Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly indisputably reconnected the lifeline between music, art and cultural consciousness in 2015. While its immediate impact was timeline-shattering, the record turns six months old today - and is still as weighty in influence and churning out citations at a daily rate.
In this spirit, we thought it’d be as good as time as ever to reflect on the monumental aftermath that has followed since TPAB’s release in March.
The events that led to TPAB’s surprise arrival starts at the Grammys 2014, where Macklemore snatched the Best Rap Record from Kendrick. The Seattle rapper admitted that The Heist was but a pop squeaker when positioned toe-to-toe with Kendrick’s second album and thus sparked the M.a.a.D fallout.
The wider hip-hop community deemed K.Dot a G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time), and the rumours of a new album stirred a nervous energy within the internet melting pot. Surely it couldn't be better than Good Kid, right? Kendrick purists spiralled into their doubt when the funkadelic and admittedly corny ‘I’ came out around the end of 2014 and sat, hoping, waiting, that Kenny had something with a larger scope up his sleeve.
Those worries were soon stamped out when Kendrick appeared on The Colbert Report to perform an untitled track prior to any Butterfly news. The performance was a total game-changer. Impactful thematics steamrolled the buzz of ‘I’. The instrumental was rooted deeply in jazz, funk and gospel, which is appropriate since this appearance became prophetic for the album to come.
So, To Pimp A Butterfly receives glowing reviews from all around the world. It’s deemed an instant classic and we all start tracing its title in pencil on our Album of the Year progress charts.
But we all know that part of the story. What has happened since? How has this affected our perception of Kendrick the artist and what comes next for the Compton prodigy?
A term that’s thrown flagrantly at TPAB is ‘politically charged’, a term unfitting of the record. ‘Charged’ implies singularity, like the album has some sort of overarching agenda or blatant ties to a Compton utopia. An arguably better description would be ‘socially constructive’. Kendrick writes from a dark place, lighting the path for anyone that falls into the same pitfalls he did, or best put in ‘I’, to “give my story to the children and a lesson they can read.”
The album highlights injustice but doesn’t dwell on it. Kendrick has become a figurehead for hopeful Compton, while the city becomes entrenched in nostalgia and resurfaced interest following the N.W.A biopic flurry. Kendrick doesn’t look to be a leader or set an example, he loves his city and wants the inhabitants to break free of the constraint and seeming fate the generational pressures have them believe they’re destined for - see Kendrick’s ‘Institutionalised’ for a more articulate and authentic explanation of that.
What’s similarly interesting is that even in the mire of hip-hop celebrity culture that we’re in now, Kendrick has negotiated his status to not only a rap artist but a writer. Lamar has expressed in interviews before that he prefers that title because his craft is about prioritising storytelling over rhyming well. A recent NPR documentary saw Kendrick sit in with a high school English class and the results were amazing. Both staff and students of all backgrounds were fascinated and inspired by the power of TPAB and Kendrick was similarly elated to see how far his influence has stretched both inside and outside of the rap spheres.
That’s not to say that K has veered from his foundations, he has yet experienced the public perception ‘Kanye Phenomenon’, wherein the ratio of headlines about Kendrick the celebrity outmatches Kendrick the musician.
On ‘Hood Politics’, Lamar drops what became one of the most hip-hop nerd fantasy lines of the year: “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin’ / Motherfucker, if you did, then Killer Mike'd be platinum”. Discounting all the fame and Billboard accreditations, Kendrick understands the direction of rap. This lyric is indicative of the fact that a huge part of hip-hop culture, both old and new, is understanding the progression of the artform. And in that vain, it makes the whole lyric especially awesome that Kendrick gives props to a rapper so distant from his circles, the irreplaceable chief of Atlanta, Killer Mike.
“How can you take a song that's about hope and turn it Into hatred?", Kendrick asked when deemed 'worse for black people than racism' by the hateful Fox News regarding the uplifting video for ‘Alright’. As a pantheon for racial empowerment, TPAB has obviously been moving in the right direction if it can upset the narrow-minded right-wing media to this extent.
The reactions worth taking seriously over the last months range from rumours that Kanye has scrapped his upcoming record, SWISH, after recognising the longevity of Kendrick’s album and tabernacle it has formed for conscious hip-hop. TPAB has even been getting dues paid to it in the form of a $1,500 scholarship for college tuition and books for young hip-hop appreciators and tributes from established authors like Michael Chabon’s ‘The Blacker the Berry’ annotations.
To Pimp A Butterfly is reflective of an emergence from a cocoon. From the response, it represents the gravitational pull of the corners of a now homogeneous music industry coming together in celebration of optimism and progressive musicianship. Whereas on an individual level, the album doesn’t even belong to Kendrick - it’s a cultural gift.
One Saint Heron article described Kendrick’s album as a reminder that: “We're all subconscious art collectors" which might be the most perfect feature line this record can be assigned. TPAB is a piece of musical history, not just west coast history or hip hop history, the record is masterwork that will be revered not just at the top of some list at the end of the year, but in the subconscious of music fans for decades to come.