Wednesday, March 18, 2015


By: Connor Glowacki

Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone.
     California rapper Kendrick Lamar's rise in rap music has been a gradual climb over the last few years. From early mixtapes, such as 2009's 'The Kendrick Lamar EP' and 2010's 'Overly Dedicated', Lamar has shown an uncanny ability to combine narratives of gangsta rap and conscious rap within his hometown of Compton, California.
     After 'Overly Dedicated' was released, legendary rapper and producer Dr. Dre, one of the original members of the 1990s hip hop collective N.W.A., reached out to work with Lamar.
     In 2011, Lamar released his first album. It was an independent project titled 'Section.80', a concept album revolving around the hardships of two young women living during the Ronald Reagan presidency. There are many references to the eighties, including the decade long crack epidemic in low income neighborhoods and the high drug and medication tolerance of people born during the Reagan era.
Album cover for 'To Pimp A Butterfly'.
Photo courtesy of
     'Section.80' was a critical success and not only was Kendrick Lamar hailed as a rising star by various music publications, but he would end up being signed to Dr.Dre's Aftermath record label and hailed as the new 'King of the West Coast' by rap heavyweights Dre, Snoop Dogg and Game.
     With Lamar's growing success, his independent label (Top Dawg Entertainment) began to see its stock rise with their other rappers that now include another breakout star in Schoolboy Q and indie darlings Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and Isaiah Rashad.
Lamar's 2012 album 'good kid,
M.A.A.D. City
' is hailed as a
modern day classic.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
     In 2012, Lamar released his second overall, but official major label debut album, 'good kid, M.A.A.D. City' to worldwide acclaim. It was another concept driven piece of work that followed the story of his teenage experiences in the gang lifestyle and drug infested streets of Compton.
     It brought Lamar to superstardom and with hits like 'Swimming Pools', 'Backseat Freestyle' and 'Poetic Justice', the album has gone on to sell over 1.3 million copies in the United States alone.
     Since then, 'good kid, M.A.A.D City' is considered a modern day hip hop classic and Lamar has been touring all over the world. But inevitably, he would have to release another album that would face insane expectations. When Lamar announced his new album, 'To Pimp A Butterfly', he declared that it would be different from 'good kid, M.A.A.D. City'.
     It's been almost two and a half years, but the wait is finally over. Let's break down this new album track by track and see if it stands up to 'good kid, M.A.A.D. City'.

1.) 'Wesley's Theory' featuring George Clinton and Thundercat

     'To Pimp A Butterfly' opens up with 'Wesley's Theory', a song that begins with a musical sense reminiscent of seventies Motown, but transitions into a dark, funkier vibe. This is where we get the first description of the phrase, 'pimping a butterfly'.
Funk musician George Clinton
sings on 'Wesley's Theory'.
Photo courtesy of
     Lamar compares the phrase to how successful black entertainment artists will have or have already become pimped to the entertainment industry.
     "When I get signed, homie I'mma act a fool," states Lamar. It's the common tale of how a musician can fall into the wrong circles or groups and have the external pressures of fame distract themselves from the art that they are trying to portray.
     What's really cool about 'Wesley's Theory is that the song suddenly breaks halfway through into a recorded phone message with Dr.Dre. He warns Lamar that it is just as easy to become irrelevant as it is to become famous.
     Funk pioneer George Clinton provides vocals during the bridge where he ominously sings, "Lookin' down is quite a drop. Lookin' good when you're on top." The song has a warped sense of crazed energy that keeps you captivated.

2.) 'For Free? (Interlude)'

     The interlude starts off with a beautiful saxophone solo by Terrance Martin and leads to a jazz/funk breakdown. Now keep in mind that both of these genres of music were crucial in shaping the early forms of hip hop in the seventies and eighties.
     The first verse is from an unknown female who mocks Lamar for, "walking around like you God's gift to Earth". He responds to this woman in the second verse, but if you look at the theme and total context of what this album is about, you figure out that Lamar is using this conversation between himself and the unknown woman as a metaphor.
     The metaphor goes into how the American entertainment industry is 'pimping' out black artists. Musically, it's again very manic and full of energy that at times feels as if it can't be controlled.

