Released: March 2015
Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar confirms his greatness by following up his 2012 breakthrough Good Kid, M.A.A.D City with the sprawling To Pimp a Buttterfly, his second straight masterpiece.
Though Butterfly isn’t explicitly billed as a concept album like M.A.A.D City, it feels similarly filmic, with snippets of dialogue and a recurring spoken-word poem stitching this set of miniature narratives together. Lamar continues to deal with themes like racial identity, societal pressures and substance abuse but the crisp, modern beats and chart-friendly synths of M.A.A.D City are almost entirely absent, replaced by woozy, jazzy instrumentation. Ominous piano, drunken brass and tumbling drums create an uneasy listen, particularly on tracks like the off-kilter Wesley’s Theory and the increasingly desperate u.
To Pimp a Butterfly is a dense album, both lyrically and musically and without those accessible, instantly hummable hooks, it can be overwhelming, at least initially. But Butterfly rewards multiple listens, gradually revealing new secrets and sonic details until its weird twists and turns burrow their way into your brain.
From the bizarre free-jazz beat poetry of For Sale? to the righteous, ominous march of The Blacker The Berry and the upbeat and self-aggrandising i, Kendrick Lamar throws everything and the kitchen sink into To Kill a Butterfly and this no-holds-barred approach captures his anger, confusion and ambition perfectly. And that’s even before you consider leftfield elements like a strangely insightful fictional conversation with the ghost of Tupac Shakur. Yes that happens and, somehow, it works.
So is To Pimp a Butterfly as good an album as Good Kid M.A.A.D City? That’s tough to say. There’s nothing here quite as instantly catchy as Swimming Pools (Drank) or Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe (though King Kunta, These Walls, The Blacker The Berry and i are all pretty hummable) but what Butterfly lacks in accessibility it more than makes up for in long term enjoyment. It’s best to think of it as a deeper, darker, looser mirror of that most acclaimed of albums, taking its strengths and spinning them into strange new places. And it’s brilliant.