Images: Anthony Biondi (The Cascade)
Print Edition: March 25, 2015
Kendrick Lamar’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed good kid, m.A.A.d city was dropped online March 16, a week before schedule. Having a few days to digest the new album, Martin Castro, Kodie Cherrille, and Alex Rake got together to discuss their initial thoughts of To Pimp a Butterfly.
KC: I think To Pimp a Butterfly is messier than good kid, m.A.A.d. city.
AR: Messier? In what sense is it a mess?
KC: Messier in the production style; it’s not as sleek as good kid, m.A.A.d. city, and it’s messier in the actual quality of the songs. I’m going to pick on the song “u,” which made me wince listening to it, because it was like …
MC: I know what you mean, because it sounds like he’s drunk. However, I hope he actually was drunk while he recorded it. It’s actually become one of my favourite songs.
MC: I don’t know why, but the image of Kendrick Lamar in the studio, drunk out of his mind, recording this, to me seems great. I think it plays into the aesthetic of the album. I think the story perhaps isn’t as strongly stated as it was in GKMC.
AR: Well, it’s not really a story. What I thought was that it’s in direct contradiction of the mess being a bad thing. When I listen to it in comparison to GKMC, which was beats and then rapping over it, these weren’t like regular hip-hop songs. They were compositions. What came to my mind is “progressive hip-hop.” There are swells within a song, which you don’t usually get in hip-hop.
MC: There’s a straight spoken poetry piece, which I loved. There’s like one proper hip-hop song and that’s “The Blacker the Berry.” That’s like the one banger. I think the point he wanted to make with this album was that hip-hop should be held to a higher standard, or a different standard than just an artist putting out bangers that can be played in the club, which I respect him for.
AR: What came to my mind the whole time was Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music. It has the exact same message, and the songs also progress similarly. I wonder if that might have been an influence.
KC: Let me clarify that I do think this is an amazing album, I just think that GKMC is better in the sense that it maintains a very high plateau longer than To Pimp a Butterfly.
MC: Well, GKMC is a longer album.
AR: The final song on TPAB is three songs, which is where I get the progressive hip-hop thing. It actually transitions so smoothly, you don’t notice that he’s starting an interview. That ending!
MC: And he’s talking to Tupac.
KC: It’s a sample from an older interview. Kendrick is just asking the questions.
That’s something that I’ll give this album credit for: its ending feels way more authentic to me. We talk about these albums like they’re films, right. They’re “short films by Kendrick Lamar.” This is a lot more all over the place, and if it were a film, it’d be much more conceptual; not as concrete, not as easy to track, like GKMC.
AR: It’s not a night on the town, like GKMC.
KC: The resolution on this one is was better … “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” just ends because they believe in God all of a sudden. And then this one he deconstructs a word. It’s all about the word “nigger” and he changes it into something positive.
MC: The thing I liked about it was instead of, “Oh, I believe in God”— which is fine, it’s good— the ending on TPAB is … I don’t want to say a love letter to Kendrick from Kendrick, but it sort of is, because he’s putting faith in himself. But then you also have to take into account that it’s an art piece, how it works together, how the songs work together. So do you think that the message being as self-affirming as it was works in conjunction with how the songs work [aesthetically]?
AR: Yeah. I mean, “i” is a lot better in context.
MC: When I first heard it, I thought, why is he being so poppy all of a sudden? Is he just trying to appeal to the Grammy crowd? It seemed out of place.
KC: And it seemed really flat in the sense that he had a lot of similar tracks at the time. Whereas when “The Blacker the Berry” came out, it suddenly snapped that song right back into focus. Just the song ordering itself makes “i,” which we thought was [worse], work way more.
MC: Yeah, and the live version on the album works a lot better. Because you can feel, you know, it’s not as clean. Which is another comment that I’m hearing; that perhaps we don’t like how the album is not as clean?
