Treble 100, No. 12: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly

Hip-hop listeners are still surprised, awed and sometimes perplexed by the specific curveballs Kendrick Lamar now throws with each album release, though they now know to expect that the records will be curveballs. He doesn’t repeat himself. (You can argue that good kid, m.A.A.d city has sonic and conceptual similarities to Section.80, but mostly in broad strokes. There is no way any thinking person can say To Pimp a Butterfly, DAMN. or Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers sound like one another.)

The jazz- and funk-fueled To Pimp a Butterfly remains the loudest pronouncement of Lamar’s full-throttle-and-fuck-it artistic ambition. It didn’t create a slew of mediocre imitators, as some landmark hip-hop records do, but instead reminded the rest of the game’s practitioners they too could make up rules as they went along. (And it proved you didn’t need Kanye West’s budget to do so, even if TPAB was hardly cheap to make.) I’m not sure artists like Denzel Curry, Saba, Noname, Armand Hammer, VInce Staples, and clipping.—to name just some examples—would’ve created the same risk-taking standout projects in the years following TPAB’s release if they didn’t have it as proof of concept, even if Lamar’s album wasn’t a direct influence. (It also doesn’t seem coincidental that key TPAB collaborator Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner released Drunk, his uncompromising, genre-bending breakout LP, just two years after working with Kendrick.)

Why am I starting a retrospective piece with the stuff you usually find near the end? I’ll be honest: I’ve always been daunted by the album’s complexity and occasional inscrutability. Countless music critics, academics in various fields and even theologians have pondered over TPAB since the day it dropped due to the multitude of subjects it covers, and they’ll likely continue doing so (as I am right now). Whether any of our analyses have truly done justice to its artistic immensity is anyone’s guess.


After 2012’s universally acclaimed gkmc, most hip-hop fans from obsessives to radio-casuals were curious what Kendrick Lamar would do next. After August 2013, when he infamously but accurately named himself one of the five best working MCs on Big Sean’s “Control,” virtually all eyes were on him. (Rarely does a track’s guest not only murder the headliner on their own shit but also declare war on his contemporaries, including the headliner and the track’s other collaborator, Jay Electronica. It set hip-hop Twitter on fire, though admittedly you kinda had to be there.)

When preview singles finally surfaced, first the electric-funky, Isley Brothers-sampling “i” and then the intense 90s throwback “The Blacker the Berry,” neither gave any obvious indication of where To Pimp a Butterfly would take its listeners. “i” in particular earned its fair share of reactions that weren’t quite negative but contained a bit of “Uh, what the fuck?” (It aged reasonably well, but Lamar made a new, notably different version for the final album.)

Then in mid-March 2015 we had the album as a tangible, complete thing and … again, it’s hard to explain the immensity of its impact. TPAB opens with an extremely jarring sample of Boris Gardner’s “Every N***** is a Star,” so you’re already on your toes as Kendrick expounds on the nature—and cost, monetary and otherwise—of being a Black American entertainer over the minor-key funk of “Wesley’s Theory.” It isn’t subtle. Kendrick uses either clear metaphors (framing the beginning and middle of stardom as the difference between love and lust) or direct language: “When I get signed, homie, I’ma buy a strap/Straight from the CIA, set it on my lap/Take a few M-16s to the hood/Pass ’em all out on the block, what’s good?” If that wasn’t pointed enough, later in the song, Thundercat voices the White American Powers That Be in his arresting tenor and falsetto: “We shoulda never gave, we shoulda never gave you n*****s money/Go back home!” 

Listeners are in a new and uncomfortable place worlds away from the (mostly) inviting sound and novelistic narrative of good kid, m.A.A.d city. Kendrick is going after America’s general exploitation of Black men, the stereotypes they’re saddled with, fakery of all kinds within the rap game and institutionalized racism’s connection to vulgar materialism throughout the next three tracks. You don’t have a chance to catch your breath until the breezy keyboard-driven soul of “These Walls,” and even that is a dizzying whirlwind of allusion that is sometimes obvious (sex) but may also connect to hyperspecific details in gkmc’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” That said, in the middle of this stretch of tracks you get the titanic funk jam that is “King Kunta,” which remains a highlight of Lamar’s catalog and is one of the few TPAB songs you can easily enjoy set apart from the rest of the album. (“Alright” is the other obvious choice.)

As Kendrick bombards us with thought-provoking lyrics and themes, the album begins following a (very) loose narrative involving the pursuit of a woman, Lucie—who, to little surprise, is soon revealed as the devil. This is not a strict concept album like gkmc, and after “For Sale?” it moves away from the Lucie story. But in many ways TPAB is just as intensely personal as its predecessor. Sometimes this manifests as self-reassurance, as on the Pharrell Williams/Sounwave co-production “Alright,” which, in a year tarnished by so many instances of horrific violence against Black Americans, became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. Conversely, on the excruciating “u,” Kendrick is overwhelmed by self-hatred and suicidal ideation. He looks to both pan-Africanism (“Momma”) and God (in a very literal sense, on “How Much a Dollar Cost?”) for answers, finding some while also encountering more questions. 

