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“To Pimp a Butterfly” marks Kendrick Lamar’s second classic album

PHOTO CREDIT : MERLIJN HOEK
On Feb. 8, Kendrick Lamar, above, won the award for Best Rap Performance and for Best Rap Song for his song “i” at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards. The track is part of the newly released album” To Pimp a Butterfly.” PHOTO CREDIT : MERLIJN HOEK

Kendrick Lamar is good at three things: storytelling, spoken word poetry and churning out classic albums.  His latest album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” is his second instant classic to come out of the studio and his best album yet. While it is devoid of any club bangers, the album does present an intellectual commentary about society, race and the division between good and evil.

The first four songs on the album present genius thoughts on race, wealth, the celebration of yourself and the hood, but in order to understand the album, you need to look at the fifth track, “These Walls.”  The track is the thesis of the album.  In it, Lamar describes the complexities of trying to fit life into the duality of good and evil.  He asks himself if he really is the hero that many describe him as.  He asks himself if the conflict in his life is worth it.  He asks himself the questions that drive the album. This idea of confusion is central to the album’s theme—Lamar does not have the answers himself, but he has the questions.

The theme culminates at the end of the album’s outro “Mortal Man.” On the track Lamar has a conversation with the man he calls his hero and inspiration, the late Tupac Shakur, and asks him about race, rap and life.  Lamar finishes the spoken word poem that he had been reciting in part for the majority of the album. He relates it back to a Shakur metaphor about good and evil. Shakur’s response, lifted from an interview he did two weeks before the infamous Quad Recording Studio shooting, is the perfect end for the album. He answers all of Lamar’s questions, but then disappears when Lamar asks him a question that his friend wrote. Lamar’s mentor, hero and influence gives him the answers to the questions that have been driving the album. It is a genius move by a genius artist.

“Versatile” is an understatement when it comes to describing Lamar’s flow. In the track “u,” he uses three flows alone. The production on the album demands this type of versatility. When you have a set of funk inspired tracks, such as “King Kunta” and “Wesley’s Theory,” you cannot rap the same way you would on a track that sounds much more like a traditional rap song, such as “Hood Politics.” Lamar shines on both, sounding like a veteran who has been rapping for decades even though “To Pimp a Butterfly” is only his second album.

The only problem with “To Pimp a Butterfly” is that it lacks a certain smoothness.  He takes risks with his flow and delivery that are somewhat unnecessary.  In the track “Momma,” he skirts around the beat, which was an odd move.  It just seemed out of place when most of the album was Lamar rapping on beat.  Also, the lack of a “banger” is disappointing.  On his first major release “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” we saw songs that were destined to be chart toppers like “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Backstreet Freestyle.”  Most of the production in “To Pimp a Butterfly” does not allow a banger. Rather, the funk inspired production moves away from the speaker blaring tracks that were expected.

Another concern with the album is the fact that it seems out of context with most of Lamar’s actions since the release of his previous album.  After “good kid, m.A.A.d city, we saw Lamar claim the crown as King of New York and call out most of the popular rappers post-2010 in Big Sean’s “Control.”  He then proceeded to insult Drake during Top Dawg Entertainment’s rap cypher at the B.E.T. Hip Hop Awards in 2013.  The sudden 180 degree turn from dominating every rapper he sees to caring about society and goodness is just odd. It seemed very out of character for Lamar.

If we consider “good Kid, m.A.A.d city” to be Lamar’s version of “Illmatic,” which is regarded as the greatest rap album ever recorded, then “To Pimp a Butterfly” sets a new precedent in terms of quality. In regards to lyrical content and complexity, the album is simply levels above Lamar’s previous efforts and efforts by other rappers. Due to the lack of a banger and the fact that the subject matter is extremely deep, this album is not fun to listen to. But even as such, this album is not only Lamar’s best album so far, but might just be the best rap album of 2015.

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