KC: Not in that sense. I mean, the ending of the album is brilliant. The last stretch of songs from “Complexion” on is unstoppable. But after “Institutionalized” it just bogs down, I think. “These Walls,” for example …
AR: I love “These Walls.”
MC: Even though I really like that song I sort of understand what you’re talking about, because it’s slightly forgettable within the context of the album. However, it’s actually one of my favourite songs. The ordering of the tracks works really well, because you don’t stagnate, but the story is vaguer than it was on GKMC.
AR: It’s not narrated. It paints a picture without saying, “This happened and then this happened.”
MC: Exactly. Because of that he can get away with having less concrete pieces.
KC: What do you think of the poem that bridges the entire album together?
MC: I thought that was really interesting. When I first started listening to the album I thought, “What is this?” Because you get like one line at the end of one song, and then two songs later you get a bit more. By the end you’ve pieced it together, and I thought that was really interesting.
AR: I’m glad he uses poetry too, because it’s really an audio medium. I don’t know. I have a vested interest in the publishing of audio poetry, so I’m glad he did it.
KC: He does that a lot more in the middle, and then he kind of pulls off on it once he hits the ground running with “Complexion.” He doesn’t bring that poem up until the last song. But before that, he repeats it almost song after song for like four or five songs, and I didn’t like that.
MC: When I first heard it, I was like, “what?” Because I thought it was the same thing, but then I realized that he kept adding a little bit, a little bit, a little bit, and you don’t really notice it because it’s at the end of every song, but when you get to the end of the album, you recognize it and you understand its deeper meaning.
AR: It’s progressive!
KC: I’ll give him credit for knowing when to stop the poem to give it context for the next song, like when he’s talking about shouting in hotel rooms, then hearing “AHH!” and then “u” begins.
MC: Is “u” the one where he sounds drunk? I still maintain that’s one of the best songs on the album. I love it. When I first heard it, I thought either Kendrick Lamar was a genius or a fucking idiot. After having listening to it, I’m of the mind that he definitely knows what he’s doing.
KC: Why did he start the album with “Wesley’s Theory” and not something as hooky as “King Kunta”?
AR: It prepares you for the sound of the album, more than anything.
MC: And also, “King Kunta” is kinda like … [snaps his fingers, nods his head] Right? You don’t wanna give someone the hook and then take it away.
KC: But he does that anyway, because the rest of the album isn’t as hooky.
MC: Yeah, but “King Kunta,” “The Blacker the Berry,” and “i” work together well, because they’re the hookier songs. I think the way the songs are spaced out works, because then you don’t fall into a lull where you don’t have enough of a hook or enough of a line to tie things together, but it’s not overwhelming. The album demands you to pay attention to it, whereas GKMC — even though it was an album, and you wanted to do the whole thing — you could take one song, and have it play on its own.
AR: People play “Swimming Pools (Drank)” at parties.
MC: Which is completely the opposite of what it’s supposed to be. It’s not a drinking song.
KC: And that was a club single! But you feel like shit when you’re listening to it on the album, because it’s like, “Fuck, so much wrong is about to happen.”
MC: And you hear it at parties, and you’re like, “What’s going on?” And with “The Blacker the Berry,” the message in that song is just as subversive as “Swimming Pools.” Obviously, it’s not about drinking — it’s about pride. And it’s definitely his hungriest song on TPAB.
KC: That’s the best song on the album. The song reflects what is going on with the whole album, because he’s making a lot of social commentary, but he’s also developing himself. It’s almost like he’s a microcosm of society. He says he’s the hypocrite — who else is the hypocrite? Black America, because they’re killing themselves, they’re killing each other in gangs, and then they get mad when someone gets shot by a cop. It’s interesting.
MC: Kendrick Lamar could be perceived as a progenitor of violence, because he’s a figure in hip-hop, a scene that can easily be construed as a genre that perpetuates warfare and drug use.
KC: Which makes the “I love myself” message at the end of the album a lot more powerful.