The complexities continue to mount. With aid from the then-little-known Rapsody, Kendrick is forthright in his indictment of colorism and body image standards on “Complexion (A Zulu Love).” Yet he finds himself much more bedeviled on “The Blacker the Berry.” The song, buoyed by Robert Glasper’s ominous keys and cavernous boom-bap from Boi-1da that wouldn’t sound out of place on a mid-’90s Wu-Tang affiliate record, is whiplash-intense in its conflicting impulses. At one moment Kendrick is excoriating white America—“I know you hate me don’t you?/You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture”—and flipping Black physical stereotypes on their heads into gleeful taunts. Later he further blames this country’s institutions for turning young Black men into desperate souls who see no way out save what gang life can offer. Still later, he repurposes the sentence I quoted earlier to decry what the Piru Bloods and Hoover Street Crips have done to Compton—and then, in a couplet that’s still controversial today, bellows, “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street/When gangbangin make me kill a n**** blacker than me?/Hypocrite!

It’s not my place to judge what the man born Kendrick Duckworth said there. I can simply note how it was perceived contemporaneously: Quite a few said it was a lapse into respectability politics; others believed Kendrick when he said the statement was self-critical. (By numerous accounts, Lamar had a brief stint of mostly petty crime as a teenager that almost spiraled out of control, but didn’t.) The complexity of the song and the reactions to it are further proof of how intellectually and artistically ambitious Lamar was in making this album. On TPAB, he takes you to uncomfortable places with little regard for delicate sensibilities, but never forget that sometimes he’s the most uncomfortable person in the equation.


The much-praised sound of To Pimp a Butterfly epitomizes “lightning in a bottle”: Fresh from a trip to South Africa that included a visit to Nelson Mandela’s prison cell, and vibing on a steady listening diet of Miles Davis, P-Funk, and Prince, Kendrick had a fairly specific vision for each song, and found collaborators who could pull it off. (It’s not unlike Blonde on Blonde in that respect.) 

Although you won’t find his name in every TPAB album review, Terrace Martin’s alto sax, keys, and production are part of almost every track. Sounwave’s production and occasional keyboards are almost as omnipresent as Martin’s contributions, and so are the trumpet of Josef Leimberg, the guitar lines from Snoop Dogg touring bandleader (!) Marlon Williams and Thundercat’s bass and eerie harmony vocals. The album’s “big-name” jazz players, Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington, are barely present by comparison, though they’re certainly important to the tracks they’re on (particularly the chaotic tenor sax Washington plays on “u.”)  More so, you can’t imagine “King Kunta” without Thundercat’s titanic bass, or the rallying-call alto sax riff on “Alright” as Kendrick shouts, “Alls my life I has to fight!” Ditto Leimberg’s minor-key trumpet hanging above Kendrick’s meeting with God on “How Much a Dollar Cost.” Anyone who’s spent significant time with this album instantly recalls those sounds.

On the other hand, Kendrick doesn’t enlist much vocal help beyond backing singers. (To be fair, Bilal, Anna Wise, Thundercat, and others all acquit themselves admirably in this respect, serving almost as a Greek chorus for Compton.) good kid, m.A.A.d city had strong guest verses from Jay Rock, Dr. Dre, MC Eiht, and (interestingly, in hindsight) Drake, but the most present vocal guests on TPAB are Rapsody, with her outstanding bars on “Complexion,” and Assassin bellowing a patois hook for “The Blacker the Berry,” the last four lines of which cut Ginsu-sharp: “How you no see the whip left scars pon me back/But now we have a big whip parked pon de block?/All them say we doomed from the start cause we Black/Remember this: Every race start from the Black, jus ‘member dat.”

The “biggest names” on TPAB dip out pretty quickly: George Clinton briefly spews some stream-of-consciousness connected (somewhat) to the overarching message of “Wesley’s Theory” sometime after the second verse; Dre leaves a short tough-love motivational voicemail on the same song. Snoop Dogg sticks around “Institutionalized” just long enough to tip his hat to a new West Coast rap legend, then he’s out. To be clear, all these artists correctly chose to be brief: In yet another example, James Fauntleroy and Ronald Isley lend the beauty of their voices to crucial bridge lines on “Dollar,” but if they overstayed their welcome it’d lessen the song’s impact. (Isley singing “I washed my hands, I said my grace/What more do you want from me?” gives me goosebumps every time.) 

