The Sonic Breakdown Lifestyle
This is the first Sonic Breakdown, and this review will cover Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly. This will most likely be a longer review for several reasons: this is the very first review, the album requires some time to absorb, and the depth the album reaches sonically and lyrically deserves to be explored. This album is not the first Kendrick Lamar album I have heard. I have listened to his previous albums, Overly Dedicated, Section 80, and good kid, m.A.A.d city. I will present a breakdown of each track followed by a conclusion on the album as a whole.
The album starts with a Boris Gardiner sample that states “every nigga is a star” in a kind of joyous chant being heard from a record player.
Next, a funk-inspired beat and bass line comes in with the king of funk music himself, George Clinton. He introduces the title of the album and the beginning of the poem that provides cohesiveness to the album. When the beat switches and I hear George Clinton’s voice and the Thundercat bass line, it transports me back to when I was a kid. Back then, I would sit in my Uncle David’s office with big headphones on, listening to “If Anybody Gets Funked Up” on his record player.
Kendrick’s first verse is an amalgamation of what many black youth think life will be like when they get money, regardless of the means, which is to spend it on unnecessary things. Kendrick uses the line from Dave Chappell, “we shouldn’t never gave y’all niggas money,” and Dr. Dre, “the hardest part is keeping it,” to illustrate that we have to manage our money, not just make it and spend it. The third verse concludes with a reference to Wesley Snipes and his issues with taxes, illustrating the necessity to know how to manage your money in order to keep what you have worked hard to gain.
“For Free? (Interlude)”
This is a jazz inspired interlude that has me remembering the Winton Marsalis and Nat King Cole that my Uncle David and grandmother respectively played for me as a child. Kendrick does a Def Jam poetry-style flow over jazz instrumentation, in which he touches on greed but in an interesting and nontraditional manner. The pianist Robert Glasper (Black Radio) matched with Kendrick’s voice is akin to a piano and sax competing on a song in a traditional jazz medley. The use and tone of the line “this dick ain’t free” is so harsh and abrasive that I can see it being difficult for some, stifling replay-ability, but I feel it was a necessity. The music behind it complements the harsh lyrics but retains the semblance of smoothness that is often associated with jazz.
The LA bounce found in this track has an infectious, head-nodding effect with some funky bass lines. Black pride matched with the call and response provides a “Shaft”-like impression. The main message of saying I’d rather do something I believe in than be fake just for fame or profit is clearly evident in the song. This is showcased by lines like “brown nose for some gold I rather by bum then a mother fuckin baller.” This song ends with the progression of the poem with complete silence, giving the words more depth and foreshadowing a pulsating darkness that sets up for the next song.
A more somber tone is felt early, expressing a feeling of being trapped. Kendrick’s, Ann Wise’s, and Bilal’s voices contribute so much anguish and frustration to the lyrics: knowing what he would do if he had the power to change things, but he can’t. That is followed by an immediate beat switch with a darker euphoric feeling to it. The features of Bilal and new verses from what sounds like old school classic Snoop are perfectly in tune with the soulfulness of the second portion of the song. The chorus of “shit don’t change until you get up and wash your ass” ties into the message at the beginning of the track about change.
The song continues with another line of the poem. A woman moaning ensues with “if these walls can talk” being repeated rapidly, giving off the impression she is having an orgasm. The song has a very sensual feeling with a Prince vibe mixed in with the feature singers, Bilal and Ann Wise. Kendrick navigates with the lyrics to describe a woman’s vaginal walls without being overtly graphic as he was with the use of dick in “For Free?.” The music behind the lyrics also begins to get darker as the walls transform from those of a woman to the walls of a prison cell, showing both sides to life—happy in a woman to anger in a cell. This is a common theme among TDE artist such as Ab-Soul’s song “Double Standards” or Schoolboy Q’s album Habits & Contradictions. Then another stanza of the poem foreshadows an even darker tone. This follows the album’s arc from the lighter, joyous beginning as it becomes progressively darker.
