Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly
Apr 5, 2020 (updated Apr 6, 2020)

Monday, March 16, 2015, ordinary day, program revisions, around 8:00 a.m.

Restless sleep, early awakening, little daily look at "Hasitleaked" (at the time I was really stupid) in the unexpected expectation of some kind of leaks. The last Kanye West? The last Kendrick Lamar? The last Young Fathers? The last Death Grips?...
Am I badly awake ? No, the Internets confirm: "To Pimp A Butterfly" has leaked, I give up my lie-in and I throw myself on my computer.

Two hours later, I can hardly hide my incomprehension, no less my disappointment.


Let's put things in order and in context.

Kendrick Lamar, aka K-Dot, Californian rapper, officially launched his career in 2009 with his Extended Play "Kendrick Lamar EP" (and more unofficially under the pseudonym K-Dot, whose mixtapes everyone has forgotten). But it's with the release of his debut album "Section.80" in 2011 that he already asserts himself as one of the best MC's of his generation, reaping the praise of critics and the respect of his elders. It was also at this time that I discovered him, naively browsing through yet another "Best albums of 2011" list. Then I learn that the great Dr. Dre has taken him under his wing. Without reflecting, I threw myself on this album; the slap was there. No need for adaptation here, classic and already classy style, "The Spiteful Chant" is on non-stop loop in my room. Kendrick then appears as the rising star of Hip-Hop.

Barely one year later, it is with a little hidden impatience that I listen to his second opus "Good Kid, M.A.A.D City". Small apprehension, 1 year of difference between this one and its predecessor, we can envisage the worst. A few weeks before discovering its full potential, the verdict falls: best Hip-Hop album since "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" (as vital and imperfect both) by a certain Kanye West, and since then it has been in the pantheon of my favourite albums, all decades combined. The critics are also unanimous, triumphal reception of the public, "GMCD" is already cult in the collective unconscious. No doubt, Kendrick is the new prince of Hip-Hop.

3 years passed between the majestic "GKMC" and the announcement of the new album. In the meantime, let's remember that K-Dot had set us on fire with the single "Control", accompanied by our friend Jay Electronica (and Big Sean). We remember his famous "controversial verse", which evoked his deep differentiation from the current scene, and already foreshadowed a possible change of direction. Standing out again and again, leaving the competition far behind him, in the good memory of his mentor's advice.

« Yo what's up? It's Dre
Remember the first time you came out to the house?
You said you wanted a spot like mine
But remember, anybody can get it
The hard part is keeping it, motherfucker. »

Kendrick had also unleashed passions by making comments in Billboard about the black condition, comments that caused a huge buzz. The first clues from "To Pimp A Butterfly" are detectable for anyone who wants to see them.

• 23 September 2014: first single from the album, soberly entitled "I".

First mixed impression, the change of orientation is perceptible, Hip-Hop with a Neo-Soul sauce, a bit like D'Angelo's "Black Messiah" (anachronistic reference but the idea is there), the P-Funk is already pointing its nose. The track is clearly not a real success (putting aside the excellence and the carelessness of the lyrics, a real anthem of ego). Some references to Tupac in the lyrics, I should have seen things coming... I forget Kendrick for a while, missing the excellent live version at Saturday Night, which will finally be chosen for the album, for my greatest pleasure.

• February 8, 2015: 57th Annual Grammy Awards; "The Blacker The Berry"

I'm following the ceremony from a distance but not without interest. The result: Kendrick wins the Grammies for Best Rap Songs and Best Rap Performance for his single "I". Personal reaction: people like mainstream, please don't encourage him in this way... I thought too fast, no time to look back, Kendrick slaps me in the face with the release of "The Blacker The Berry", just 24 hours after the ceremony. Committed lyrics (inspired by the murder of the young Trayvon Martin and dealing with police violence as well as inter-community problems), an assassin flow (a small reference to the featuring), crazy beats, in short what could have been the best track of "GKMC" is about to be on his next album. I'm melting down, "To Pimp A Butterfly" (whose title is still unknown) becomes my biggest expectation for 2015.

