On paper, there are a million good things to say about To Pimp A Butterfly. The story, the message and the exploration of the history of African-American music are all brilliantly conceived. And, on paper, they’re brilliantly executed. Unfortunately for Kendrick Lamar and his newest album, however, music doesn’t exist on paper. What we’re actually left with is an album that fails to make an impact on a visceral and emotional level.
To Pimp A Butterfly is devoid of any actual atmosphere simply because Kendrick does not allow the music to breathe. There is nothing wrong with making an album as ambitious and dense as To Pimp A Butterfly, but the complete absence of any simplicity and directness to it means that the album fails to be genuinely affecting in the way that music should be, instead being a purely cerebral experience. ‘How Much A Dollar Cost’ and ‘The Blacker The Berry’ stand out as some of the only songs on the album where Kendrick does not employ an ineffective beat change or ridiculous affected voice and flow to undermine the atmosphere and, if you’ll excuse the pun, kill the vibe. The beat changes in ‘The Art of Peer Pressure”, ‘m.A.A.d city’ and ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’ worked brilliantly in good kid…, but here, it just feels like Kendrick is doing some of his old tricks to death.
Kendrick’s voice doesn’t help. The problem with putting on highly affected vocals as he does is not just that they sound obnoxious (this also goes for alt-J and pretty much every indie folk outfit out there as well), but that the realness of any emotions he’s trying to convey with his voice will be lost if it sounds as unnatural as Kendrick’s on songs like… well, almost every song on the album. It’s different when an artist such as Kanye West uses vocoder to suggest an external force getting in the way of a voice he has already established for himself. And since Lamar spends so much time lingering on self-doubt throughout the album, when he occasionally makes statements of bravado on songs such as ‘King Kunta’ it’s almost impossible to take him seriously, even if he does have the technical ability to crown himself the king of rap.
And if not taking it seriously is the point, hasn’t he just remade ‘Backseat Freestyle’ in G-funk and put it in the same position in the album too? Somehow, Kendrick is even falling behind rappers such as Chief Keef and Yung Lean in establishing a voice for himself. Where his lyrics and flow possess intelligence and technical ability, there is a lack of authority, personality and attitude, making it harder for the listener to submit to the world that Kendrick is trying to create.
Given that the album functions as a story and a journey, the release of singles ‘The Blacker The Berry’ and ‘i’ in advance almost feel like Lamar giving away the most important plot points
The marketing of the album is also part of the problem. Given that the album functions as a story and a journey, the release of singles ‘The Blacker The Berry’ and ‘i’ in advance almost feel like Lamar giving away the most important plot points. ‘u’ is one of the stronger songs on the album, but its power is negated by the very fact that ‘i’ exists, and was released half a year before the album itself. Yes, ‘i’ is infinitely better in the context of the album, but given that the album’s happy resolution was given away to us in advance draws attention to the fact that songs like ‘u’ are simply recreations of emotions that Kendrick Lamar has felt in the past. As a result, the danger, the sadness, the fear and the in-the-moment feel that ‘u’ should have is lost.
Kendrick’s over articulate lyrical style and constant guiding of the listener by hand is also a detriment to this album. The weakest moments of the generally masterful ‘The Blacker The Berry’ see Lamar undermining the impact of statements such “fuck you, no fuck y’all” by adding “that’s as blunt as it gets” afterwards. He hasn’t quite learned one of the most important lessons as a vocal performer, and that is to know when not to say something. And after he makes his final reveal that “gangbanging made me kill a nigga blacker than me”, he adds “hypocrite”. Which make sense, given that the rest of the song sees him vehemently condemning institutional racism. The only thing is, he’s started each of his three verses with the line “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015” already. We get it. Listeners are very capable of reading – and appreciating – the points Kendrick is trying to make about racism, hypocrisy and self worth loud and clear without him spelling it out to the point where it becomes infuriating.
The problem is that the thematic cohesion of the album is detrimental to its sonic cohesion
Kendrick takes a very maximalist approach with To Pimp A Butterfly, and in theory, that’s absolutely fine. Why not make an album that encompasses the entire history of African-American music, from spoken word to soul, from jazz to dancehall? And what’s even better, in theory, is that Kendrick makes the genre of each song in the album fit its lyrical content perfectly. The problem, however, is that the thematic cohesion of the album is detrimental to its sonic cohesion. For example, the transitions from ‘These Walls’ to ‘u’ to ‘Alright’ are thematically logical, in terms of the story Kendrick is trying to tell. Sonically, however, they do not flow at all, and since this is music we’re talking about here and not literature, it’s safe to say that the album fails to hang together as it should.
A rapper with attitude and personality can bring a level of realness that prevents the self-conscious ways in which hip-hop music employs the sound of other genres from becoming distracting. Which means Kendrick’s kind of fucked. The different genres of music in To Pimp A Butterfly seem to have been included for the sake of being included, rather than for the effect. There’s jazz, but it’s not actually jazzy. There’s funk, but it’s not actually funky. Even if you do view that as a deliberate, intelligent decision, it’s still frustrating as hell for those who actually want to enjoy the music. The omnipresent jazz influence, technically sound though it is, is simply too reminiscent of Bitches Brew era Miles Davis to stand on its own feet. Elsewhere, P-funk influence present in songs such as ‘Wesley’s Theory’ and ‘These Walls’ is not given any kind of modern spin or development, even though it’s being performed live rather than sampled. As a result, it draws too much attention to its own presence to be fully enjoyed.
As intelligent and well-made To Pimp A Butterfly is, there are better things music can be than intelligent and well made. Kendrick Lamar’s slip-up on this record may be his reluctance to use his own voice or his inability to understand how less can be more, but either way it’s the same result. To Pimp A Butterfly is a good album, but it doesn’t quite make that jump from being a masterpiece in theory to being a masterpiece in practice. Which, in the end, is the most disappointing thing about it.