I promised myself I wouldn’t do it. I said I would never write a long-winded exposition on the pros & cons of “To Pimp A Butterfly“. My reasoning is too layered, with too many working parts to assemble into a coherent idea. It’s a ball of string that makes sense in my head, but would take far too long to untangle for an onlooker to follow the trail. But I think the time has come for me to try. Not because I reached a breaking point of some kind from listening to praise that I deemed undeserved.
Far from it.
I have reached a breaking point of sorts, but it’s not from the chatter of stans or pseudo-intellectuals. Buzz around the album has pretty much disappeared in the weeks and months following its release. What spurs me to write about my disappointment with the album is the realization I came to while listening to the album again after several weeks away from it.
This album was just “good”. That’s it.
While the cultural relevance and sharp contrast in perspective from typical rap albums are noteable, applaudable and even praise-worthy, those factors alone do not make a great album. A lot of people are quick to praise this album for being different. And for that it should be praised, because it is. However, that doesn’t equate to a good album and certainly not a great one. I hear you guys: You’re so glad that somebody made an album that isn’t chock-full of garbage that you’re willing to dub this an instant classic. While TPAB does have a few things going for it, it is far from a classic.
1) It had an unparalleled level of anticipation building up for it.
Kendrick Lamar has steadily built the fan-base from “Overly Dedicated” through GKMC, and the anticipation reached full boil with his verse from “Control“. The hype, the already realized potential, and the deafening shot he sent with that infamous verse all made for the perfect storm of receptiveness for this album.
There’s a funny thing about hype though – people can’t handle it. Countless times, fans disregard the quality of the product from a prominent artist and are just happy they’re dropping something new. The sad reality is that a person’s fame, relevance or past work can do a number on the public’s ability to take THIS work for what it is and what it isn’t.
This isn’t an extreme problem with Kendrick’s fanbase or this album in particular (it hasn’t reached Jay Z or Kanye West proportions yet), but it is a factor in the perception of this album.
2) The message.
This is the album’s strongest attribute. It’s true that it isn’t trash by any means. Nothing phony. No filler. He’s speaking to the people he came from and examining his place in the culture that he is part of and now a contributor to. These are the reasons why it should be praised. If there is going to be any kind of shift away from meaningless bars, hollow hooks and repetitive beats, it’s got to start somewhere. And having it start with a name as big as Kendrick Lamar (and in his prime, no less) is why this is the perfect way to begin a movement and an awakening.
However, what makes this message difficult to grasp is the frequent, highly-regarded poetic use of metaphor and introspection. To be fair, it was almost an impossible task: Bring the culture’s problems to the forefront in a way that is entertaining, not preachy, not finger-pointing, but yet enlightening, soulful and relatable. How can you be relatable to a group whom you’re behaving differently from? If they can’t relate to you, how can you enlighten them? If you can enlighten them, can you do it without them feeling like you’re talking down to them?
It’s a difficult undertaking to be sure. What Kendrick decides to do to circumvent the pressure is address all of the criticisms of the culture as they relate to him. Almost every critical point is a finger pointed only toward his own thought processes and faults. He wants you to identify with him and see his faults as your own (a setup carried over from GKMC), he then reprimands and condemns his own faults. If you’ve made the connection, you would have identified his faults as your own and allowed the criticisms to apply to you as well.
A sound approach.
But here’s the problem – the listener who most needs to examine their mindset aren’t going to connect this many dots (no pun intended). As a matter of fact, they aren’t used to thinking critically when they turn on music. So to make the jump to a layered identification between listener & artist that spans multiple albums, then apply the current introspection to themselves is a GIGANTIC leap of faith. It’s not a matter of intelligence, it’s a matter of conditioning. Surface-level rap fans are accustomed to surface-level rap. Since surface-level rap generates the most revenue, it also generates the most cultural influence. It’s seen, heard and played more often than any other brand of hip-hop. The resulting hold on the culture is what Kendrick’s album-long discourse is meant to shake loose. But what chance does a multi-tiered message have of hitting home when you need a map legend and an actual attention span to process it? We are, after all, ADHD crazy.
