1 Listen Album Review: Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly”

By | 2 years ago
Read a literal second-by-second account of the first time I listened to Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp A Butterfly."
2015-03-15-album-review-kendrick-lamar-to-pimp-a-butterfly

Holy. Moses.

I'm not sure what's happening in life right now. It feels like my parents invited me over for Thanksgiving dinner, but when I showed up instead of serving turkey and mashed potatoes they screamed, "Surprise! It's actually Christmas, and we were also kidding about Santa, he really is real," and then Santa walked into the room and said, "That's right, it's me motherfucker," and then he handed me those sick rollerblades I wanted in sixth grade but tragically never got and then I put on the rollerblades and they were fucking amazing. 

That's exactly what having this album feels like. Here is a picture of me right now:  

Crazy White Girl

Whether Interscope Records accidentally released Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly on iTunes early or Interscope somehow leaked the album and TDE responded by putting it on iTunes early, at the moment all I know is that Interscope somehow screwed up and now we officially have the album in our sweaty, greedy digital hands more than a week before it was originally supposed to drop. 

In other words, instead of masturbating and falling asleep on the couch reading the collected works of Tolstoy tonight like I originally planned, I'm now wide awake and about to do the biggest 1 Listen Review in the history of 1 Listen Reviews. For those entirely new to the concept you should probably read this, but the short version is that what you're about to read is a literal second-by-second account of the first time I listened to To Pimp A Butterfly. I'm not allowed to pause the album or rewind a track, and I similarly can't go back and edit what I first wrote. This is pure gut reaction, and as a pure gut reaction it's absurd to think it could stand in for a well-thought out review that places the album in its proper historical context, so I'll be reviewing the album again in a month(s) when I've been able to really marinate on it. 

Right now though, like sex, for better or worse there's a first time for everything, and this is the first time I heard Kendrick Lamar's insanely-anticipated To Pimp a Butterfly.  

1. “Wesley’s Theory” (ft. George Clinton & Thundercat) (prod. by Flying Lotus & Flippa)

Every time I see the name Wesley I think about The Princess Bride, all the shout outs to that movie. Also, definitely not what y'all want to be reading about right now, so onto the music.....

Ah, the ol' sound of a vinyl playing track, it's supposed to make us think about quality, timelessness, and it always works. There was no way a song with Flying Lotus and George Clinton was going to be anything but mind-bending, and sure enough I'm not really sure what I'm listening to now. It's some of that cosmic funk, with Kendrick doing some of the most straight-up singing I've ever heard from him. And here comes the rappin - my brain's melting, there's just no way I can come up with a coherent analysis of this song on one listen. The instrumental's got about 47 billion layers, and I'm hearing references to everything from fucking secretarys to CIA conspiracies on the lyrics. 

I may feel different about this later, but this Dr. Dre clip is kind of disappointing, feels forced - audio version of how the Beats Pill has to appear in every Interscope video. Moving on though, if this first track's any indication the album's going to be the chronicle of an artist who's made it and is now facing all the usual "rapper who finally made it" pitfalls, and won't be particularly "hip-hop" in the usual sense. Oh shit, onto the next track already. 

2. “For Free? (Interlude)” (prod. by Terrace Martin)

Fuck yeah instrumental jazz breakdowns. They should have gotten the girls from the "Kim & Cookie" Outkast shit to do the voiceovers here. And...now we're getting some rap/jazz scatting about non-free dick, some of that pimp talk. I won't front, I'm mostly just confused at this exact moment, but confusion can so often be a good thing. It means there's levels to be uncovered, things to be learned at future listens (hopefully). 

3. “King Kunta” (prod. by Sounwave)

Full disclosure, I heard this song when it leaked on Friday so I'm a little more familiar with it.  At the time I felt like it was the kind of song that had to be heard in the context of the album to be understood - turns out I was right. It's funk-infused sound fits in perfectly with what we've heard so far. I remember reading a quote from a producer (Sounwave?) saying all these producers were sending in beats for the album and he would just laugh because they weren't even in the same universe as the sound they were going for. I can hear that now. This album doesn't sound even remotely like what anyone could have anticipated after GKMC (so far), which is frankly a sign of genius on Kendrick's part. Whether that turns out to be genius-genius or misguided genius only time will tell.  

Also, I still don't really know what's the yams, but I've been saying it all weekend and now that the album's out it's only going to get worse. 

4. “Institutionalized” (Feat. Bilal, Anna Wise & Snoop Dogg) (prod. by Rahki & Tommy Black)

First instinct is that this sounds very Erykah Badu-ish, which for me is a very good thing. I wonder what Kanye's thinking listening to this - I guess that came to mind because the last time I was so unsure about what I was hearing was when I first heard Yeezus. So far this is the most I've just straight up enjoyed...nope, nevermind, complete beat switch. Kendrick doesn't want you to be able to get on solid ground on this album, wants you to be knocked off balance. Took a few bars for me to pick it up, but his flow here is fucking amazing.   

