Compton  is one of hip hop’s legendary cities and it has added another name to its list of accomplished MC’s in the form of Kendrick Lamar.

Since he was a teenager, his flow and his musical approach made him the one many “kept their eye on.”  When the time came for his debut album “good kid, m.A.A.d city” he didn’t disappoint his fans or the music industry as the album was nominated for four Grammy awards, including Album of The Year.

With his newest release, “To Pimp A Butterfly,” Kendrick’s goal is to separate himself from the rest of his peers in terms of lyrical content and musical stylings.  “To Pimp A Butterfly” is a collection of jazz, hip hop, spoken word, slam poetry, funk and self awareness – all trying to mesh well together at the same time.

The production on the album sets it apart from most works out today as it is based mostly around live instrumentation and multiple breaks in tempo and  altogether melody.

The album opens with “Wesley’s Theory” where Kendrick goes in on how the entertainment industry will love the artist as quickly as it will turn it’s back on the artist, using actor Wesley Snipes’ tax-fraud case as the muse for this song.

“King Kunta” is one of the few tracks on the album that possesses the fundamentals for what is considered to be a “real” rap record.  The track is driven by a steady bass drum supplied in production by Terrance Martin.  Kunta is a play on the main character by the same name in the movie “Roots” and in it, Kendrick cleverly combines his path to success as a coming of age and in turn stakes claim to his position on top of the rap game:

I can dig rapping, but a rapper with a ghost writer? / What the f*ck happened? Oh, I swore I wouldn’t tell / But Most of ya’ll share bars, like you got the bottom bunk in a two man cell.” 

The concept behind “Institutionalized” is well played as Kendrick’s message is that no matter the class of citizen, we as people find ourselves locked into a mode of things as they are or how they have to be but never looking beyond that.  Lyrically the pictures he describes are on point: “You know the obvious / Me, scholarship?  No, streets put me through colleges / Be all you can be, true, but the problem is / A dream’s only a dream if work don’t follow it.”  What takes away from the song is the chaotic (albeit creative) use of different personalities/voices used by Kendrick during the song.  He does this at other points in the album, most notably on the track “u.” On “u” Kendrick seems to be having trouble loving himself or even his success.   After the first verse, the song goes into an abrupt break and Kendrick delivers another one of his personalities, which includes a cracking voice, that sounds drunk and whiny.  Although the personality is reminiscent to that of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard – the character is so extreme and the beat is so simple that the whining just gets annoying and his self-loathing anthem takes a turn for the weird.

There are very few “catchy” hooks but “These Walls” might be the catchiest of all of them. The song details a story of a man and woman’s sexual relationship and detailing the pleasure of her vaginal walls and when the time comes she is having their child while he is now trapped within prison walls.

There is an Andre 3000 kind of feel throughout the whole album, but Andre had a better grasp on song structure.  Kendrick’s concepts are mostly on-point but it seems the flows and melodies he uses are forced at times just to satisfy this “live band” feel.

Sometimes he’s not meshing well with the music and other times it seems like the instruments behind him are drunk and he’s trying to stand them up while rapping.  On “Momma” Kendrick kind of just rambles on with another grim outlook on society, but gets really lazy with the song-writing : “I know everything, I know everything, I know myself / I know morality, spirituality, good and bad health / I know fatality might haunt you / I know everything, I know Compton. . .”  – the entire second verse is nothing but that.

His “interludes” are basically full length songs, but should’ve been left off the album altogether.  “For Free?” is annoying jazz / spoken word mess that Kendrick gives a shot at.  He does follow the high hat well with his flow, but the constant reminder of the line “This d*ck ain’t freeeee,” is neither clever or not-annoying. 

On the other interlude “For Sale” Kendrick once again talks about temptation and what things are not what they always appear to be.  Even in his conversations with what appears to be the Devil, Kendrick goes on a frantic non comprehensive rant more than rap.  

Understanding that Kendrick is known for being lyrical, there is no reason for lack-luster hooks like the one he gives on “Hood Politics” : “I been A-1 since dday one, you n*gg@s – boo boo / You home boy, your block that you’re from, boo boo / Lil hoes you went to school with, boo boo / Baby mama and your new b*tch, boo boo / we was in the hood, 14 with the deuce deuce. . .”

The album is peppered with a lot of “pro-black” ideals, which to some may seem new – but the truth is, it’s been done before – and better.   Mos Def, Common and even Kanye West at times, deliver the message with better story telling and delivery.  The fine line one draws when going this route is that you will tend to isolate certain demographics of hip hop listeners.

Whether Kendrick cares or not isn’t the issue, it’s just the truth.  If trying to become more of a “universal artist” one should keep their ideas universal.  Just to be clear – there is nothing wrong with Kendrick speaking on topics near and dear to his heart at all – but there comes a risk of turning some folks off.

Or even worse, get bored with it.

Kendrick ends the album with a really awkward fake conversation with the late Tupac Shakur and the message of a “black man” only having about five years to exhibit their maximum strength in this country which seems overly dramatic. . .

The truth about “To Pimp A Butterfly” is that it’s a courageous effort that Kendrick had no doubt – put a lot of effort into.  That’s the part that’s weird though because knowing he did put a lot of effort into it, some parts of this album sound as if they are made for a demo, thrown together or not completely thought out.

His hype exceeds his talents considerably – but that’s not to say he’s not talented – the potential is there, but everyone needs to pump their brakes on  crowing him with any sort of title.

Rating 5 out of 10

G.W. Gras

Twitter @GeeSteelio


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