3.) 'King Kunta'

     Some quick background information is necessary before jumping into this track. 'Kunta' is based off of an 18th century slave named Kunta Kinte, whose story was the basis of Alex Harley's novel, Roots: The Saga Of The American Family.
     Kinte had his right foot cut off after an escape attempt from a plantation. So Lamar, now as a major voice in hip hop, uses Kinte's name as 'King Kunta' to differentiate between the highest and lowest levels of society.
     It's another funk based song that sounds nothing like 'good kid, M.A.A.D. City'. With production from Martin, 'King Kunta' is bright and contains lots of live instrumentation. Lyrically, Lamar is mocking the people that doubted his rise to stardom, "B---, where was you when I was walking? Now I run the game got the whole world talking. Everybody wanna cut the legs off him. Black man taking no losses."

4.) 'Institutionalized' featuring Anna Wise, Bilal and Snoop Dogg

     Lamar utilizes his higher vocal inflections to begin the song. "I'm trapped inside the ghetto and I ain't proud to admit it. Institutionalized, I keep running for a visit," Kendrick raps.
Rapper Snoop Dogg provides a verse
on 'Institutionalized'.
Photo courtesy of
     Here he talks about suddenly being surrounded by fake friends who just want to live off his riches, "But something came over you once I took you to the BET Awards". And he's questioning why some rappers are glorifying a violent and lavish lifestyle, even though they've never lived in or visited a hood.
     Snoop Dogg appears on the outro and delivers a poignant line saying that even though Kendrick might be 'king of the west coast' and the former good kid is out of the hood, the hood can never be taken completely out of the kid.

5.) 'These Walls' featuring Anna Wise, Bilal and Tundercat

     This track differs in its meaning throughout its duration. In the first few verses, the walls that Lamar are rhyming about are of a woman's body. This makes you think that 'These Walls' is a song about sex and love.
     But in the final verse, he is rapping about prison. "Wall telling you that commissary is low. Race wars happening no calling CO. No calling your mother to save you, homies to say you're reputable and not acceptable".
     The combination of vocals by Wise and Bilal and production from Thundercat and Martin is smooth and not only fits well with the descriptive native of Lamar's opening lyrics, but also the depressing, sobering nature of prison life.

6.) 'u'

     The hook opens 'u' with Lamar singing, "loving u is complicated". He is rapping about how much he hates himself and hates the person he has become. Lamar has become depressed and manic after the critical and commercial success of 'good kid, M.A.A.D. City'. He doubts that he actually has talent, "Watching anonymous strangers tellin' me that I'm yours. But you ain't s---, I'm convinced your talent's nothin' special".
     He blames himself for his younger sister becoming pregnant as a teenager and how he was touring and selling out shows around the world instead of being at home and being more of a positive influence on her.
     Lamar also feels guilty because his friends are upset that he hasn't returned to visit Compton more and that he has forgotten his roots. Later in 'u', he details how one of his best friends from home was shot and died in a hospital. Lamar, however, was touring overseas and couldn't make it back to his fallen friend.
     In a culture where hip hop is dominated by braggadocios materialistic rap, this kind of authentic subject matter is extremely refreshing. 'u' is RAW and it is real.

7.) 'Alright'

Pharrell Williams sings and produces on
Photo courtesy of
     Interestingly enough, 'Alright' was produced by superstar producer/singer Pharrell Williams. And needless to say, this is one of the few songs on 'To Pimp A Butterfly' that I could see finding success at radio. The production is bouncier, but retains that deranged energy.
     Lamar references an excerpt from Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Color Purple, with the quote, "Alls my life I has to fight". There are further lyrical references to slavery, religion, and how music industry executives only care about artists on a commercial basis.
     But with Lamar and Williams joining in on the chorus with the chant, "We gonna be alright", you get lost in the uptempo production while in the midst of trying to comprehend the subject matter.

