Review You: Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly”

PROLOGUE

I know next to nothing about music. My pal Brian runs a small indie record label and serves as the COO for a much larger outfit. He’s smart and knows about music. I’m sassy and legitimately like Boney M. A few weeks ago, I proposed we co-review the new Kendrick Lamar album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” and add notes to each other’s thoughts, creating a cohesive double-headed who knows what. It didn’t go to plan. It went better.

Brian suggested I review the album and have him review my review. Then I can add some final thoughts, and, if you make it to the end, award you all a Whitman’s Sampler. If this experiment works, we might try again with another album. If it doesn’t, it was probably my fault.

RICH REVIEWS “TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY”

Kendrick and I met sometime in 2013 on the final verse of A$AP Rocky’s “F**kin Problems.” It was a glorious handshake. Wish you could have seen it.

I subsequently skimmed his solo work (not super into it) but got excited when I heard his verse on Big Sean’s “Control.” Everyone heard his verse on “Control.”

Now “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Reviews washed over me and I was inspired to write my own. The only stumbling block is that I suck at music (I once hired four musical advisors to help. It didn’t.). I’m also not excellent at writing about music. But I had to make an attempt.

“To Pimp a Butterfly”

My hip hop and rap tastes are pretty traditional. Great hooks, sick beats, straight bangers. Lyric-heavy music of any genre doesn’t do it for me. A fusion of too many styles doesn’t usually do it for me. I like peanut butter and jelly, not a Monte Cristo Roll-Up with a side of tangerine chutney.

“To Pimp a Butterfly” is a mix of experimental I-don’t-know-what, straightforward hip hop/rap and a bunch of other genres like contemporary R&B, jazz, funk — there’s even a horror-movie score buried under one track. There are a few PB&J items on the menu, but you have to wait for it. Wade through stuff to get to it.

Kendrick’s vocals are all over the place too. Smooth as smooth one track, sing-songy soft the next, Kevin Hart squeaky, two whiskeys and nine cigarettes raspy, desperate, angry, sad — and I don’t mean the words — this includes tone, pitch, bass, treble, other music words. Axel Rose sounds like Axel Rose. Jay-Z like Jay-Z. Kendrick’s voice forced me to read the liner notes. Even when it wasn’t him, I had to be sure.

The album splits somewhere in the middle with the first half throwing so much at you that it’s tough to keep up. The last third gives me songs I want to hear again. From the opening track through “Hood Politics,” it feels like homework. I consulted multiple lyrics websites and annotated YouTube videos just to keep up. That’s on me — I’m not a lyrics guy — but the first 10 tracks are work. There’s too much George Clinton badoo-ba-bwab-bwab-bwab bass bullshit for my taste — too much puddleskipping rap in the beginning (bounce bounce bounce but no bite). Too many styles. Too many ingredients. Maybe this is future music (with dirty and very specific R&B lyrics) or maybe it’s just massively ambitious, like David Foster Wallace fiction.

Bathtime with Lamar

“The Blacker the Berry” (the second single off the album) is my favorite Kendrick Lamar song of all time. I play it pretty regularly. Kendrick’s rapping is angry and gritty, I love the beats and Assassin’s hook is AMAZING. I have a bathtime playlist for my one-year-old — five or six songs to keep her entertained. Her favorite song right now is “Breezeblocks” by alt-J, but I slid this track into her rotation a little while ago. When she hears “Breezeblocks,” she loses her shit. She smiles like a big goof and slaps the water at her favorite parts (she seems to have favorite parts). The first few times I played Berry, I could see her wheels turning. She stopped moving, stared into the middle distance and every once in a while, winced, like a poltergeist unexpectedly blowing in her ear.

I think the beats scared her a little. The song is aggressive, which is maybe why I like it so much. She’s past that. She smiles like a big goof and slaps the water when this comes on too. Maybe even a little harder.

I haven’t treated her to “i,” but only because there’s too much spoken word at the end. It’s the first single off the album, the most popular song on the album, and I feel basic for calling it my second favorite song on Butterfly. I like it for the opposite reason I love Berry. It’s upbeat, upbeat, upbeat in the face of the shitty nature of the world, inescapable self doubt and crowds of people trying to drag you down mentally, physically, emotionally. It also has my favorite line from the entire album:

“Blow steam in the face of the beast.”

I don’t usually have favorite lines. That’s kind of a new thing for me.

I won’t listen to the first half of this album ever again, except by accident or when I want to test myself — like trying to read The Sound and the Fury. People a lot more complex and learned than me are probably getting more out of Butterfly than I am. You browse the fancy sections of the bookstore — I’ll stick to airport paperbacks.

BRIAN REVIEWS RICH’S REVIEW

I don’t fancy myself a writer, nor do I think anyone would care to read that much of my opinion, so I’m glad I now have to only review your review. Hopefully everyone takes this all with a very small dosage of salt.

Overall, I’ll be honest, perhaps due to what I do for a living, I dislike music reviews in general and I especially dislike ones where the writer talks about themselves a lot and here’s why: when people (myself included) seek out music reviews, it’s not typically because they want to know what someone else thought about the music, but rather they want to know what they should think about the music. In other words, they don’t want someone else’s opinion, they want to fill a void within their own opinion.

Maybe back in the heydays of Rolling Stone or Creem would a certain critic’s opinion stand so far above the rest as to actually be sought out, but that’s not something that I think exists anymore, nor is it something most modern readers want. Of course, I realize this is the Reyti style that has made you Internet famous, but I’m unsure how well suited it is for music review at large. So if you asked me, blind to knowing who the author was, I’d say try shifting the voice slightly and write more from the perspective of a reader than yourself. Though I suppose the final venue of the writing (squarely an outlet of yours) should be taken into consideration too, so maybe six of one, half a dozen of the other.

More specifically, I’d like to point out that you completely forgot to mention how much you LOVE horn parts in any hip-hop production. The people gotta know, and this thing is littered with ‘em! You also made a very astute point that I’d missed upon my listening about his voice being just as all over the place as the production at times, this would be another good point to support our mutual thoughts on things being chaotic at times. As for overall theme, I think you really hit the nail on the head highlighting that most people are going to take away a sense that this album while pleasurable enough, is disjointed. Glad we agree on that.

RICH’S FINAL THOUGHTS

I did leave out my love of horns — hip hop or indie or fucking marching band. I love my horns. Dirty trumpets and filthy trombones. Just no saxophones. Ick.

Most of my writing places me at or near the center of the action. It’s a tic I developed early in my writing career (if that’s what you can call my origin story) and it was nurtured and reinforced by every editor I’ve had since. I never thought about how right you are about reviews that are “I feel this way about the work” vs. “This is a contextual review of this piece of art.” Though as I type that, I can’t come up with any good examples of the latter. Not movies, not TV, not Disneyland.

I’ll try a more detached take on the next album we listen to. I recommend it have horns. Sweet, sweet horns.