Starts with ominous yelling and sax playing, giving the feeling of being trapped in a black hole trying to get out as Kendrick is slowly building in aggression. He talks about being able to reach thousands of fans but not being able to reach his sister. Repeating the line “loving you is complicated,” which I interpret as the people we love being hard to love, including ourselves. The reason it is complicated is because we all have flaws, and those flaws are hard to love, but it is possible—making it complicated, not impossible. The beat slows down and changes, giving a feeling of all fight and anger being drained out of you, leaving you hopeless. You can hear the room service women knocking on the door, allowing the listener to understand we are in a hotel room. The sound jumps from ear to ear, distorting it, but it becomes clear again when Kendrick starts to rap, sounding drunk and depressed. At one point in the song, you can hear gulping and the clash of a glass with a bottle, perhaps, making it clear that the black hole we were in was a depression hole of sadness. This depression is caused by not being able to help the people closest to him and survivor’s guilt for making it out of the hood. The sadness, hurt, and frustrations builds to a point of suicidal thought.
This is an uplifting song that invigorates after the depth of despair that the last track evoked. This song is the light guiding you out of the hole, trying to reassure as the chorus says “we going to be alright.” The song is completed with the addition of the poem that hints at a religious tone that is prevalent throughout the album.
This is an interlude that introduces the character of Lucy, which is a representation of Lucifer the devil. Kendrick uses a slickster, pimpish voice as Lucy, enticing him to the evils of the world. Lucy presents herself as someone who just wants to help him reach success, but it comes with a cost. Giving way to the credence that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. It is more of a warning than anything else—to be vigilant of the evils all around. The track is wrapped up with a stanza of the poem leading Kendrick home.
The track name makes sense because who is more synonymous with home than mom? The sound is calm and welcoming with a hint of happiness, which reminds the listener of how most mother’s make them feel. Kendrick talks about how rap got him out the hood, but it also blessed him with the opportunity to come back home and invoke change as well. Reminding me of the saying “you don’t miss something until it is gone,” Kendrick now understands how much he needs his home (family, friends, and people) as much as they need him. When he lists all the things he knows and then ends it with “I didn’t know shit,” I am reminded of what I felt after my mother passed and also when I graduated college and was able to see the world for what it is. I felt intelligent and street smart but dumb at the same time because life has a way of reminding us how vast it is. Toward the end of the song, there is a beat change with a sax solo followed by a true monk jazz/rap conclusion.
The track begins with a guitar playing and a man saying he hopes Kendrick doesn’t change. Then it switches to a gangster beat with heavy LA tones and feelings. This song is the closest in feeling to good kid, m.A.A.d city that is on this album while maintaining the theme of this album. Kendrick provides a vibe reminiscent of you in the car with your boys ready to ride out. The listener is cruising, learning how to make moves in the rap game, music awards, the hood, and government. Letting you know that politics are everywhere and function the same from the smallest to the largest scale. Upon first listen, one of the lines that stuck out the most was the line about Killer Mike. He basically tells people to stop complaining about not having real hip-hop when they don’t even support people like Killer Mike, who is a real lyricist.
“How Much a Dollar Cost”
This track has a movie theme feel, as if you’re watching the story unfold in front of you. It invokes a sense that your complete attention is needed. James Fauntleroy’s voice seems distant and light with Kendrick bringing us into a scenario we’ve all been in, that of a homeless person asking you for money. In the first two verses, you understand Kendrick’s approach as you’ve seen many people treat homeless people the same way. People tend to make a blanket judgment that the homeless are only going to use the money for alcohol or drugs. As the track continues, the strings getting louder with horns giving the feeling that an epiphany is in reach, Ronald Isley confirms the conclusion that the homeless man was God, thus illuminating that the dollar he refused God might have cost him his entrance to heaven. Taking it to a more general view, he implies that we need to bring humanity back by helping people in need.
“Complexion (A Zulu Love)”
Kendrick takes an interesting viewpoint on complexion issues from light skin to dark skin among people in the black community, illustrating other complexion issues with white and black skin all the way to color association with gangs. The track switches to a more serene beat that seems to be made for Rapsody, showcasing her voice and lyrics. She kills her feature with her word play and flow. It provides an old school sound that makes you reminisce but is current with the content and feeling.