8.) 'For Sale? (Interlude)'

     The second interlude showcases Lamar interacting with a woman, or possibly a being known as 'Lucy'. But with some of the subject matter already delving into religion, could 'Lucy' be a name short for 'Lucifer'? Or a name to stand for the world's problems among the racial divide? In the last verse, Lamar finally indicates that he is returning home to Compton. Now at the half way point of 'To Pimp A Butterfly', will he finally find solace by returning home?

9.) 'Momma'

     As the end of the previous interlude indicated, 'Momma' details Lamar's return home to Compton after all of his success in music. It feels somewhat triumphant with a gospel choir chanting during the chorus, "We've been waiting for you".
     And yet it begins to feel chaotic with clamoring bells and other rhythmic noises providing several distractions during the song's subject matter. He continues to reference 'Lucy' or 'Lucifer' throughout the song and becomes very frantic during the last verse.

10.) 'Hood Politics'

    When I discovered that 'Hood Politics' featured a sample of 'All For Myself' by singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens, I was impressed that Lamar knew who Stevens was. Nevertheless, there is great production ranging gradually increasing keyboards to menacing beats by producers Sounwave, Thundercat and Tae Beast.
     Lamar defensively responds to a critic that he will stay true to himself and not chase any trends, "Came in this game, you stuck your fangs in this game. You wore no chain in this game your hood, your name in this game."
The LAPD is a target of attacks
from Lamar on 'Hood Politics'.
Photo courtesy of
     This song is an insight into what word is actually spreading out in the hood. He learns from friends on the streets that the new gangs in Compton aren't the notorious Bloods and Crips, but instead the Republicans and Democrats.
     "From Compton to Congress. Set trippin' all around. Ain't nothing new but a flow of new DemoCrips and ReBloodicans. Red State versus a blue state, which one are you governin? They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs."
     There are unapologetic attacks on politicians and the Los Angeles Police Department because of the complete lack of trust that people living in these situations have for high ranking officials.
     Another highlight on 'Hood Politics' was Lamar attacking music critics for being inconsistent with where they want rap to go, as far as being more lyrical. "Critics want to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin. If you did, then Killer Mike would be platinum". That line made me chuckle and I agree with every sentiment and aspect of it.

11.) 'How Much A Dollar Cost?' featuring James Fauntleroy and Ronald Isley

Ronald Isley provides vocals on
'How Much A Dollar Cost?'
     This song contains haunting vocals from both Fauntleroy and Isley, of the Isley Brothers. If you listen to the lyrics in this song, it's Lamar describing meeting God at a gas station in the image of a homeless man. When the man (God) asks him for a dollar, Lamar resents him and showcases his selfishness, to which he attributes to his success.
     There are plenty of religious notions and instances mentioned in the song that might be related to him personally, in the sense of whether he should focus on making more money and becoming more famous or using the platform he has to give back to those who supported him.

12.) 'Complexion (A Zulu Love)' featuring Rapsody

     Like a lot of songs on 'To Pimp A Butterfly', 'Complexion' has a pro-black theme that strongly resonates. It talks about putting away the standards of societal beauty that are placed, in terms of colorism.
     An uplifting song where Lamar maintains the importance of loving all forms of black, no matter if that shade of black is light or dark.
Rapper Rapsody provides a verse
on 'Complexion'.
Photo courtesy of
     "Then wit told me, 'A woman is woman, love the creation' it all came from God then you was my confirmation. I came to where you reside and looked around to see more sights for sore eyes."
     I was pleasantly surprised to see a verse from emerging female rapper Rapsody on 'Complexion'. She gives shoutouts to Stuart Scott and Tupac Shakur and continues the inspirational subject matter. "Call your brothers magnificent. Call all the sisters queens. We all on the same team, blues and prius, no colors ain't a thing."
     This song sounds inspired from something that Tupac would have written. It specifically reminds me of his song, 'Keep Ya Head Up'.

