Note: I originally wrote this review for publication in The East Texan on April 9, 2015. It won first place in the annual Texas Intercollegiate Press Association Convention in the Division 3 Critical Review competition in 2016.
Once or twice a year, if we’re lucky, we, as much listeners, are subjected to an album that warrants a five-star review. So far this decade, albums like Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Alvvays’ self-titled debut have been worthy of such acclaim. But only a few times in a lifetime is an album released that shifts the entire musical landscape of our country, providing something that has never been heard before.
To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar is such an album. Kicking off with the repeating phrase “Every nigger is a star” in the opening moments of “Wesley’s Theory,” Lamar sets the tone for a message that can speak to anyone with a shred of empathy (or experience). What follows is a 79-minute magnum opus, an epic for all time that tackles racism, politics, love, hatred, regret, and paying dues in such a way that it almost seems conformist, expected. Lamar’s peace-flag waving response to last year’s wave of highly publicized (and scrutinized) police brutality infuriated some within his own race. But if Butterfly makes one thing clear, it’s that Kendrick Lamar doesn’t condone such offences; he just goes about tackling them in his own way.
Everything in this concept album-done-right is a metaphor, from the contradictory interludes (“For Free?” vs. “For Sale”) that slay 99 percent of his competition on their own merit, to the disenfranchised opinions toward people of color on display in “Alright,” to the constant interruptions by his own music in “King Kunta,” to his final 7-minute interview with Tupac (Lamar’s idol) after working up a poem throughout the album to read to him. Speaking of ‘Pac, even the transition from the ’90s-fueled gang-Rapping (albeit spreading a message of fighting a common enemy rather than within the black culture) in the album’s first half to the solitary self-reflection prevalent in the second speaks to the streets of Compton that shaped Lamar into the man, and the artist, that he is today.
Nobody is safe from the festering, yet controlled rage that Lamar channels, from the institutions of his own race (“Institutionalized”) to the warring politicians in Washington (DemoCrips and Rebloodicans, he calls them). Even so, when a fight breaks out in the crowd during a live rendition of his hit single, “i,” Lamar is able to bring it to a standstill, preaching the gospel about how important black lives really are.
If Kendrick’s grandma really did raise him on the words “Shit don’t change until you get up and wipe ya ass, Nigga,” she must be proud. Coming from his church-based roots, Kendrick Lamar has delivered a sermon that will stand the test of time among the gods of Hip-Hop that came before him. But as the newfound King stands at his pulpit delivering a speech that the entire nation needs to hear, he’s really just speaking to himself.