Oh shit!!! Some vintage Snoop Dogg! They only have him like 10 seconds, but it was a perfect 10 seconds, and now Kendrick's in that pocket. This moment is what I've been waiting for, the first time I've just really openly loved what I'm hearing. And Snoop's back!!! I'm all in on this song. All in. 

5. “These Walls” (Feat. Bilal, Anna Wise & Thundercat) (prod. by Terrace Martin & Larrance Dopson of 1500 Or Nothin)

This album really isn't afraid to sound like spoken word/some free-form jazz, which is almost unheard of for a rapper following up on a platinum album (again, Kanye comes to mind as an exception). Ok, now this hook is pretty easily friendly, this is that radio jam, although it will be interesting to see if it actually gets on radio.

Honestly, I feel a little let down by this at the moment, which I'm realizing is because I expect every Kendrick song to change the way I think about the world, which is a ridiculously grandiose expectation for any artist, no matter how good they are. Still, right now I think it's stopping me from really just relaxing and enjoying this. Ok, now on the back end of the track Kendrick's building an entirely other level onto this track, just when you think you have a grip on anything on this album, it switches. Fuck...ok, I can't say I loved this start to finish, but by the end it went from Poetic Justice (a song I didn't really need to hear again) to a song I absolutely have to hear again. 

6. “U” (prod. by Taz Arnold)

You don't know it, but I just went a minute without typing. I'm sorry, I know this is supposed to be second-by-second, but I really don't know what I'm supposed to type right now. This shit feels so powerful, I can feel it re-arranging the synapses of my brain, but I can't even really begin to articulate what I'm hearing. We've got this almost ever-present background of bass, instruments coming in and out, Kendrick having some sort of nervous breakdown in a hotel room, audio panning from left to right every other second. 

His fucking voice right now, on the verge of cracking. This suddenly feels like the next chapter in the "Sing About Me" story. As soon as I'm done with this review, I'm getting in the car and driving with this on repeat until I don't know where I am anymore. Incredible. 

7. “Alright” (prod. by Pharrell Williams & Sounwave)

Oh shit!!! Beat wise this is the most easily head-noddable instrumental we've gotten so far, leave it to Pharrell to be able to bridge the gap between that dope shit and creative experimentation. And sure enough, Kendrick's killing this. There's horns all over this, but otherwise this is the closest thing to a "hip-hop" song we've gotten so far, and it feels like a much needed change of pace after that insane last track. Reference to police brutality, noticeable in relation to all the talk about personal responsibility that came out after The Blacker the Berry

Great song, but then he closes it off with some a cappella vocals. He's just determined not to give us anything easy on this album. At first it felt a little overwhelming, but right now I'm feeling up to the challenge, feels like the album's hitting its stride halfway through. 

8. “For Sale? (Interlude)” (prod. by Taz Arnold)

Seriously though, Kendrick's doing a lot of singing on this album, although it's not really the type of singing Drake or J. Cole have been incorporating into their raps. It's more like "I can't really sing but fuck it I'm singing." 

Took a peek at the run time, a nearly five-minute interlude? I guess there's no reason an interlude has to be short - I also feel like I have to point out that the album has more raps that are closer to outright poetry than rap, a trend we're seeing more and more of (Chance the Rapper comes to mind). I won't front, I have no idea why we're talking about I Love Lucy right now.  

Feels like this "I remember you was conflicted" refrain that keeps popping up is the key to understanding the album, it's the Davinci Code of To Pimp a Butterfly. At the moment I'm lost, I can only assume this interlude will make much more sense on repeat listens. 

9. “Momma” (prod. by Knxwledge & Taz Arnold)

This beat is smoother than silk on ice. I'm starting to just absolutely zone out to this. What is this sample? I NEED TO KNOW THIS SAMPLE!!!!! Thinking anyone knows everything is a dangerous thing, but I'm down to hear everything Kendrick knows. The soul and funk at the heart of this album just pours into every note, every corner. Second verse, stopped typing so I could really just listen to this story about the kid. 

I don't know if I can really say if some of the other songs on this album will prove to be great - actually, right now I just can't say that - but not this song. This one just feels like something that will stand the...and wait, there's another beat change. When will I learn to stop writing anything even remotely definitive about this album? Maybe that's the point of this album? 

10. “Hood Politics” (prod. by Tae Beast, Thundercat & Sounwave)

I totally know this guitar riff, where do I know it from??? Let's just hope he cleared it first, word to Marvin Gaye. And yet again, the first ten seconds of this song now doesn't sound anything like the song 30 seconds in. I'm learning it's especially hard to do a "1 Listen Review" on Kendrick since following his lyrics requires such deep attention. It never feels like abstraction for the sake of abstraction, the lyrics always feel like there's more there for those who are willing to truly listen. 

OH SHIT A KILLER MIKE SHOUT OUT!!!

And now some raps about only he and Snoop can push the button, whatever that means, and what has to be a nod to the "Control" verse. Plus, we get another example of that "Lucy" refrain, and a piece about survivor's guilt, which feels like it's emerging as another theme of the album. I'm still pretty lost, but I'm having a pretty good time being so lost. When's the last time some music really challenged you as a listener? 

