Butterfly: The metamorphosis of Kendrick Lamar

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Eric Novak, Staff Writer

 

Last week, the unthinkable happened. The new Kendrick Lamar album To Pimp A Butterfly dropped a week early. The Internet was abuzz with furious enthusiasm, as this might have been one of the most anticipated albums so far in 2015.

The album itself is an ambitious 78 minutes long, with 16 tracks, the average running time being around four-and-a-half minutes each. In this album, the famed rapper touches on countless hot button issues, such as fame, racial hatred, loving yourself, gang violence and more.

While known for a flow influenced by the likes of Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Lil Wayne and DMX, Lamar has made huge changes to his sound since critically acclaimed album good kid, M.A.A.D. city.

To Pimp A Butterfly shows him experimenting more heavily with jazz and funk rhythms and timbres. The opening track, “Wesley’s Theory” even features funk god George Clinton himself. Clinton, the leader of the innovative band Parliament-Funkadelic, intones the opening verse of the album that claims black artists are pimped by the entertainment industry for its own benefit.

This verse is both hard-hitting and funky as hell, which sets the stage for the rest of the album. “Wesley’s Theory” runs straight into “For Free (Interlude),” a track where Lamar spits out rhymes at the same speed saxophonist Charlie Parker might play a solo in a bebop tune. This track features a live jazz trio led by famous pianist Robert Glasper, which gives it much of its fire.

Live musicians are emphasized on this record, which includes contributions from bass savant Thundercat and saxophonists Terrence Martin and Kamasi Washington. The emphasis on live music being played rather than just drawing on electronic sounds or samples give it an organic, breathing quality.

Lamar isn’t just rapping over a collection of beats, he’s rapping over an actual band, which responds emotionally to the verses that he is letting out, often at breakneck speeds. This sets the album apart from traditional rap records, which rely heavily on samples and gives the album much more musical depth and complexity.

The intensity of this album never lets up throughout its lengthy run-time; even on slower, smoother tracks like “For Sale (Interlude),” Kendrick raps about being seduced by a character named “Lucy,” a stand in for Lucifer himself.

On “u”, Lamar raps openly about his own problems with depression and self-doubt, even as his reputation grew. These moments of intense inner questioning paired up with the more confident sounding tracks like “King Kunta” turn this album into a well-rounded tour-de-force.

This is a very socially conscious album, but Kendrick Lamar makes it very easy to groove to, whether you are a rap, funk or jazz fan. Lamar reveals himself as one of the most self-aware rappers of his generation, simultaneously boasting his rapping prowess and exposing his own hypocrisies and faults.

Throughout the album, Lamar ends a few of the tracks with a poem he wrote, reading more and more of the poem with each passing track. By the final track, he recites it in its entirety, and reveals that he’s reading it to famous rapper Tupac Shakur, one of Lamar’s biggest influences.

This is a very special moment, showing that Kendrick has people that he looks up to and respects. It’s a perfect way to end the album, as Lamar leaves some very relevant and important questions for the listener to chew on. This album isn’t just a musical statement that you listen to from beginning to end. Rather, it’s full of wisdom and questions that are meant to help unfurl our twisted society a little bit at a time.