Written By: Kyle Wheelock
In 2015, Kendrick Lamar polarized audiences with his second album, To Pimp a Butterfly (or third, if you count 2011’s Section.80 as a studio album). When Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City hit the world in 2102, it was met with widespread acclaim, both critically and commercially. Bolstered by singles such as, “Swimming Pools (Drank)”, “Poetic Justice”, and, “Don’t Kill My Vibe”, the album debuted at number two on the U.S. Billboard 200, was certified platinum, nominated for several awards, and has since been regarded as a classic hip-hop album. And in my opinion, it definitely deserves all of it. It was a lyrical masterpiece, a story of Kendrick’s life in Compton, all while still being commercially accessible. For example, “The Art of Peer Pressure”, and “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” are both beautifully crafted stories that still have a digestible west coast feel, but never even sniffed radio play, which was fine because there were tracks like, “Backstreet Freestyle”, and, “M.A.A.D City” for people to just jump into.
And then 2014 happened. In an interview with Billboard, Kendrick revealed he had plans to follow up GKMC, shocking no one. But then he went quiet for an extended period of time, during which he toured South Africa and visited many sites such as Nelson Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island, which Kendrick himself says widened his worldview. In fact, Kendrick and his team say this trip inspired all of them to make multiple albums worth of material (some of which ended up on his Untitled Unmastered compilation album in 2016), it changed their lives as individuals and their music and they all attribute this one trip to be the true starting point for what would become To Pimp a Butterfly.
Admittedly, when we finally heard from Kendrick when, “i” dropped in late 2014, I wasn’t feeling it. GKMC was one of my favorite albums, because of Kendrick’s story and the production accompanying it, so when both suddenly changed, I was jarred. And then it went quiet again, “i” dropped in September 2014 and we didn’t get any other insight as to what Kendrick’s next move would be until February 2015 when, “The Blacker the Berry” hit. And when I say hit, I’m talking Triple G vs. Canelo kind of hit. Kendrick brought anger and aggression on this track that I really liked from him on tracks like, “M.A.A.D City” or even, “The Spiteful Chant”, from Section.80 and I was interested again.
But, despite my incredibly anticipation, To Pimp a Butterfly initially fell flat, something about it just didn’t click for me we the way GKMC did. It wasn’t bad, but at first it wasn’t as good either, so I shelved it after two listens and went on with my life. But TPAB wouldn’t die, and somehow I found my way back to it that summer and I was blown away. I gave it a listen and the thing started to sink in, hard. I started picking out all the topics and symbolism that was weaved into each track and over the next three months, I was floored by how much I had missed and disappointed in myself for giving up on it so easy. Tracks like, “These Walls”, “u” and, “Hood Politics” quickly became my favorite cuts of 2015, their production was refreshing, with the incorporation of real instruments and effects, the stories that developed from verse to verse, and all of the observations Kendrick was making all fell together beautifully; TPAB had grown into my album of the year.
Not only did this album become my favorite, but it also became critics’ favorite. Entertainment Weekly said it was more substantial than GKMC, Pitchfork gave it a 9.3 out of 10, Rolling Stone called a, “masterpiece”, you get the idea, publications loved it despite the fact that the sound wasn’t as accessible as its predecessor’s and its lyrics were more abstract. But besides critical acclaim, TPAB would grow to have cultural appeal. What I mean by that is, even though it is harsh, unpredictable, and even anti-mainstream, it is also afrocentric, which has now become a massive cornerstone for African American culture. “Alright” caught criticism from news outlets for its lines about police brutality, but the African American community loved it as well as the accompanying video; hell, Black Lives Matter adopted it as its theme song for a bit. Going back to, “The Blacker the Berry”, it was both empowering, yet critical, the track explores self-hatred and stereotypes, as well as aggression against oppressors.
The reason these songs and their themes are important to me are because of the context surrounding them. In case anyone doesn’t remember, 2014-15 was an incredibly turbulent time for America, we as a society were only a few years removed from the killing of Trayvon Martin, and we were hit again with the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent riots in Ferguson, Missouri in mid-late 2014, and the death of Freddie Gray, as well the subsequent riots in Baltimore which happened mere weeks after TPAB was released to the world. It was a tough time for African Americans and it would only get worse with the death of Sandra Bland in police custody that summer, and the back-to-back shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in the same week of July 2016.
All of these tragic deaths weighed heavy on the African American community, sadness, depression, and anger spread like wildfire, and there was (and still is) this general feeling of despair floating in the air. This is what made TPAB click for me, I was seventeen when all of this was going on, fresh out of high school and getting ready to venture out on my own to college, and I admittedly didn’t know how to feel about what was going on, and when I had my conflicts and doubts about what was right and wrong at the time, Kendrick echoed them on this album. Self-hatred, racial inequality, pride, and the true ugliness of the real world all came up over the sixteen tracks on this album, and as things spiralled out, the more it all started to come together for me which made me listen more and more to what Kendrick had to say; it was a perfect loop of learning and reflection and to this day there hasn’t been another album to hit me the way To Pimp a Butterfly did (sidebar: I will admit Flower Boy was a close second).
So, as I write this article, it’s been three years to the day since TPAB was unleashed into the world, and although it didn’t connect with me initially the way Good Kid, M.A.A.D City did, it grew on me, and it’s stuck with me more than any other Kendrick album has (sorry, this includes DAMN.). Kendrick has a way of telling a story with just his words, and when he broke out of his own little box to rap over funk and boom-bap beats and gave the world what many consider to be, “avant-garde” level music, it resulted in a personal look into a star’s life and their struggles, which ended up having similarities with my own, and I will forever have a time and a place for the album that helped me make sense of a world losing its mind as I prepared to go out into it.