It’s like asking a quarterback who has never played baseball to throw an 85 mph curveball after showing it to him 3 times. Sure, he could possess all the tools necessary to accomplish the task, but he hasn’t been trained in the discipline of pitching. He doesn’t know how to grip the baseball. He doesn’t understand the physics involved: the arm angle, the motions. He hasn’t been conditioned to be a pitcher. The path to turning him into a pitcher would involve every step of the pitching process being isolated, practiced and repeated ad nauseam until every intricacy becomes habit.
In a similar fashion, most of the people who would most benefit from digesting this album do not think on a detailed level when it comes to the music they enjoy. They haven’t made a habit out of identifying cultural themes and diagnosing music’s effect on them. The people who have developed these habits already appreciate this album quite a bit. But this type of album isn’t really made for the people who are already considering the issues at hand. It’s a wake-up call for the uninitiated. It’s a call to arms for the one-track minded.
And how do you get the attention of the apathetic? With soliloquies and inner dialogue? With a compound revelation and inner discourse? Or with a loud, singular, rousing shotgun blast to the chest? Would the culturally oblivious listener best be served by the metaphor of “Lucy” – a personification I interpreted as “Lucifer” and the evils associated with his profession – or by the brash, direct-to-the-throat impact of:
“All my life I wanted money and power
Respect my mind or die from lead shower
I pray my dick gets big as the Eiffel Tower so I can fuck the world for 72 hours”
Of course, the latter doesn’t take into account the context of the song it’s from. “Backseat Freestyle” was a random collection of rhyme aimed at nothing in particular. It was entertaining and empty, as most freestyles are when they’re kicked from the backseat of your homeboy’s ride. But that emptiness is what the irreverent hip-hop listener connected with. Kendrick knew that. That’s why it was an early piece of GKMC. He knew how to connect with the listener he was trying to wrangle in and later convert. So it baffles me why he went straight from elementary school to college with the intellectual weight of this album’s material. I’m confused as to why he would be trying to feed babies a 10oz steak when they still need their food mashed for them. I can’t help but feel that an opportunity has been missed by putting calculus in front of kids who just graduated from 5th grade.
The 1st rule of speaking: know your audience. He wasn’t speaking to the audience who is most in need of a change.
3) The production on this album doesn’t have the impact of his other albums.
Some of the listeners who don’t appreciate this album to the same degree as others will reluctantly agree with the praise heaped upon it to avoid backlash; not wanting to be thought of as unenlightened or not intelligent enough to appreciate what Kendrick has done. But there are so many layers to consider when evaluating an album, the message alone can’t be the only determining factor for whether or not an album should be appreciated. For all its merits, a large part of its undoing (that is, the demotion from “great” to “good”) is in its completely neutral musical impact. While there is plenty of soul, funk, and jazz influence, there’s one thing that’s missing…
The bangers. The undeniably pulse-pounding, hard-hitting, loved-it-from-the-moment-you-heard-it, no-need-for-anything-to-grow-on-you BANGER. To Pimp A Butterfly has no bangers. No flagship tracks. No project-defining cuts. Well, maybe one: “Alright” is a great track, but just barely misses the mark for me personally. TPAB is a mass of moving parts; a multitude of puzzle pieces that form a picture when put in their proper perspective. But puzzles and pictures don’t feed your base instincts like the beats from “Money Trees” and “Spiteful Chant” do, nor do they generate the feel good energy of “Hol’ Up”. They don’t grip you with the same sentimentality of “Keisha’s Song” or “Sing About Me” (except for the 2nd half of “U”). They don’t provide the straight forward lyricism of “Ignorance Is Bliss” or “H.O.C.” Even songs like “Cut You Off” and “Opposites Attract” work to address the ideas of separating yourself from destructive energy and appreciating love, respectfully; two themes that would find themselves in place on TPAB. But they do it in a way that is so much more accessible, less encoded and more universal. TPAB paints a picture as complex as the issues it illustrates, but does not have a song that makes you take that picture of the wall of the museum and smash it against the floor out of pure adrenaline or stand in front of the picture and weep out of pure emotion.
“Section.80” had those. GKMC had those. “To Pimp A Butterfly” does not.
I am not calling into question the ability of Kendrick Lamar to make a culturally relevant music. I am not calling into question his ability to make anthems or pure hip-hop heat. I am not calling into question his ability to impress us with pure rhyme dexterity and skill.
However, I am questioning why he made the choice to not do all of the above on one project when he had the attention of the entire world.
Written by Bryan Wilson (@)