Lamar went into this album’s recording process knowing he had an authorial voice strong and versatile enough to take on multiple characters, and that’s exactly what he does. (It makes his recruitment of Rapsody for “Complexion” that much more notable, speaking to both his appreciation of her talent and the importance of a Black woman adding her direct perspective to a song about colorism.) He is both the scolding “Momma” and equally derisive neighborhood veteran laughing at a kid’s attempts to act hard on “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said),” chiding him, “You sound like the feds, homie.” He adopts a somewhat lisping, hissing tenor for the satanic Lucie. He voices two different self-hating aspects of himself, one fierce and resolute, the other piss-drunk, sobbing, ready to shatter a bottle just to make a jagged edge. Sometimes he alters his voice while making it clear this is still Kendrick Lamar: the pinched snarl of “Hood Politics,” the materialism-mocking singsong on “For Free,” his lowest barking register for “The Blacker the Berry.” You don’t hear Kendrick’s baseline laconic-but-intense voice all that often—the one we knew from hits like “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and would later thrill to on chaotic bangers like “DNA.”—on TPAB

For all this trickery, the dexterity of his rapping never varies, whether he’s in 4/4, at a hyperspeed that sometimes exceeds triple-time, or somewhere in between. But everything he does is in service to the song and album. Tracks that full-throttle flows would overwhelm—“Wesley’s Theory,” “How Much a Dollar Cost,” “Alright,” “King Kunta”—don’t employ them. Not everyone likes Lamar’s use of vocal theatrics then or now (I remember it being a particular sticking point in the release’s immediate aftermath), but the man does nothing without intention. He’s never showing off … he’s just that fucking good.


Kendrick Lamar occupies a space in the musical universe all his own. He’s connected to the hip-hop galaxy—e.g., his recent anti-Drake campaign—yet largely unconcerned with the genre’s trends or direction. He tells the stories he wants exactly as he wants, with the specific sound he envisions. And that’s been his M.O. since Section.80 in 2011.

The listening experience of To Pimp a Butterfly remains thrilling, disturbing, rich, and deeply cerebral just over nine years after its drop. The truths Kendrick Lamar speaks remain true (with the caveat that some of his pronouncements are intensely subjective; others aren’t my place to affirm as a white man). To paraphrase one of its lines, loving it … is complicated. TPAB isn’t inaccessible, but it aims to challenge, rejects easy categorization, and the questions it poses are largely unanswered. It even ends by hinting, albeit indirectly, at how much its listeners would puzzle over it: The album’s final track, “Mortal Man,” begins straightforwardly (focused on Kendrick’s fear of placement on a cultural pedestal) but abandons the song’s Sounwave beat about five minutes in to spend its remaining seven with an a capella poem, a conversation with 2Pac (assembled from snippets of a 1995 interview), another poem soundtracked by a cascading free-jazz crescendo, and then, when the late West Coast MC stops responding, Lamar asking, “Pac? Pac? Pac?” The past can’t help him.

TPAB emerged in the early days of a frightening, still-unfolding historical moment, one that’s only grown more harrowing and multifaceted in its horrors since March 2015: a startling uptick in mass shootings, the ongoing police killings of unarmed Black men, economic instability in all but the upper class, a pandemic that’s just become Something We Deal With, upswells of fascism and authoritarianism all over the world, an anti-Palestinian genocide in Gaza, attritional ethnic cleansing in Sudan… need I go on? Today’s world is markedly worse than the one Kendrick Lamar created his third studio album in response to, and I don’t always think that “We gon’ be alright.” (I say that as someone with white privilege and a modicum of comfort, but multiply that many times over and perhaps that’ll approximate how uncertain the average Black American must feel right now, not to mention for the past several centuries.) To Pimp a Butterfly doesn’t offer easy reassurances, but there’s great catharsis in its singular poetic power; chaos and beauty alike in its unique sound. The album keeps us coming back because it lyrically and sonically reflects our societal confusion and contradictions. Kendrick Lamar can no more answer all our questions than he can commune with the dead, but he did the world an invaluable service in crafting a masterwork that prompted us to ask them in the first place.

best hip-hop albums of the 21st century To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly

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View Comments (4)
  • A bit out of topic but I’ve been trying to predict the remaining albums (or at least artists) and I’m really puzzled because there are 11 spots left and 14 bands/artists I can’t imagine won’t make the list :
    The Beatles
    The Beach Boys
    The Velvet Underground
    David Bowie
    John Coltrane
    Miles Davis
    Stevie Wonder
    Neil Young
    The Cure
    The Smiths
    Kate Bush

    That’s already leaving out Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, Daft Punk, Bob Marley, Pavement, Arcade Fire and, maybe less surprisingly though for very different reasons, Led Zeppelin and Kanye West.
    I would bet Beach Boys, Neil Young and the Smiths are the 3 that will miss the cut, we’ll see !

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