• March 10, 2015: King Kendrick unveils the album cover on Instagram

Not the most memorable moment, but the curiosity is there. Black and white photograph by Frenchman Denis Rouvre, I think I recognize Kendrick in the middle, carrying a baby. Around him, young African-Americans, shirtless, proudly carrying bundles of money and bottles of champagne. White House in the background, a prosecutor (probably deceased) lying on the floor in the foreground, the message is clear: K-Dot intends to denounce and put an end to injustices.

« Don't all dogs go to heaven? Don't gangsta's boogie? Do owl sh*t stank? Lions, tigers and bears. But To Pimp A Butterfly. Its the American dream n*gga ... »


(I won't mention the teaser track "King Kuta" released two days before the fake official release. Let's go straight to the point: the album.)

First impression, the most contrasted one: the lyrics are there, but the Kendrick of "GKMC", the one I've always liked and who recently sold me a dream with his track "The Blacker The Berry" has disappeared from the radar. Sad reality: the flow is much less scathing, and - above all - the instrumentals are P-Funkyjazzysoul-esque leaving out the "banger" touch of "GKMC". A mix of the latest Flying Lotus and D'Angelo in a way, not what I expected from the King. Misunderstanding, Disappointment, Frustration are the key words of my first contact with "To Pimp A Butterfly".

Relatively long album (80 minutes in total, without the bonus tracks to come on the Deluxe version), demanding, complex, subtle, full of details, difficult for me to draw the outlines at first sight.

At the same time, everyone was bogged down in eulogistic comments without coherence, or even nuance, with "best album of the decade" or other perfect scores distributed in abundance, without taking a step back. That's what pushed me to write this review, with a more global and long term vision of the album. My perception of "TPAB" has changed several times, as you will see...


The title "To Pimp A Butterfly" refers to Harper Lee's famous short story "To Kill a Mockingbird", which is about a racial injustice.

As Kendrick said:
« Just putting the word 'pimp' next to 'butterfly'... It's a trip. That's something that will be a phrase forever. It'll be taught in college courses, I truly believe that. »

There's no point, then, in looking for a rational explanation.


Kubler-Ross grief cycle, I'll pass the details. Four days after the earthquake of the release, I came to terms with it. Why should I miss this album just because it doesn't meet my expectations? My favourite albums and I have often had a tumultuous relationship, not to fall into the trap of the first listening, I have enough experience of it. So what's the point?

It's quite simple, K-Dot has a message to get across. "GKMC" told us Kendrick's story of his youth in Compton, his memories, his feelings at the time, and described the claustrophobic and dangerous world in which he lived. If "GKMC" was more rooted in the past, with "TPAB" he embraces current and timeless themes such as politics, faith, street wars, violence against blacks, intra-community cannibalism (especially within his own community) and many others. He confronts us with his intimate vision of the world and American society through a plethora of diverse and varied characters, sometimes contradictory and irreverent, pushing us to reflect on the socio-cultural scourge the racism is.

Kendrick decided to make a musical change to better fit his lyrics and to surround himself with numerous personalities (through featurings, samplings etc.) such as George Clinton (legend of the Parliament Funkadelic, in other words P-Funk), Snoop Dogg, Pharell Williams, Sufjan Stevens to name but a few, melting pot of decades and American musical cultures.

References to Tupac, Kunta Kinte (famous slave), Trayvon Martin (African-American teenagers shot dead), etc. the list is long and the black cause is heard. What better choice is there for K-Dot? A "GKMC 2" whose concept is essentially based on the almost linear narration of one story; and from which energetic, catchy, powerfully scathing bars are delivred? No, it doesn't.

"TPAB" will be different, I got screwed. It's a unique musical piece, focused on the message, the music at the service of the lyrics, an accompanying music. Kendrick explores all the elements that have made African-American music successful: (Free) Jazz, Soul and Funk (James Brown, John Coltrane and others are never far away).

From the very first moments the tone is set, crackling vinyl, cover of "Every nigger is a star" by Boris Gardiner, back 30 years ago, I'm not prepared. (I now fully adhere, only 4 days have passed).
A return to the origins, therefore, a tribute to African-American music and more precisely to West Coast Hip-Hop which triumphed in the 80s and 90s. In the second part of the album, "Mortal Man", mixes the voices of Kendrick and the legendary Tupac (who died in 1996) in a fictional interview.

