Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly

Released March 16, 2015

By Brendan Tuytel

Juxtaposition, it’s a simple concept: two contrasting things emphasizing the differences between them. It can elicit feelings of beauty by drawing attention to the differences that breed uniqueness. Yet, it is also a source of conflict when the two opposites cannot exist as a cohesive whole.

To Pimp a Butterfly is not a rap album. Conceptually, it is robust, thought provoking, mildly disturbing, and extremely rewarding. It’s an introspective character study of self as Kendrick Lamar turns his narrative ability towards the internal conflict his success has yielded. He declares himself to be “institutionalized” by his upbringing, caged by perceptions and expectations. A constant theme is the belief that he cannot shed his past and it consumes him, challenging his ability to tend to his talents. Imagery of caterpillars, consuming, protecting, and metamorphosis are used in typical ways, but with subtle twists.

The album takes a narrative progression that begins with success, moves into insecurity coupled with consumerism and lust, and then goes into self-acceptance and teaching. These various concepts could all be of detriment to each other unless used correctly. By threading his needle expertly through the various patches, Lamar brings together a gorgeous, yet frightening, mosaic of self. Intermittent spoken word interludes eventually bring together a parallel poem, tying together each track with a sordid continuation.

The centerpiece of this album has to be the songs u and i. Those who anticipated this album may recognize i as the upbeat single on which Lamar declares “I love myself.” However, for all the optimism chocked into that single, u offers depression in equal or greater magnitude. Manic shouts of “Loving you is complicated,” create an uneasiness that is only furthered by drunken, sobbing ramblings of character flaws. It’s a track that is unmatched in vulnerability and I found myself getting feelings of anxiety just from listening. Together, the two songs epitomize the internal conflict that drives To Pimp a Butterfly.

The dichotomy of Lamar’s polarized personas is the foundation of the album. It would be easy for such a subject to not be given its due, or for the subject matter to feel unbalanced. Fortunately, To Pimp a Butterfly boasts a musical ensemble that facilitates Lamar’s quest for closure by providing lush instrumentals that juxtapose typical rap beats. Some songs, such as the opening tracks Wesley’s Theory and For Free? (Interlude), get close to being excessive, but some grounding force prevents the listener from getting overstimulated. Part of it is Lamar himself. At the center of the album is the story, and the music is simply the vehicle. When the musicianship is strong, powerful, and commanding, he acts almost as a conductor, queuing frantic swells of bass and vocals.

As a result, it’s hard to talk about individual aspects of To Pimp a Butterfly; it was a conceived as a whole and demands to be consumed as a whole. After giving this album a proper listen, I went back to revisit a few tracks that stood out to me as challenging or enjoyable. What was so surprising was how jarring the songs felt out of context. Such a quality is not a knock on Lamar as a songwriter, but rather a testament to his abilities. What truly makes this album is the closing song, Mortal Man, when Kendrick Lamar closes the album by finishing the poem, some papers rustle, and he breaks to talk to someone (I won’t disclose any more information because the experience is all the more incredible when unexpected).

Lamar challenges his identity as a rapper with To Pimp a Butterfly. His new lifestyle conflicts with the persistent expectation of being “hood,” an identity he feels he can’t shed, until he finds harmony in a new role as a preacher, a messenger, and an artist. All the contrast, and dichotomy, pays off when Lamar is finally at peace. Yet, the equilibrium is challenged and delicate as a sudden and abrasive conclusion to the album leaves the listener breathless.