A personal reflection on “To Pimp a Butterfly”

by Tom Hummer

Classic albums generally take time to achieve that status. Artists don’t know when they’re making them, and listeners can’t recognize them as such on first listen. After all, future impact can’t be predicted or anticipated, and such acclaim is usually determined by the upcoming generation(s) that it influences, not by today’s fans. It’s an effect that slowly compounds over years and years, and only decades later when a record still feels vital, fresh, and relevant, can you really call it timeless. Hell, I didn’t even like most of my favorite records on first listen.

But for me, in 2015, Kendrick Lamar became the exception to that rule. On my second listen through his newest LP, To Pimp A Butterfly, I felt like I was experiencing something truly special. As a music addict, it was akin to the feeling you get when a historic event takes place in your lifetime—a culture-shifting law being passed or a game-changing technological advancement being discovered, in the sense that I was actually witnessing it as it happened rather than acknowledging it in hindsight.

To Pimp A Butterfly accomplished this feat in several ways. Musically, it’s perfect. Every sound is deliberate and no detail feels accidental or out of place. The style and instrumental palette is varied yet always tactful, blending hip-hop, jazz, spoken word, R&B, and funk, while always sounding new and experimental, even when directly referencing the G-funk vibes of the early 90s. This keeps the record from ever getting stale or repetitive, even across its ambitious ~79 minute run-time. It eschews the soulless pop hooks, boring song structures, and campy drum machines that dominate the rap world today. Kendrick’s vocal performance is sharp, dynamic, and cautious. It basically makes all the other hip-hop being released look like a joke—even the other top-notch 2015 hip-hop releases pale in comparison.

There’s a lot more to be said about the music itself, but what truly makes To Pimp A Butterfly an instant classic is the musical quality in conjunction with another attribute that is harder to put your finger on: it is art. To the casual listener it can still succeed overwhelmingly as an entertaining and enjoyable album, but to those willing to dive deeper, it is an artistic statement with several metaphorical layers whose weight rings true today and will continue to 10 and 20 years from now. And if you think that it’s just about race, you’re missing the point. It’s expressionism and social commentary that transcends the confines of race or class relations because Kendrick is smart enough to address these themes from an internal perspective, turning the finger inward and forcing the listener to confront his or her own conscience before examining the world around them. This is what makes the album a true album rather than a collection of songs—even songs like “u”, which I find more difficult to listen to on its own, are a necessary part of the journey. Great records find a way to make even their weaker individual tracks contribute to the experience by letting them play a role in the overall narrative, or by providing variety. Here, Kendrick does both.

I find To Pimp A Butterfly to be a difficult album to put into words, but that’s something I like about it. In a way, it leaves me speechless. It hits me in a personal way that can’t be fully articulated in speech or prose, it just has to be felt and absorbed. For me, that’s a rare achievement and makes this album my clear favorite for 2015.

 

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