Coming off of “good kid m.A.A.d. city,” the world was looking at K. Dot and wondering what he would do next. The breakout album, subtitled “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar,” was a three-part play about life in Compton and a love letter to family. “To Pimp a Butterfly” may not be billed as a movie, but it’s just as heady and ambitious. It fluctuates sonically, making it at times feel maddeningly unfocused. For many, its sound may perplex and its social commentary may offend, but there is no doubt that Kendrick created one of the year’s most complex, impressive musical feats.
“Butterfly” borrows jazz and 1970s funk, creating a soundscape that’s inherently rooted in African American culture. Try not to approach “Butterfly” looking for those same earworm hooks on par with “Swimming Pools” and “Backseat Freestyle” or you’ll be upset to find there aren’t any. Instead, listen as Kendrick subverts musical expectations with stuttering production and arcane samples, ranging from Boris Gardner to Fela Kuti. A few legends drop by too, including Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams, but they are only present to support the message the album is trying to convey.
Leadoff track “Wesley’s Theory” sets the tone for the project as far as introducing themes that the rapper would explore. Flying Lotus and Kendrick collaborate again and the result is a psychedelic vibe underlining a story of a black entertainer being pimped out by Uncle Sam. At the end of the “Wesley’s Theory,” Kendrick says lines from a poem that is slowly revealed in scattered increments on several tracks.
“King Kunta” brings the funk in full force. We know from the hook that he’s talking about Kunta Kinte — a powerful symbol of black resistance against oppressive institutions. “King Kunta” is evidence that every line in the album carries meaning. Even the yams have meaning, referencing the novel “Invisible Man,” symbolizing nostalgia and addiction.
“Institutionalized” is where Kendrick loses my interest. There are other verses that serve the same purpose as “Institutionalized” but musically do a better job. Following that, “These Walls” was a favorite for many, but to me felt less resounding than the rest.
As the album continues, outside voices materialize, shaming Kendrick for past failures. We hear a vulnerable Kendrick on the deeply emotional track “u,” which talks about alcoholism and contemplating suicide. He at one point refers to himself as “a fucking failure” and through drunken sobs tells us that he let people from home down when he went off to become famous.
“Alright” comes in afterward as a temporary relief. Once he looks past what these failures, he tries to believe that this is still all part of God’s plan in order to help him get by — but I wonder how much Kendrick really believes this because he constantly flips ideas around.
An antecedent to “u,” Kendrick throws in a live version of “i” that I liked much better than the Grammy-winning radio version. Heard in the full context of the album, the positive message of “i” feels a lot more fitting of Kendrick’s new style.
Closing out on a twelve-minute track, “Mortal Man” features clips of a rare interview with the late Tupac Shakur. Pac talks about racial politics in 1994 and Kendrick brings in contemporary relevancy. From the interview, we’re left with a terrifying portrait of a blood-soaked future — possibly the most dramatic ending to a hip-hop album. Yet it works because their exchange answers what it means to pimp a butterfly.
Overall, the album excels lyrically and has too many loaded verses to be unpacked within the contents of a single review. There’s still the matter of the record’s title and its multiple allusions, from Muhammad Ali to Harper Lee. When recently asked about the title’s significance, Kendrick said, “that will be taught in college courses someday” — as will, I’m sure, the entire album.
RECOMMENDED: Kendrick brings back the funk and proves he’s at the top tier of today’s rappers. “Butterfly” is varied musically and a must-listen.