“The Blacker the Berry”
This is an aggressive track that can inspire anger and hatred. The first verse expresses how the system or powers that be view black people and exploit them. The chorus has a reggae feel that gives it an even more rebellious, fight-the-power vibe. The second verse dives deeper into how the powers that be stifle black people. This pigeonholing and stifling matched with the negative view that permeates society affects the black community in a psychological manner. This translates into the third verse, where Kendrick explains that the psychological damages combined with inner and outer displays of hate develops into self-hate. Self-hate is represented by blacks killing blacks over gangs, drugs, and money. The conclusion that Kendrick reaches is that he is a hypocrite for wanting the world to treat black people better and stop killing us while we continue to kill or want to kill our own people. Kendrick seems as if he is not condemning anyone but himself for sharing those feelings. The message of treating our own people with respect is something that needs to be said out loud and not in hushed tones only among black communities in order for a real movement to occur. The song ends with a reflective-sounding beat that plays for a while, allowing the message to be absorbed.
“You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”
It is interested that the title of this follows “The Blacker the Berry” track because the concept of stopping black people from killing other black people is something some black people feel should only be talked about among our own. The song is saying we try to kick it or fit in with society, but we don’t have to. The change won’t come if we keep lying to each other and the world about the issues. The beat itself is a laid-back feeling that makes you want to kick back and let yourself go, which fits the theme of being yourself no matter what. Kendrick flows over the song as if we are hanging out with friends having a casual conversation. In high school, my friends and I would say “you don’t have to lie to kick it” all the time in the same manner as the song, which means to just be real and we will still be friends.
The track starts out with an MC introducing Kendrick in a live performance. “i” invoked the feeling I had when listening to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. It also relays a theme or anthem of hope, which is truly needed in comparison to “u” and other darker tracks. Kendrick is inciting the notion to love yourself and our people. This is driven home when the performance is disturbed by fighting and Kendrick speaks to the audience. The a cappella rap is enlightening because he drops knowledge about a word that is rife with controversy. He states that negus, an Ethiopian word for royalty, should be the meaning for the word nigga that many black people use. This goes back to black people putting a positive spin on a word used for hate.
The sound of this track already has a deep, thought-provoking texture to it even before any lyrics are used. It feels as if the song is a reflection of everything heard previously as Kendrick reflects on his experiences. The line “if shit hits the fan, are you still a fan” is powerful due to the fact that anytime a black man is trying to make changes in the world for the better, he gets torn down or killed. Examples of this are Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Malcolm X. I am not saying Kendrick is anywhere near that level, but the question of will you still be there when things don’t go right is valid. At the end of the song, Kendrick speaks over silence to drive his point about how respect for all can help with discrimination and apartheid. This is followed by an unreleased Tupac Shakur interview that was given to Kendrick when he was in Germany. The interview is cut and edited to make it appear as if Tupac is being interviewed by Kendrick. The thing that stands out is a line where Shakur says that they don’t rap, that they are speaking for their dead friends. Another major point is the prophetic quality of the words Tupac speaks regarding race relations. The album ends with Kendrick Lamar giving the complete poem in its entirety and ends with asking Mr. Shakur his opinion on the poem’s meaning, followed by silence. I am purposefully leaving out the poem in this review so you can determine the meaning for yourself.
The album can be complex, which might be hard to digest for the casual listener. Let’s address the title first, which has many different interpretations and has similarities to one of my favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The pimp is as we all know one to be: a person that exploits someone for their talent or skills for monetary gain. The butterfly represents the talent, skills, and positive attributes to society that black people possess. We all start out as the caterpillar, consuming everything around us, as Kendrick states. The caterpillar grows as it consumes, which is equivalent to people learning and developing skills that transform into talent (butterfly). The cocoon that transforms the caterpillar into a butterfly is comparable to the black community breaking free from oppression and injustice. This relates to the book on the basis that society has to stop killing black people just like the mockingbird. They both have wonderful things to give to the world; black people share their talent and the mockingbird has its songs. Black people must learn to utilize that talent in ways to elevate their community instead of that talent being pimped just for monetary gain.
