Potential is a word that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to music, and especially music of younger artists. It’s like a placeholder. There’s something there—some spark—but the execution leaves a hole once filled with expectations. But when Kendrick Lamar’s first major label release, Good Kid, M.a.a.D City, dropped, no one was using that word. Good Kid was smart, and really, really well written. Add the executive production from Dr. Dre, and it felt like we were seeing the work of someone fully formed, someone with more than just an inkling of a vision.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Lamar will be remembered as one of the most important poets of this era, both within rap and beyond. But following Lamar and the work he puts out can be frustrating. At every turn, he manages to stay true to his image as an honest, dedicated musician with an absurd amount of skill. And part of what makes To Pimp a Butterfly so engaging is how Lamar takes that straightforward honesty and points in on himself, his peers, and his listeners. So even if you can’t find the time sit through the hour-long project, you should at least have a baseline understanding of what it is you’re missing out on.
Lamar’s been something of a figurehead in rap for a few years now, gaining a lot of respect in the hip-hop community for his 2011 and 2012 projects Section .80 and Good Kid m.A.A.d City. Both those albums centered around the chaos of life at home for the Compton-born artist. Butterfly, however, expands its reach, tackling issues surrounding black culture throughout America through themes of self-love (and lack thereof), success, loyalty, materialism, fame, and immortalization. It brings a lot of thoughtful ideas to table, somehow without sounding preachy, condescending, or anything other than honest.
If there’s any particular strength that stands out in his music, it’s always been Kendrick Lamar’s gift for donning the perspective of othersnand of himself at different stages of his life. “Wesley’s Theory” is the album’s first track, which plunges quickly into a Lamar intoxicated with success and money, indulging like a pig at the feeding trough. This mindset colors the following tracks on the album.
Dispersed throughout Butterfly’s sixteen tracks is a poem, which gets told incrementally, with an extra line or two added after every song or so. We don’t hear the full poem in its entirety until the album’s final track. But with each newly revealed line, we get an idea that pushes along Butterfly’s loose narrative, and introduces the following track’s idea.
It isn’t until “Mortal Man” that Lamar asks the album’s most powerful and affecting question. Speaking directly to fans and listeners, he places the burden of loyalty on our shoulders. After taking credit for “[freeing] you from being a slave in your mind,” he questions whether there’ll be anyone left after he inevitably takes a misstep—or if fame gets the better of him.
When Good Kid, M.a.a.D City was released, it felt like we were seeing the greatness fully formed. What we didn’t know at the time was that Lamar would able to expand and evolve his message to encompass such a powerful and comprehensive narrative. To Pimp A Butterfly is undoubtedly great, but you can’t really appreciate it if you never give it a shot. After all, “shit don’t change until you get up and…” well, you’ll just have find that one out for yourself.