EW Music staffers Kyle Anderson and Eric Renner Brown on the surprise release.
Kyle Anderson: The road to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was not as rocky as the one that led us to Madonna’s Rebel Heart, but it was still fraught: After first single “i” arrived late last summer, the followup to Lamar’s astoundingly great debut good kid, m.a.a.d. City seemed imminent. But Kendrick played everything pretty close to the vest, and he would not commit to an album release date until just a week ago—when he announced that To Pimp A Butterfly would arrive on March 23.
And then, while we were sleeping, the album showed up on iTunes. (Oddly, the edited version was the only one available for a few hours—which, combined with an accusatory tweet from Kendrick’s label boss, Top Dawg Entertainment CEO Anthony Tiffith, has led everybody to assume something went horribly wrong with the rollout.)
Now that the dust has cleared, we’re left with To Pimp a Butterfly, a 16-track collection that is the sound of Kendrick Lamar cashing in on his cultural cache and going for broke. It’s a weird, tough album that is really meant to be heard as a continuous 80-minute experience. I’m immediately drawn to the bombastic tunes that mark Kendrick as a political firebrand: the previously-heard “The Blacker the Berry,” the chest-thumping “King Kunta,” the throbbing “Hood Politics.” But Kendrick is a lover as well as a fighter, and “These Walls” is a delightfully funky sex jam.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s start at the beginning: Eric, what was your level of anticipation for To Pimp a Butterfly, and what are your first impressions?
Eric Renner Brown: Kendrick dropped good kid, m.A.A.d. City back in 2012, and has made his ambition known ever since. With his show-stealing verse on Big Sean’s 2013 cut “Control,” Kendrick called out basically every rapper in the game. Then he went on tour with Kanye “Yeezus” West, the only MC whose vision still outstrips the Compton native’s own. All that came before Macklemore stole the Best Rap Album Grammy that many (including Macklemore) thought good kid deserved, reigniting issues of race and reward in mainstream hip-hop. When D’Angelo speed-released Black Messiah in December to address the #blacklivesmatter movement, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person wondering when we’d hear from Kendrick again. Forget anticipation—it’s hard to remember the last time America, much less the rap game, needed a record as badly as it needed a new one from Kendrick.
To Pimp a Butterfly comes on the tail of Kendrick’s phenomenal yin-yang pair of singles, “i” and “The Blacker the Berry,” which address challenges of race, poverty, and political discourse in alternately ebullient and ferocious ways. Both are sequenced near the end of Butterfly, which is also the chunk of the record that stood out most to me. Tackling the mirage of post-racism, “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” pays homage to Miles Davis with muted trumpets and features a breakout verse from North Carolina rapper Rapsody. Its mellow sound—and poignant subject matter—perfectly sets up “The Blacker the Berry” and the album’s full-bore sprint to the finish. That pairing may be Butterfly‘s core in the same way “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” fundamentally rooted good kid.
When it’s been rerecorded and slotted penultimately as it is here, “i” doesn’t feel as instantly thrilling as its Grammy-winning predecessor. But that doesn’t really matter. Kendrick closes out the new version with a spoken-word coda that introduces the 12-minute closer “Mortal Man,” a sweeping, Fela Kuti-sampling statement that finds the MC splicing together his own questions with Tupac snippets from an old interview. Butterfly is knotty and far from immediate, but its politically infused mix of jazz, funk, and hip-hop will keep me coming back for a long time—if only to decipher both its music and lyricism.
Anderson: That mix of genres, styles, and eras really separates Butterfly from other hip-hop releases, even high-profile art pieces like the aforementioned Yeezus. Kendrick is really reaching here, mixing in the ’70s civil rights R&B of Stevie and Marvin with Sly Stone riot funk and the jazzy, claustrophobic weirdness of Sign O’ The Times-era Prince. I’m also fascinated by Kendrick’s fixation on Tupac, who gets referenced a number of times on the album, then shows up, as you said, as a conversation partner on the album-closing “Mortal Man.” (The Tupac section is actually taken from an interview Pac gave in Sweden in 1994.)
There’s little on the surface that unites Kendrick and Tupac—stylistically, they’re profoundly different rappers, and they hail from distinctly different parts of the California coast. But they both spit with a certain rabid hunger that taps into decades of oppression, which seems to be part of their DNA. That intensity is super-focused on Butterfly, and it weirdly makes good kid seem like a lesser album in retrospect. That album was the sound of an iconoclast dipping his toe into pushing the boundaries of hip-hop. Butterfly is a straight-up cannonball into a churning pool of politics and conflict.
I’ve actually been absorbing Butterfly as a bookend to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, another genre-shifting treatise on being black in America in the present day. Both of those albums really do satisfy Chuck D’s dream of rap music as being “the CNN of the streets.” Actually, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is another strong antecedent for Butterfly; I think “King Kunta” could have been written by Public Enemy circa 1990, and even the rumbly faux-disco beat has some shades of mid-period Bomb Squad.
Is there anything on Butterfly that doesn’t work for you? The mid-point of the album gets a little soggy for me—after a handful of listens, “Momma,” “Hood Politics,” and “How Much a Dollar Cost” sort of run together. Though I think I only actively dislike “How Much a Dollar Cost” because it features guest vocals by James Fauntleroy, who I really can’t stand.
Brown: It’s true: good kid feels smaller in scope next to To Pimp a Butterfly. All day I’ve been fixated on a comparison to, of all people, Tolkien. Like The Hobbit, good kid used a tightly-focused narrative sprinkled with humor (“Backseat Freestyle” being the modernized drinking song) to establish an expansive world. But it was The Lord of the Rings—or, for Kendrick, Butterfly—that used a well-honed set of stories to illustrate the ramifications of that world. And, in the same way that some Tolkien fans swear by The Hobbit, I’m sure some Kendrick fans will see good kid as the better album. I might be one of them.
At its best, Butterfly is lyrically cutting and musically brilliant. But sometimes Kendrick feels almost constricted by the album format. Clocking in at an even-a-little-long-for-rap 79 minutes, the record sags. Kendrick recruited jazz master Thundercat—who made Flying Lotus’s phenomenal 2014 record You’re Dead! what it was—here, which yields a ton of gorgeous moments but makes the record almost a little too cohesive. Good kid had some jarring transitions, and practically reveled in its own chaos; as chaotic as Butterfly‘s subject matter is, it can slip away into the background if it isn’t getting the listener’s undivided attention.
There’s simply too much here to condemn the album as musically inferior to good kid on first listen—and “inferior to good kid” is a very relative phrase to begin with. It’ll take time to determine whether what sounds like bloat in the moment is just that, or actually nuanced filler like some of good kid‘s more subdued moments. For one, “How Much a Dollar Cost” is already starting to grow on me, because I think it features some of Kendrick’s coolest rapping on the album. As much as I’m beginning to love Kendrick the Artist and Kendrick the Activist, I’m not sure either of those will ever be able to supplant Kendrick the Rapper.
Anderson: I’ll admit that it probably has one too many sax solos, but I’m willing to allow it because I inherently trust Kendrick and his impulses. That’s how much impact good kid had on me, and on pop culture at large. Even though this rollout has been sloppy, To Pimp a Butterfly is likely to be one of the biggest debuts of the year—at the moment, it’s currently outpacing Drake’s surprise mixtape from last month, and some prognosticators are putting him close to Taylor Swift’s1989 levels— though I’ll believe that when I see it. Whether you’re on board with him or not, Kendrick grabs the Best Rapper Alive title by the balls on Butterfly. It’s always satisfying to see superstars reach so high.