13.) 'The Blacker The Berry'

     'The Blacker The Berry' was released as the album's second single back in February and it created quite a stir of controversy for its lyrics. Overall, it deals with radicalized self-hatred in the black community. Lamar plays on different meanings of what the bottom of mankind means and the stereotypes of the black community. Instead of dismissing these stereotypes, he embraces them as his own.
     There are references into how young, black men are the highest group sent to prison. Lamar also compares gangs in Compton and throughout the county to tribes in South Africa who might go to war with each other. "It's funny how Zulu and Xhosa might go to war. Two tribal armies that want to build and destroy. Remind me of these Compton crip gangs that live next door". However, the song ends with him encouraging the listener to delve deeper into the content of this song. And it's that the issue of hypocrisy is inevitable in all communities.
     'The Blacker The Berry' is raw, in your face, and an overall successful example of an artist using a platform to stand up for something and speak out.

14.) 'You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said)'

     Instrumentally, it's a nice change of pace that this song stays calm and cool after the extremely aggressive 'The Blacker The Berry'. The basic aspect of this song is Lamar telling a friend that you don't need the typical hip hop lifestyle (women, drugs, money, cars) to live a happy life. It will only cause more trouble in the long run.

15.) 'i'

     'i' was released as the lead single for 'To Pimp A Butterfly' all the way back last September. In radio    interviews, Kendrick wrote the song for his homies that were in prison and for people that are contemplating suicide. Unlike 'u' and other songs on this album, 'i' is WAY more positive. It's a song about loving one's self.
Cover Art for the single 'i'.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
     The intro of the song describes Lamar not as a rapper, but as a poet or a writer. There have been several interviews where he has stated that he sees himself more as a writer now than as a rapper.
     'i' is very funky with lots of groove in the instrumentation and even features a sample of 'That Lady' from The Isley Brothers.
     Although a lot of people, including myself were skeptical of this song when it was first released as a standalone single, it fits well on an album of self-exploration and Lamar constantly doubting himself and what he had become due to his success.

16.) 'Mortal Man'

     This is the final song off of the album and it's a whopping 12 minutes! But it feels like it goes by quicker and in a good way. Ultimately, Lamar realizes that he is the new voice in a line of leaders in the black community.
     What's really cool is that in the last verse, he interviews Tupac Shakur! Okay, it's not an actual interview. But Tupac's quotes were brought from an interview of his back in 1994.
     In a line of leaders from Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, etc., he realizes that he has a limited amount of time on Earth and needs to speak his mind about issues as long as he can.


Photo courtesy of
     It's hard nowadays for me to listen to an album and not find any kinds of faults. But some albums are just near perfect and feel timely in current events.
     With the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other young black men who have been killed by police officers, the cries for racial inequality and police brutality have risen all across the United States.
     'To Pimp A Butterfly' is the album that attempts to inspire a new generation to change the world. It expands upon the local issues of race from 'good kid, M.A.A.D. City', but expands it to a worldwide audience. It's an album that showcases more of Kendrick's personality and that he feels trapped, depressed and eventually relieved over how he should be using his musical platform.
      It's not that Kendrick Lamar is preaching these statements or statistics down our throats, but he makes these events of racial injustice personal and somehow even relatable.
Photo courtesy of NME.
     While so many rappers have been criticized outside of the rap community for delivering subject matter about the stereotypical drugs, sex, money for purely braggadocios reasons. It's refreshing to hear a rapper talk about these things in the proper context of the song and the album.
     Musically, Lamar's incorporating jazz, funk and even spoken word poetry back into hip hop. He is willing to push himself outside of his comfort zone and not repeat a formulaic pattern for success.
     'To Pimp A Butterfly' is a masterpiece and is on par with 'good kid, M.A.A.D. City'. I think that due to the intellectual subject matter, wordplay and production, it could be viewed as being the superior project in a few years.
     If you are not a fan of this musical genre, I STRONGLY urge you to give this a chance. Hip Hop, like many other musical genres, is stereotyped in the mainstream media. At times it's fair and other times it's not. Kendrick Lamar's 'To Pimp A Butterfly' is not a stereotype, it is a classic that will be a benchmark in music for years to come.


1.) 'Hood Politics'          2.) 'Institutionalized'           3.) 'Complexion (A Zulu Love)'

Did you like this album? Did you hate it? Leave a comment below or send me a comment on Twitter @ConnorGlowacki.

No comments:

Post a Comment