Next, the album sonically is wonderful, giving you a range of emotions that take you on several journeys. Some might think the content can only be applied to the black community, and to that I would say they are wrong. Every theme, lyric, and emotion found can be broken down to a universal understanding. Conflicts between good and evil, depression, or being self-conscious are human struggles, not just black struggles. This album has many layers in regard to its depth. The more you listen to it, the more depth you hear. I am still finding and learning new things and experience different emotions every listen. My affinity to the album might have something to do with my musical upbringing from jazz, funk, soul, and R & B to old school hip-hop and new school hip-hop and the fact that my family introduced me to a broad range of genres and encouraged musical exploration from a young age. All of these genres heavily influenced this album, giving me a sense of nostalgia while at the same time Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics transport me to the present. He talks about issues occurring today, like Trayvon Martin and police brutality. This album is a snapshot of the issues happening in society today through music. This occurred in the 60s with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. I am not saying To Pimp a Butterfly is equal to the significance of What’s Going On because time can only tell that, but it shares in the relevance.
Something that is impressive is Kendrick’s ability to speak about topics that most artists wouldn’t dare touch, much less personalize. This is refreshing and encouraging, especially for a sophomore album. The personalization is evident by him touching on mental illness, a subject that is shunned in the black community. The song “u” touched me because of the depression I felt after my mother’s death and somewhat of survivor’s guilt for not being there for my brothers when I moved to California. All of this helps the album resonate with me. Another topic that tends to have a divisive effect is religion. I consider myself a spiritual—not religious—person, but I am well versed in many religions and the Bible. This album doesn’t shy away from religion, but it does not feel as if he is pushing his religion on me. Instead, he uses it as examples to highlight points.
The album is very cohesive mainly due to the deep, thought-provoking poem. Cohesion and having a complete concept is now a trait we associate with a Kendrick Lamar album. The fact that the track order has “u” coming before “i,” where “u” is dark and “i” is uplifting, pushes the listener to the end of the album, leaving you with a sense of hope. “u” is hating yourself, and “i” is loving yourself. “Complexion” deals with color issues, promoting love of all colors, followed by “The Blacker the Berry,” dealing with color hate and “blacker” as a complexion of black. Each additional line of the poem is either an introduction to a song that is broken down in more detail or as a conclusion to a song. To reiterate, I am purposefully leaving out lines of the poem because I believe you should listen to the album yourself to get the gravity of the poem.
Overall, I think this a great album that I would enjoy instrumentally, though adding the lyrics to invoke thought-provoking dialogue takes it to another level. It has high replay-ability due to the new connections and new insight gained during each listen. I would highly recommend this album and am pleased and honored to make this my first Sonic Breakdown. Thank you for reading this review, and check back next week for another Sonic Breakdown on Wale’s The Album About Nothing.
Due to the recent events occurring in Baltimore, I wanted to add a few points that are relevant to these events in relation to the album that were not occurring when I wrote this initially. The unification of Bloods, Crips, and the Nation of Islam is something that Kendrick alluded to in “Complexion” and “The Blacker the Berry.” He wanted these different groups to come together and help their communities become better instead of tearing each other down. I am not sure if this unification is directly related to this album or not, but regardless, it is a wonderful sight to see. An interview of a gang member by Collen Curry for Vice News illuminated that this unification was exactly what Kendrick’s lyrics instructed, which was to improve the community. Some members of these groups stated in the interview that they came together to stop the violence from the riots and not to escalate or promote it. This is a harsh contrast to what has been projected to the public through traditional media outlets. I would like to end this by saying we all need to be more compassionate to each other and look at the cause of the riots and not the reaction. This should be treated in the manner a doctor assesses how to treat a patient. That is, by determining the cause of the reaction—the symptom. In this situation, the symptom is the treatment of minorities by police and the frustration of not being heard or having the ability to change it.
This Sonic Breakdown was written by DeRa Brinson, founder of thesonicbreakdown.com