11. “How Much A Dollar Cost” (Feat. James Fauntleroy & Ronald Isley) (prod. by Lovedragon)

I don't know if I can over-state just how much live instrumentation and funk are at the heart of this album. With the possible exception of that Pharrell joint, I haven't heard a single beat on this album so far that other rappers are going to want to go over, which is great news for the album as art but potentially bad news in terms of impact and popularity. 

Oh fuck it, who cares about popularity? I do, in my weaker moments, but not now. Right now I'm listening to Ron Isley (a fucking Isley brother!) sing over this instrumental that's lusher than a Hawaiian rainforest. This might be something like heaven if I can relax enough to let myself enter. 

12. “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” (Feat. Rapsody) (prod. by Thundercat & Sounwave)

Again, I know that guitar riff, what is it? This song's hypnotizing, more layers on layers on layers on layers. You have to hand it to the man, he's making important social messaging as catchy as a classic soul record. I also won't front, but I'm kind of just half-listening to this waiting for Rapsody's verse, and there it is! Goddamn - the only rap guest verse on this album and it goes to Rap? I hope this opens all the doors she deserves. Just a really beautiful song...closed out by this more ominous clip of Kendrick talking, some vague threat on the horizon.

Relax for one second and this album will eat you up. 

13. “The Blacker The Berry” (prod. by Boi-1da & Koz)

I've heard this so many times by now it's almost a break (in terms of writing this review). I don't really know what I can say that I haven't before, other than its extraordinary and I appreciate it even more in the context of every song that's come before it. This is that song that's the perfect middle-ground between "i" and something like "Backseat Freestyle," uplifting but still aggressively menacing. 

What's kind of crazy is that this song sounded so groundbreaking when I first hear it, but compared to the rest of the album, it's almost simple. The beat's primarily a drum loop, there's no big beat switches, Kendrick gives us something like the usual verse-bridge-chorus structure, it says something about how adventurous the rest of the album has been that this song now almost feels predictable. This shit still hits me after...I don't know, I'm probably on listen number 35 or so, I can't really see it getting old after another 100 listens.  

Or maybe I'll stop listening to this album after the next catchy shit that's easy to sing along to drops. Maybe I'll end up being the biggest hypocrite of 2015. God I hope not, but my experience with that Lupe album has me a little shook. 

14. “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” (prod. by Lovedragon)

Back to the singing. The pessimistic part of me feels like this is the most filler-esque song on the album so far, I'm just not really sure what it's doing that really advances the album. On the other hand, I know even now that's kind of a ridiculous thing to think about a song I'm halfway through on an album I know I'm not even close to understanding. Still, I've been doing this long enough to know that your first instinct can often be your best instinct. Not always, but often. 

The first time I've really felt my attention wander so far.

15. “i” (prod. by Rahki)

The other song on this album I've obviously already heard. I really went 180 on this song. At first I wasn't sure, but a few repeat listens really made me appreciate the power of its message, and the power of the music.

Wait, this isn't the same version that we've heard before, is it? There are all these little call outs, it's more like a live version. No, this definitely isn't the same version we've heard before. Damn, I can't think of another time someone put a different version of their big lead single on the album, although I'm sure it's happened. This isn't even really a song so much as it is a scene in the movie Kendrick's trying to make. What does it say that on the album he completely stopped the momentum of a catchy, hit song to include some new a capella bars?

I didn't even remotely see this coming. Once again this album's got me scrambling. 

16. “Mortal Man” (prod. by Sounwave)

A closing note that's much more like the full on Kendrick Lamar lyrical avalanche we're used to. One of those legacy tracks, where the rapper pauses to reflect on his own place in the game, although notably Kendrick sounds like he only barely cares about the rap game anymore, his sights are set so much higher. 

The "screaming in a hotel room" refrain is back, I'm also hard pressed to think of another album that does that, keeps bringing back a phrase that continues to build and expand as the album progresses. And...now he's having a conversation with Tupac? Part of me feels weird about this, like that Dr. Dre clip in the beginning it's a little forced, some reverse engineering around some clips they had of him. At the same time though, it's motherfucking Kendrick talking to Pac, asking the questions he wants to ask of his hero. That's kind of amazing. Not kind of. Amazing. 

In retrospect GKMC was easy. The first time I heard it I knew, as much as you can know such a thing, that it was going to be a classic. It just felt like it, smelled like it, sounded like it. It had the depth of songs like "Sing About Me" and then songs like "Money Trees" and "Don't Kill My Vibe" and "Backseat Freestyle" that made you want to run and listen to it with the homies so you could all collectively lose your shit. 

To Pimp a Butterfly though? I don't know if I'm going to be able to understand this album after 50 listens, let alone one. It's like it's in another language, one I'm going to need to learn though immersion. Even after one listen though I do recognize just how risky this album is for Kendrick; it's going to be polarizing, the most difficult path he could have possibly taken in his attempts to cement his legacy. 

Kendrick's in another universe, there's no doubting that. Right now the only question is if we can get to that universe too, and if we do get there, will it be like where we are? 

Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.

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