Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly (Review)

Jimmy Coultas is wowed by Kendrick Lamar's joyous new release - read his thoughts here.

Jimmy Coultas

Last updated: 17th Mar 2015.
Originally published: 16th Mar 2015

Every year has its cluster of hotly anticipated albums. We've already seen a fervent hype machine get us moist for the likes of Tame Impala and Lana Del Rey, whilst hip hop as a genre has plenty to shout about as many of the scene's leading protagonists ready new material in 2015.

Already Joey Bada$$ has delivered an offering that has pleased the purists and newcomers to the sound in B4.DA.A$$, whilst Kanye West's takeover of the UK (now complete with his Glastonbury news) and Drake doing a Beyonce in releasing his mixtape with no warning announced their intentions clearly.

The first to really throw down a claim to the crown though is Kendrick Lamar, who has released To Pimp a Butterfly (listen above on Spotify) a week ahead of schedule - apparently not at the behest of his management company Top Dawg Entertainment. Early or otherwise it's definitely not unfinished; the end result is simply stunning.

The predecessor, 2012's good kid m.A.A.D city, stands up as arguably the greatest hip hop album of the decade so far, a gorgeously put together ensemble of music that threaded Lamar's chrysalis from street kid to rap superstar. Here, as the title suggests, he is intent on taking that status to the next level by pimping the butterfly and taking on the challenge of bettering his previous work. It certainly feels like he has achieved it.

The first thing to notice is that the sound of the album is so much richer than anything he has done before. Album opener 'Wesley's Theory' hints that Lamar will be getting knee deep in the g-funk soundscapes that dominated West Coast hip-hop's emergence, with the Flying Lotus (who of course has previous with K Dot) produced beat screaming the lineage that has served West Coast hip hop so well, from George Clinton through to Dr Dre.

Both make an appearance on the track, George doing his usual extra terrestrial funk shctick with Dre insisting it's harder to keep wealth than to make it, whilst another LA beat scene stalwart Thundercat adds deliciously funky bass. As album openers go, the cast list is extraordinary as it is ambitious, and as we progress further Lamar never stops reaching for the stars.

The interlude 'For Free?' is a free-wheeling jazz blurb that owes much to the frantic sing-cum-rapping Andre 3000 imparted on 2003's The Love Below, before that melts into the zeal of 'King Kunta', one of three tracks revealed previously.

It's not quite got the grotesque awe of Kanye sampling 'Blood on the Leaves' on 2013's Yeezus but using a 18th century slave as your basis to bash other rappers is impressively leftfield nevertheless. Add to that the West Coast roll of DJ Quik behind it (it samples Mausberg's joint 'Get Nekkid' which he produced) and you're talking about another hit, and one which sounds much better nestled within the album than it did when appearing online in differing stages a few days before the release.

So, three tracks in and the sonic experimentation is rife, and over the remaining songs on the near 80 minutes of music crammed in To Pimp... that lush palette only thickens. 'Alright', with its Pharell production and hook, is a deliciously smoky jazz offering with staccato drums, whilst 'These Walls' benefits from the dual musicianship of Thundercat once more alongside 1500 or Nothin' pianist Larrance Dopson.

They're not the only guests who add to the soundscapes, with Ronald Isley and fellow 1500 or Nothin' brethren James Fauntelroy contributing on one of two tracks that stand tall as the two immediate highlights, the brilliant 'How much a dollar cost' which delves into the impact of wealth. Appearances from Snoop Dogg, Bilal and Rapsody elsewhere are also all equally astute guest additions.

The other jaw dropping song is 'u', yet another example of Lamar's scintillating ability to do new things with his voice. Here he launches into an angry tirade "that loving you is complicated", a whirlwind of rage and self loathing underpinned by a haunting mellow beat that switches pace halfway through.

That lurch also shifts his character's psyche, the anger now consumed by drunken emotion with Lamar crying down the mic, each syllable drenched in tears. The immediate parallel when analysing the delivery is the final verse of Eminem's 'Stan' (above), the final suicidal words of the superfan arguably the moment that confirmed Slim Shady as one of the greatest emcees ever.

That came on the Detroit rapper's second album with Aftermath and Dre (the career juncture Lamar now finds himself in), and the release also coincides just a couple of days shy of the 20 year anniversary of Me Against the World, arguably 2Pac's piece de resistance (the ghost of Shakur appears in the closing bars with an edited interview with Lamar). 

These reference points are vital - Lamar is disinterested with his current competition; he's now on a different stratosphere than his infamous 'Control' verse that lit a torch paper back in 2013 (below).

He's going against the greats of all time, his heroes in Em and Pac and then the pantheon of others across history, Rakim, KRS, Chuck D and Biggie among them. Lamar isn't quite there yet, but this album certainly feels like he is grappling for that bar like no other.

Lyrically this is a much more assured rapper than he has ever been before, and his musing in assessing the plight of African Americans runs deep throughout the release, and feels like a notch above the wistful grappling of spirituality and ghetto dynamics on good kid...

The self empowerment of 'I' and the abrasive aggression of 'Blacker the Berry' seem much better in context than the isolation of when they first appeared in November 2014 and January respectively (although we'll say we were always in the pro camp for the former), and Lamar's ability to tell stories and weave dense dialogue has become even stronger. The scope of every aspect is just much broader, bigger and better.

It's impossible to give this the full analysis at such an early juncture, as much like good kid... this will need time to delve into your soul and permeate your way of living. Any classic needs that space to breathe and show it's true colours.

That said it's hard to imagine this album doing anything but getting more and more fascinating with each listen - even with just a day to hear it we've absorbed it with an ever increasing sense of wonder. Everything about it feels like descending upon a higher sonic plane. It's not just hip hop that needs to step up to this, but music as a whole. All hail King Kendrick.

This summer Lamar will play Wireless and Leeds & Reading festivals - check his other dates here.