*This was posted to HCMediaOnline on April 22, 2015.
King Kendrick has done it again, with an album that’s filled with progressive thinking, unapologetic honesty and self-reflection.
Perhaps the most powerful line of slain rapper Tupac Shakur’s “The Rose That Grew From Concrete” states, “Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else even cared.” This line beautifully sums up the arrival of Kendrick Lamar as an artist, and his new album, which I consider a rose in the concrete, muddy landscape of hip-hop.
Lamar’s second studio album, How to Pimp a Butterfly, is a breath of fresh air and a swift blast of reality all at the same time. Lamar had a staggeringly tall order in attempting to follow up his critically acclaimed “good kid, m.A.A.d city” album, which featured “B—- Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Poetic Justice” and “Swimming Pools (Drank).” This album doesn’t fit the mold when it comes to fully appeasing mainstream listeners or providing radio chart toppers, but it does tackle important topics like the current connotation of the n-word, progress in the African-American community and the constant disrespect of women in society.
The album as a whole is very different from the current hip-hop landscape, especially from a melodic standpoint. To Pimp a Butterfly has a steady jazzy and soulful flare, while also incorporating a much-needed element of funk. From an instrumental standpoint, the album is one of my favorites in recent memory. The music complements the ferocity and uniqueness with which Lamar speaks.
My two favorite tracks from this album are “u” and “Mortal Man”.
Lamar screams in anger, before repeating the phrase “loving you is complicated” over and over, all while a saxophone plays in the background during “u”. This song gives viewers a glimpse inside Lamar’s mind, a mind that is filled with regret, self-hate and pain.
The setting of the song puts Lamar alone in a hotel room, reflecting on every shortcoming, mistake, letdown, failure and regret he’s ever experienced. He specifically references moving out of Compton for profit, not being someone the world needs and allowing a close friend’s little brother to die under his supervision. His inconsolable sobbing and pain—brought out by alcohol and pent up self-anger—provides a glimpse of the artist that is rarely seen. The self-destruction in the hotel room leads Kendrick to question if he should live before saying he should’ve “blast a long time ago.” The song shows real pain and had a powerful impact on me as a listener.
The final track, “Mortal Man,” features a conversation between Lamar and Tupac and references historically powerful African-American leaders Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. On this track, Lamar questions his abilities to be a leader who young African Americans can look up to. He suggests that everyone thinks they can be this type of leader until things get real.
After the music stops, Lamar and Tupac carry on a six minute conversation discussing the African-American race, Tupac’s rise to success and Lamar’s reasoning for the album title. The song ends with Lamar saying, “Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one in the same. What’s your perspective on that?”
Remember that rose? Well, it’s growing and it’s as lively as ever, despite the toxic environment, thoughts of self-doubt and ever-changing landscape of hip hop as a whole. Kendrick Lamar does what others won’t. He’s brutally honest, unapologetic and beautifully dysfunctional at the same time. This album isn’t what people want to hear, but it’s exactly what they need to hear.