To Pimp A Butterfly is a concept album, so expect spoilers below. If you just need a quick recommendation, go get this album. It’s worth your time. Period.
This is not entertainment. Some songs may be entertaining, at times. But, this is not an entertainment product. This is not music to shake your ass too, although a few songs may inspire some gyrations. Kendrick has set his sights much higher than merely making a fun record, or one with a couple good messages. He easily could do that. Hell, he could easily have simply expanded on the themes of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. He’s too driven to stagnate. He’s got a world to save…
To Pimp A Butterfly is about Kendrick’s journey from the Good Kid in Compton to the renowned emcee that he is now. In that transition, from overconfident kid to self-hating and drunk but successful rapper to flawed but trying Black leader, he hopes we can see ourselves, that we can learn from his story. He tells this story in poems, singing, and rapping, with beats that pull from R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and funk. It’s as dense, varied, and challenging as that all sounds, but it works.
I say challenging because this album was difficult for me, at first. While I love Kendrick’s music, my favorite style of rap with a message is more Wu-Tang Clan or A Tribe Called Quest than Public Enemy. Meaning I still want to be entertained, first and foremost, while learning is a happy accident. Also, I’m the hip-hop head who mainly wants hip-hop over other genres, and abstract storytelling is very hit or miss with me. So I had to let TPAB sink in and grow on me, over multiple listens, before I was ready to accept it and the experiments that initially went over my head (e.g. For Free). I suspect many others will have similar experiences. I can’t say that, now, I love it , but I definitely like it a lot and am glad I made the effort. Also, like many of the latest albums from The Roots, it’s not meant for single-song listening sessions, or skipping around. A story is being relayed and it must be grasped as whole before real appreciation can occur.
So don’t be like me, studying the album song-by-song, while reading lyrics, before letting the whole album play out entirely. See, the album is tied together with bits of a poem that Kendrick wrote to Tupac. These clips end certain songs, getting longer in later songs, until, after the last song, Mortal Man, the whole poem is recited. Kendrick then “interviews” Tupac (‘Pac “responding” with clips from a lesser-known interview), then Kendrick “tells” Tupac a story that summarizes the whole album: the caterpillar is a child of the streets who tries to exploit his own talent (the butterfly), cocoons himself in his city and the shortsighted mindstate that’s prevalent there, but eventually learns a better way to live and becomes the butterfly, free from the cocoon and ready to teach the rest of the city what he learned. That, plus the poem, puts the whole album into a context that makes the earlier songs easier to understand. It’s like watching Fight Club, the reveal at the end forces you to start over and see what things you missed earlier.
Once those messages are heard, the next question is, “do they mean anything to you?” While Kendrick said he’s “not talking to people from the suburbs,” I think that everyone should be able to pull some inspiration from his story. Everyone’s circumstances may be different, but I doubt the existence of people with nothing to regret (U, These Walls), who don’t need a lesson in humility and service to others (How Much A Dollar Cost), and who never tried in vain to fit in (You Ain’t Gotta Lie.) These are Kendrick’s stories, and they may be meant to be most relatable to people with backgrounds like his (i.e., poor Black people), but I believe they are valuable for everyone. They are so human, so honest, that they can’t be overlooked. I don’t think I’ve ever felt self-hate as deeply as on U, where Kendrick’s depression rails at him for shortcomings like not being around to prevent his sister from getting pregnant, but I understand the deep regret that some mistakes bring, and that the same alcohol that numbs those feelings can also bring them to the fore, even in the same drinking session.
Maybe I didn’t listen deep enough to Section.80 and GKMC, but I feel that this is Kendrick at his most vulnerable so far. That’s what makes To Pimp A Butterfly, such an on-message album, not only bearable but good, because we’re mostly learning with Kendrick. Towards the end of the tracklist, songs are less about his story and more about what he wants people to do or think about, but he earns the right to tell us about Black-on-Black crime on Blacker the Berry, and to condemn colorism on Complexion, because we feel like we struggled with him earlier on. I makes sense as an expression of, and call to, self-love, because it counteracts U‘s vile self-hate. To Pimp A Butterfly isn’t preaching fueled by harsh judgments, it’s a friend telling you what he thinks while not hiding his own mistakes that helped enlighten him. I can’t think of anyone in Kendrick’s position with this much to say, who actually says it, this well. It isn’t the most fun I’ve had in ages, but, much more importantly, I think it’ll end up as one of the most important albums to come from hip-hop for a long time.