"Technology is a glittering lure, but there is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash. The most important idea in advertising is ‘new.’ It creates an itch, and you simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion. But there's also a deeper bond possible. It’s delicate…but potent. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than 'new.'" - Don Draper, Da Gawd
It's now been almost six months since Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly, and I know there have been hordes amassing outside the castle walls, waiting for me to open the gates so they can charge in and do battle, clash over the semantics of a word like "classic," catapult charges of "dickriding" or "sleeping" at the opposing side. As soon as my first listen to TPAB was over I began preparing for battle too, strengthening my defenses, plotting my offensive maneuvers.
But something happened over the last six months, something I originally suspected might happen although I had no idea what that something was. It was only a twinge in my heart, but it was exactly the reason I waited all this time to truly write about TPAB. Of course, Kendrick Lamar isn't above using a glittering lure, but while thousands got hooked debating his "Control" verse, myself included, I had a deeper bond with the man's music. I didn't listen to GKMC over and over again, alone, driving late at night, because it was a "classic," because he was under-rated or over-rated because I thought he was the best or the seventh best or the eighty-fourth best rapper alive. I listened because "Sing About Me" made me think of all the people in my life I'd lost and moved me to tears, because "you killed my cousin back in '94 fuck your truce" gave me chills. It took almost a year for me to connect to GKMC on that level, the level deeper than the itch of the new, and so I was willing to patiently wait and see if TPAB connected with me on that deeper level too. Slowly but surely, it has.
If I had written this article months ago I wouldn't have heard Kendrick talk about his mission in making To Pimp a Butterfly, I wouldn't have seen people stand up to police by chanting "We gon be alright," I wouldn't have heard all the additional verses and songs and alternate versions. All of those things technically exist in the world beyond the literal album, but that's the point. This wasn't a static collection of songs, it was an open-source code that Kendrick created to interact with the world and have the world interact with it, which makes it difficult to talk about in the ways we usually talk about albums.
"I could talk slick on a record all day, but who's going to relate to it when they have to go back to this crazy world and feel like they don't love themselves enough to...not commit suicide? Who's gonna make them records? So, me being who I am, not being fearful of what the world thinks, what the industry standards say, I'm gonna do it the way I want to do it." - Kendrick Lamar
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I know a Drake comparison is going to drag me down to exactly the kind of comment section level debates I'm trying to transcend, but looking at a side-by-side comparison of Drizzy and K. Dot's most recent albums has truly helped me articulate who they both are as artists. As I've written, Drake's genius lays in his ability to simultaneously be himself and all of us. Drake's music is a party we're all invited to, a participation trophy, your mom taking you to McDonald's after the game to celebrate if you won and console you if you lost. We all have enemies trying to drain our energy, we all have our respective woes we ride through our respective 6's with. It's the kind of ethos that's earned him radio hit after radio hit, platinum album after platinum album, high fives from global corporations. Cheeseburgers are delicious and sometimes we all want a cheeseburger and Drake is a cheeseburger.
By contrast, both conceptually and musically To Pimp a Butterfly is a challenge, a middle finger that doesn't particularly care if you like it or not. In fact, throughout much of the album Kendrick's aim seems to be making us intentionally uncomfortable. Drake may show his vulnerable side through heartbroken voicemails—who hasn't had their heart broken?—but TPAB gives us Kendrick alone in a hotel room, broken and crying, racked with survivor's guilt; "U" is almost painful to listen to. "King Kunta" is sonicaly one of the most easily accessible songs on the album, but as catchy as the hook is, you can't be white and sing along without being forced to confront your whiteness, and the same goes for "The Blacker the Berry." For the jazz heads songs like "For Free" and "Institutionalized" won't be particularly jarring, but in a hip-hop world currently dominated by 808s and drum breaks "Wesley's Intro" might as well be an alien life form, drawing gasps from the huddled masses as it emerges from its spaceship.
At the same time though, I worry that I did a disservice to the album by focusing so intently on its differences instead of its similarities. Sure, it's musically far from average, but it's not that far. I was recently talking to someone about A$AP Rocky's ALLA album and they said they liked it more than TPAB because they liked rap and Kendrick's album was Bilal singing over jazz, which was technically backward. ALLA literally has more sung hooks, less purely raw rap and far spacier sound than TPAB, but he had heard a lot of people say that TPAB was weird and experimental so it must be weird and experimental and he didn't like weird and experimental so he didn't like TPAB. Maybe if I had initially talked more about how vicious Kendrick's rhymes are on "The Blacker the Berry" instead of Terrace Martin's horn work on "Institutionalized" more people would have listened to it with an open mind, but it probably wouldn't have mattered much. Kendrick intentionally designed this album to push people outside their comfort zone, and people don't like being uncomfortable.
By the same token, I worry that this review sounds too intellectual, too academic. After all, that deeper bond, that level beyond the flash, happens in our hearts, not in our minds. The albums that last continue to echo through the years because they're filled with great songs, not deep concepts. So let me tell you about the time this summer when I was driving back from the airport in the Bay Area midnight with To Pimp a Butterfly filling the car. As I wound through San Francisco's elevated freeways, "U" came on and all the city's half-finished luxury highrises suddenly looked like nightmares, towers being built to insulate the rich from the death and pain and riots that felt inescapable this year in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore and more tragedies than I could count. And just when Kendrick's voice was cracking along with the sounds of empty bottles and I was almost beginning to hallucinate a body jumping out the window of one of those luxury towers, I crossed over onto the Bay Bridge, suddenly surrounded by ocean, and at that moment "Alright" came on and the voices in Pharrell's beat felt like a chorus of angels and it really did feel like I was going to be alright, that maybe this baby growing in my wife's stomach would one day be able to make the world a better place in a way that I had failed to. I heard him. I felt him.
So I really don't care whether To Pimp a Butterfly is considered a classic or not, if you think I'm a dickrider or biased or whatever other meaningless, distracting terms get thrown around. I had that moment with To Pimp a Butterly, and many more, and no rating or label or debate can take it away from me. This album pushed me, but it pushed me to a better place, and now that I'm here I have no intention of leaving.