Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is the Cultural Watermark of an Entire Year
Kendrick’s decision to put out an unapologetically political album divided fans, but it should unite critics.
By Elijah Watson, University of Texas at Austin
Seventy nine minutes.
That’s the length of Kendrick Lamar’s latest release To Pimp A Butterfly, a lyrically and sonically challenging masterpiece that’s fearless in its presentation.
In an age where music consumers prefer listening to singles instead of digesting (and dissecting) a full length album, To Pimp A Butterfly stands out as a body of work that encourages—and demands—engagement.
There are no standout radio singles, and even those that happen to be in rotation are defiant in a manner that their contemporaries are not. In other words, To Pimp A Butterfly wasn’t made for commercial success. It was made to inform and reflect the cultural conversation, especially in regards to being black in America.
As a result, its inclusion as a Grammy nominee for Album Of The Year, as well as its nominations for ten other Grammys, is incredibly important. In the past several years, no album has commented on—and been a part of—the conversation about race in America the same way To Pimp A Butterfly has.
Its mere presence alongside albums such as 1989 (Taylor Swift), Beauty Behind The Madness (The Weeknd), Sound & Color (Alabama Shakes) and Traveller (Chris Stapleton), is subversive, presenting a perspective that is unflinchingly critical and real.
In receiving those eleven nominations, Kendrick unseated Eminem as the rapper to receive the most nominations in a single night (just one nomination short of Michael Jackson, who received 12 back in 1984). To Pimp A Butterfly has already achieved an incredible collection of accolades, and with the Grammys coming up, the album may very well achieve even more. But that will not come without a challenge.
The last time a rap album received the Album Of The Year award was back in 2004. Writing for The Atlantic back in 2012, Jack Hamilton explained Outkast’s nomination.
“The next time a hip hop artist won was in 2004,” writes Hamilton, “when Album Of The Year went to Outkast’s Speakerboxxx / The Love Below, a double album that also benefitted from a ‘rap-but-not-really’ vibe thanks to the massive success of “Hey Ya!” which won a Grammy in the category of ‘Best Urban/Alternative Performance’ (a.k.a. ‘Best Euphemism Coined By A Confused Elderly White Person’).”
Before that was Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, which won Album Of The Year back in 1999 (though the album was entered in the Best R&B Album category, not the Best Rap Album category). If To Pimp A Butterfly receives Album Of The Year, it would be the third rap album to ever do so, and the first in more than a decade.
Unfortunately, as the Grammy Awards have taught us, getting our hopes up can lead to disappointment. In 2012, Kendrick released his sophomore studio album, Good Kid, m.A.A.d City which, similar to To Pimp A Butterfly, received multiple accolades including seven nominations for the 2014 Grammy Awards. The night looked like it belonged to Kendrick.
Although Daft Punk’s return with Random Access Memories seemed poised to capture Album of the Year, and if not Daft Punk then Taylor Swift’s Red or Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ The Heist, but surely Kendrick seemed like a lock for Best Rap Album.
Unfortunately, he didn’t win. Kendrick wasn’t the recipient of any of the awards that he was nominated for, and the Best Rap Album went to The Heist. By now you probably know the events that transpired after. Macklemore sent Kendrick a text. “You got robbed,” it said. “I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and it sucks that I robbed you.” The sentiment was nice, but ultimately it just made the whole thing even more uncomfortably inexplicable.
Yes, the Grammy Awards ultimately rewarded Kendrick’s artistry in 2015 when he received both the Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song awards for “i,” the lead single off of To Pimp A Butterfly. But the fact that he didn’t receive even one of the awards for which he was nominated in 2014 left many music enthusiasts dissatisfied.
But the beauty of To Pimp A Butterfly receiving these nominations is the fact that it’s nothing like its counterparts. It’s safe to assume that Good Kid, m.A.A.d City was a commercial effort. It was his first full length release for a major label, so it made sense that artists like Drake and Dr. Dre made guest appearances, and that the album placed an emphasis on radio-friendly singles.
Where Good Kid, m.A.A.d City portrayed Kendrick as both a participant and voice of a generation, straddling the line between pop sensibility and complex lyrical content, To Pimp A Butterfly plucked accessibility from the agenda, and created an album that’s inviting only in its alienation.
To Pimp A Butterfly is a black album both lyrically and sonically. George Clinton, the godfather of funk, offers his blessing unto Kendrick on the album’s opening track “Wesley’s Theory,” which foreshadows the funked out and souled up soundscape that backs the entire record.
The boom bap of hard bop, reminiscent of jazz luminaries Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, is everpresent. Then, there are the lyrics. The subject matter fixates on the complexities of blackness: Living, loving and surviving in a country that continues to oppress its black citizens.
Inevitably, such a concept divided people. After all, this is an album that makes you hyper aware of your blackness (and what comes with that) or lack thereof, because the message is omnipresent. There is no escaping To Pimp A Butterfly. It is explicit in its ideas and themes to the point to where—for better or worse —it’s overwhelming.
But that’s what makes To Pimp A Butterfly so important. It’s a very real reflection of contemporary America, presented by someone so commercially and critically lauded that you can’t ignore it.
When you listen to this album you can’t help but think of the deaths of Eric Gardner, Laquan McDonald, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and countless others wrongfully killed by police.
It’s fitting that “Alright,” one of the album’s standout singles, became a modern protest anthem for Black Lives Matter protesters in 2015. It makes it impossible to do anything but think about the inequalities that still exist between black and white people in America.
Surely, To Pimp A Butterfly deserves to be Album Of The Year. But the same divisiveness that has enticed Grammy voters may ultimately repel them. Yet, in a way, the album’s already done what it was supposed to do: Inform, inspire, and create a narrative so explicit that to try and ignore it is impossible.
The fact that Kendrick got a group of old, disconnected voters to listen to To Pimp A Butterfly is already an accomplishment. But if Kendrick were to win the Album Of The Year award, it would a victory for him as well as for rap.