I won't go into a track by track analysis here, which would nevertheless have the merit of being interesting, so as not to make this review undrinkable and detached from the unbreakable substance of the album.

WhatTheFunk's Tags
...However, some words about the finale, which is - in my humble opinion - essential for a better understanding of the album. In the second part of the song "Mortal Man", we witness, incredulous, the passing of the torch between K-dot and 2pac. Kendrick, through an interview dating from 1994, samples some questions from his spiritual mentor (then unanswered), to which he echoes. This track would have been inspired by a trip to South Africa in 2014, which has matured his thinking around "black empowerment". No wonder then that the names Mandela and MLK are associated with it.
At first I considered this track as pretentious, no matter, what's the point of judging, the result is there. Let's just say that my vision has changed, pretentious but audacious, a mirror of the artist's career, the inextricable conclusion of this album.
Many subjects are addressed: economic inequalities, power, spirituality, destiny, with a staggering current resonance. Almost 20 years after the release of "Me Against The World", Kendrick delivers us a testament to timelessness, a journey through space-time, with a Free-Jazz touch in the background that transcends limits.

In the end I hardly spoke about the album musically. What's the point, the compositions are of an exceptional richness, the production is the most meticulous for many years. After I got past my frustration, reality exploded in my face. I could have insisted on the bass player and virtuoso Thundercat, who is tremendously integrated into the dynamics of the record. I could have talked at greater length about the live version of "I", incomparable to the single. I could have gone deeper into "The Blacker The Berry" which, I repeat, is Kendrick's best song. The list goes on and on.
To nuance a bit, it seems to me that the album suffers from a slight imbalance between the first half and the next one (the first one being - in my opinion - better). The risk taking, praised here and there, is also to be put into perspective, the mainstream wave of neo-soul and funk revival artists had already swept over before "TPAB". Not to fall into the over-intellectualization of his lyrics either, the universal reach of his message would be the first victim.
Wake up, the legitimate sceptics, the disappointed, the fans of "GKMC"! K-Dot is still there, listen, try again, come back, and above all give him time. Talent is indelible and King Kendrick proved it; if for some Tupac was the master, then his student Kendrick has surpassed him.
« Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant
Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations that the caterpillar never considered, ending the internal struggle
Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same. »
The ghost of Tupac no longer answers, once again glittering in the firmament, serene, his message is past but still present.
Kendrick is now alone, on the roof of the world...
Best tracks: "The Blacker The Berry", "How Much A Dollar Cost (feat. James Fauntleroy & Ronald Isley)", "King Kunta", "These Walls", "Wesley's Theory (feat. George Clinton & Thundercat)", "I", "Alright", "Mortal Man", "U", "Institutionalized (feat. Bilal, Anna Wise & Snoop Dogg)", "Complexion (A Zulu Love) (feat. Rapsody)", "Hood Politics", "For Free? (Interlude)".
Worst track: "Momma"
Can't believe you didn't give it a 10. Actually blocked I am crying
WTF this is so good
this is incredible
DAMN. This review ain't half bad
So when is the big project coming out?
@Inglume Okay, thank you very much for those comments, it's always nice to have a constructive discussion even when we disagree. :)

First of all, I would like to say that I too think the second half is much better than the first one, it's a typing mistake that I can't correct since it's in the comments box ๐Ÿ˜’.
@Inglume Secondly, it's very difficult for me to listen to Kendrick's different projects together, the 4 albums being fundamentally different imo. Where GKMC was more imperfect and straight to the point, TPAB is more imaculate but also more calculated. And it's not a criticism but it's probably this insane ambition that made me think that "Mortal Man" was a "pretentious" song in the first place. TPAB is undeniably the most successful project of K-Dot, the coronation of King Kendrick, but I still prefer the big slap in my face that was GKMC.
@okcomputer12127, @thejacktackshac, @KIDWITHGUNs Thanks a lot guys <3
Wonderful review! It's always great to get point of view, of an album, that is different to your own, TPAB was my first K-Dot experience, and you really laid everything out there!
Great review!! Stay safe and strong!
Amen ๐Ÿ‘Œ
DAMN. what an amazing review!
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