Blame Beyonce, for now every rap album is getting a surprise release. Kendrick Lamar’s second feature album To Pimp A Butterfly crept onto the internet in the early hours of Monday morning and had half of the internet in hysterics. iTunes uploaded the explicit version at 1am, deleted it, uploaded a clean version and then replaced it with the explicit version again. Spotify’s search took a number of hours to cope with the unprecedented streaming demand.
It seemed like music fans around the world woke up and went “KENDRICK’S ALBUM IS OUT, HOW DO I GET MY HANDS ON IT?”
And then about an hour and a half later the same fans cried “KENDRICK’S ALBUM IS OUT, WHAT DID I JUST LISTEN TO?”
It’s clear now that Kendrick Lamar likes to catch us by surprise and subvert expectation. This is the second time he’s blindsided us and had us all in a tiz. The first time he did it was with his feature on Big Sean’s "Control", a gattling gun call out, where he named half a dozen rappers and declared it his goal to play them off the park. In one verse Kendrick jolted new life into the current hip hop circle, making a target for himself and having fans on tenterhooks as to just how he’ll cement his position as the new young head of the game. His first feature album Good Kid, M.a.a.d City marked him out as a potential successor to Dr. Dre, the Control verse was seen as a statement of intent, so the new album was surely meant to be his coronation work?
It seems that somewhere along the way, Kendrick saw what the world wanted from him and decided he’ll give them another beast entirely.
To Pimp A Butterfly is fantastic, a colossal jazz and funk infused rap odyssey that sounds like something James Brown might have come out with if he was born in the early 90s. The opening 45 seconds of the album has Boris Gardener declare “every n----- is a star” in what is surely one of the ballsiest opening manifestoes you will hear to an album this year. Kendrick doesn’t want to be your new Dr. Dre. He wants to be Kendrick Lamar. Now get on board and get with his poetic journey.
And it is a stunning journey. I would ask for this to be called a “first impressions” rather than a review because after four days and close to a dozen playthroughs, there is still so much to unpack, both in the beats, the lyricism, the meta musings with Tupac at the end and the wider context of which this album exists. When Kendrick asks the crowd in I “How many brothers we lost? In this year alone?” it hits home. This is a phenomenal work featuring stand out tracks like “The Blacker the Berry” and “King Kunta” coming like a righteous hurricane. "I", the first song we heard is probably the most accessible and radio song on the track and even that comes with its own charged messages. This is an unquestionably black album, both in its bleakness and how it steeps its artistic sensibilities in black culture.
To Pimp a Butterfly is 80 minutes of Kendrick doing Kendrick. It’s not the album we wanted. It is not perfect. It’s not the shotgunning totting, bodying every other rapper in the game tour de force that many expected Kendrick to put out following the Control verse. It may not be one for the car or the club. It is not the album for non-hip hop fans to listen to and go “Yes, this is the man at the top of the rap pile.” It stands to be a bit shorter. But it is unquestionably beautiful.
The fight for the crown in rap and hip hop is an interesting one. Some rappers like J. Cole go out there to tell a story, others in the Rick Ross vein go out wanting to rule the world.
Rappers that have been to the top of the mountain fall one of two ways, they either sit on their money putting out mediocre content (Dr. Dre and Jay Z), or do what Kanye is doing, and trying to become integral to the cultural conversation.
Kendrick came into this second album on the cusp of greatness, he could have created a more conventional hard hip hop album that "Control" promised and taken the crown amongst the underground. He could have made more poppier hits like I and crossed over to the mainstream and dominated radio waves. Instead he made the album he wanted to be and asks you to deal with that. And in 2015, a black man unapologetically standing there and demanding to be dealt with, to be taken in and listened to over and over and over again is an act that deserves the utmost of respect.
To Pimp a Butterfly will not be the best rap album you will hear this year. It will most likely not even be the one to listen to most this year.
It will however be the rap album you will find yourself talking about again and again, both this year and for years to come.
A remarkable slice of black excellence and one that deserves your attention. Thank you Kendrick. To Pimp a Butterfly is a pleasure.