With Kendrick Lamar’s debut album, “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” the Compton, California rapper put himself on the map with his unique thought-provoking lyrics’ and detailed portrait of life on the streets of SoCal. With his second major-label release, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar establishes himself as a true force of nature and a worthy challenger of Kanye West for hip-hop’s throne.
The album, scheduled to be released on March 24 but unexpectedly appearing on iTunes a week earlier, is a sprawling, politically charged album that speaks to the heated racial discussions that have dominated headlines over the past year. Spanning 78 minutes and 16 tracks, “Butterfly” weaves together funk, jazz, spoken word poetry and Lamar’s unmistakable flow to piece together a daunting, challenging masterpiece that raises the bar higher than most rappers can dream of reaching.
The opening track prominently features a sample of reggae artist Boris Gardiner’s “Every N—– Is A Star,” and guest spots from George Clinton and Lamar’s mentor and frequent collaborator, Dr. Dre. The ‘70’s funk influences reign large on this track as well as the racial undertones that pace the album. After an early interlude, third track “King Kunta” (named after the protagonist of the classic miniseries, “Roots”) turns up the heat and sees K-Dot unleash, as he spews out his words to vent his anger over a funky beat.
The next two tracks, “Institutionalized”, and the more emotional “These Walls,” features singers Bilal and Anna Wise, but deal with very different themes. “Institutionalized” deals with the perils of growing up in Compton, with Snoop Dogg dropping in to act as narrator, saying “ And once upon a time in a city so divine/ Called West Side Compton, there stood a little n—- / He was 5 foot something, dazed and confused / Talented but still under the neighborhood ruse / You can take your boy out the hood but you can’t take the hood out the homie.”
The next track, “u,” shares title similarities with lead single, “i,” but is slower and more serious than its counterpart. The repeated opening lines of “loving you is complicated” set the tone before Lamar breaks into a fierce verse that contrasts nicely with its soft jazz background.
Fast forwarding to the back half of the album, ninth track “Momma,” features samples from Lalah Hathaway and Sly and the Family Stone, and sees Lamar looking back at how far he has come since his rapid rise to fame on the back of “m.A.A.d city,” while also contemplating what is next for him.
Following “Momma” is “Hood Politics,” which as its title suggests, a political rager filled with lines like “From Compton to Congress” and “Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-icans.” The track ends with a spoken-word piece that sees Lamar getting personal with talks of depression and self-destruction.
Anchoring the back half of the album is the aggressive and fiery second single, “The Blacker the Berry.” Lamar began writing the lyrics to the race-driven track three years ago, after the news of Trayvon Martin’s murder. Hathaway returns to sing the intro before K-Dot jumps in with his confrontational lyrics confronting racism head on, spewing “I’m African-American, I’m African / I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village / Pardon my residence / Came from the bottom of mankind / My hair is nappy, my d— is big, my nose is round and wide / You hate me don’t you?”
The mood lightens up with lead single “i,” appearing here as a much different version than the one released last September. The light-hearted song is carried by the wonderful catchy hook of “I love myself,” and the funky guitar that accompanies it.
The album closes with “Mortal Man,” a 12 minute track that sees Lamar continually mention Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. before ending with a lengthy, unsettling faux interview with the ghost of his west coast hero, Tupac Shakur. Here Lamar asks Pac questions of which the answers are pulled from an interview in 1993.
With “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Kedrick Lamar gives us something new. While “m.A.A.d city” was a personal look into the life of Lamar growing up in Compton, “Butterfly” is a social commentary of being a black man in the 21st century and dealing with the pros and cons of sudden success and fame. As a newly crowned member of rap royalty, Lamar knows it is his responsibility to be a voice in these controversial subjects, and he manages to do it with vigor and style, like only an artist of his caliber can.