Only three months in and 2015 has already seen a lot happen for hip hop, but To Pimp a Butterfly might just be the most important addition – perhaps for the entire year
We saw hints at the theme of ”To Pimp a Butterfly” revealed slowly proceeding release – starting with the drop of ” i” last year. The single pushed a number of fans to topple away from Kendrick, criticised as pandering to a more popular audience so much so that it won him two Grammys; only to be juxtaposed by ‘The Blacker the Berry’. That’s when it became obvious that Kendrick had a bigger picture and we were about to witness an album of uncomfortable truths and unveiling hypocrisies.
To Pimp a Butterfly has a number of standalone tracks with individual narratives – but the album as a whole; is a piece of art with one significant message.
As I listened, I noticed myself comparing the record to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, this wasn’t just because of the political tone – but the production as a whole. The first time I really noticed the similarity was the opening of u, the image of a young man screaming in a hotel room really echoed the intoxicated Bob Geldof trashing his own hotel room in the theatrical version of Pink Floyd’s classic. The screaming, the broken beats, the clinking of glasses and cracking of his voice all mirrored this, to then be cemented with Kendrick’s slurred and dysphoric words. The creative production behind this track (and record as a whole) is what separates it from others, we not only hear – but visualise the emotion with a mise en scène, which is something that is only created with productions like ”To Pimp a Butterfly” or ”The Wall”.
Pink Floyd’s ‘rock opera’ personifies a large community struggle via that of one man and we see hints of this in ”To Pimp a Butterfly”. This comparison is significant because it represents an album that surpasses the artist’s demonstration of musical abilities, to a theatrical production of political and social commentary; one without the other would not have created the masterpiece this is. Kendrick understands the power of his medium and considers it his duty to move his generation forward. The final and tremendously poignant track ‘Mortal Man’ featuring a seamless created conversation between Kendrick and Tupac demonstrates the message of the album, the meaning behind the title and the importance of its timeliness. At one point Tupac is heard saying “I think that niggas is tired of grabbin’ shit out the stores and next time it’s a riot there’s gonna be, like, uh, bloodshed for real.” The point is clear, so much he says rings as true now as it was then, it is important we are reminded of the ongoing extremity of the situation. It is a statement that needs to be heard, not just by hip hop fans but to a wider audience. Since the release of the album Kendrick told the New York Times that “[For many fans], I’m the closest thing to a preacher that they have,” and although I believe that sometimes politics and art are best left separated (i.e Greenday American Idiot) perhaps he is right and this is the best way to reach people – the same way Pink Floyd did. The Wall was hugely impactful, largely due to its accompanying theatrics; film, artwork, live shows – I hope to see Kendrick achieve the same greatness with this record.
One of Kendrick’s defining features is his ability to play and manoeuvre his voice. Through the course of the record we are carried through his emotions via not only the flawless production, lyrics and tempos, but the versatility of his voice. ”For Free” demonstrates his playful side, almost mimicking a more feminine voice throughout with a soulful beat commanding strength within the track, carried through to King Kunta. Kendrick then takes the opposite approach with tracks like ”u” where, as previously mentioned, we hear his words being drunkenly slurred with an overt anguish. We hear this not just from Kendrick’s voice, but the aptly used voice of Snoop Dogg within ”Institutionalized” where his smooth stoned vocals clashes with Kendrick’s aggressive tone bringing the track together. This all aids the theatrics of the albums, emphasising the emotions , which are both the cause and reaction of this album.
It feels wrong to scrutinise the meaning of each individual track, each time I play this record again there is a new realisation. It’s important we recognise the themes of it, issues surrounding race, the music industry and hypocrisy but just as important we appreciate the creative masterpiece this album is. Butterfly has shown Kendrick’s progress in both his perspective and creativity from Good Kid M.A.A.D. City and this progress cements his artistic abilities, ensuring we don’t panic the next time he releases a single like ”i”.
Written by Maya KellerMann