Man,” the last track, that ends with the Tupac interview. After name-dropping Mandela several times and asking “When s**t hits the fan is you still a fan?,” and then shifting to Michael Jackson…I don’t know, am I supposed to still be a fan even if he “touched those kids?” I can’t figure out if loyalty is good or bad here. And then there’s the interview with Tupac which (1) seems to be filled with questions about whether he’s a great rapper or the greatest rapper, and (2) feels like the two talking past each other, never answering the question or changing the subject without acknowledging what the other said. I mean, I know one of the guys was dead when this was recorded, but so did Lamar when he scripted the whole thing.

I don’t know. Someday somebody will write an analysis for middle-aged, white guys with dad bods and then maybe I’ll understand it fully enough to give it that last half-clown.

Rating:
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Love: “These Walls”
Really Like: “King Kunta,” “Alright,” “The Blacker The Berry”
Like: “Wesley’s Theory,” “For Free? (Interlude),” “Institutionalized,” “u,” “ForSale? (Interlude),” “Hood Politics,” “How Much A Dollar Cost,” “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said),” “i,” “Mortal Man”
Meh: “Momma”
Song Notes: After the jump

  1. Wesley’s Theory – Parliament. “now I just wanna f**k” “every n****r is a star”
  2. For Free? (Interlude) – great beginning. scat.
  3. King Kunta –
  4. Institutionalized – “s**t don’t change…”
  5. These Walls – Prince. beat poet start then moans then freakin’ awesome.
  6. u – drunk guy in second half
  7. Alright – “and we hate popo”
  8. For Sale? (Interlude) –
  9. Momma –
  10. Hood Politics – “boo boo”
  11. How Much A Dollar Cost –
  12. Complexion (A Zulu Love) –
  13. The Blacker The Berry – spitting mad
  14. You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said) –
  15. i – song part is love, rant is dislike, so split the difference and call it like
  16. Mortal Man – beautiful piano. am i supposed to still be a fan?
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