AR: I think that’s important. People need to take these things in context. Out of context, it looks like it perpetuates violence and misogyny, but in its context, everything — even Big L, in context — seems not to perpetuate violence. He’s talking about it, but he’s portraying it honestly, all at once.
MC: I’m not saying that I believe hip-hop propagates violence, but it’s widely seen as one.
KC: Because people tend to forget that it’s also storytelling. It’s not necessarily autobiographical. If you’re going to hold hip-hop to that standard, then hold Hollywood to it, too. “Then I got in a mothafuckin’ Voltron and shot a nuclear weapon at Compton.” Like whatever, Michael Bay.
MC: Yeah, that’s the thing. At the end of the day, it’s self-expression, and not outright factual. That’s why I think this album works well. It isn’t made for someone else; it’s for Kendrick Lamar.
AR: I think it’s for more than just Kendrick.
KC: I think he’s taking on a big role. I think the last few songs are him saying, “I’m going to be a black person for America, I’m going to speak on behalf of people in the same way Nelson Mandela, Michael Jackson, and Tupac did.”
MC: He’s one of the most easily recognizable black people in America. Oprah, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar. He’s got — I wouldn’t say responsibility — but there’s always an eye.
KC: That prophetic stance he takes, though, makes it sound like he knows we’re on the brink of war or something. He says, “When shit hits the fan, is you still a fan?” That’s a question you ask of people who believe in you. If people appear to have done a shitty thing, will you still love them in spite of that?
MC: That’s an interesting point of view.
KC: He says, “Would you still believe in me if the government set me up and put coke in my car?” and stuff like that.
MC: I kinda see where you’re coming from.
KC: You need to believe in something even if at the time it doesn’t seem morally justifiable. Like, you know, there is a lot of possibility that the people you believe in were set up, as opposed to them having actually done something bad, and he says you just need to keep believing in those people.
MC: Yup. I kind of see where you’re coming from. I think at that point it’s particularly because he is seen as this man at the forefront of hip-hop, the forefront of the black community, and the forefront of all that is, “Oh, we need the black voice on this. Let’s get Kendrick Lamar’s black voice on this because he is the ubiquitous black voice.” Part of the point I think he’s trying to make with that song is that he’s not infallible. Right? And so, will he fall from that high standard if the his shortcomings come to light? He’s probably talking to himself, because you can tell throughout the whole album that he’s dealing with a lot of — I don’t want to call it self-hatred, but self-doubt, which later turns with things like “i” and “King Kunta” into self-acceptance and self-love.
AR: But the album’s not for himself.
MC: No, it’s not.
AR: By presenting this, he’s presenting it, right? You don’t present for yourself, you present for the sake of presenting. Not necessarily for others, but for its own sake.
MC: There’s always going to be a difference between how somebody sees something and what somebody meant when they wrote it, when they made it. So that’s another thing you have to take into account. When I listen to it, I listen for aesthetics, the story, and how it affects me. But I don’t see the album as a channel of communication directly between Kendrick Lamar and Martin Castro. It’s a body of work that is a self-expression from Kendrick Lamar which people can then take and interpret in whichever way they see fit, because it’s art.
KC: First and foremost, it is an object that he has made. Is it worth listening to? Did he put enough work in? Is he the best mainstream rapper right now? I think so.
MC: I think Kendrick Lamar definitely is one of the most widely accepted rappers by everyone. Almost every demographic is of the mind that Kendrick Lamar is a good musician and a good rapper.
KC: But not in the sense that he’s pandering to the mainstream. It’s just that the talents that he has tend to be more relatable than something like being able to yell really loudly, something like MC Ride.
MC: Yeah, he doesn’t try to be inoffensive, which is good. He’s not, you know, ridiculously offensive. He can be in certain songs, but he’s not generally, even though he does use a lot of profanity — but whatever, so does most hip-hop. His music is moving from a set aesthetic to a wider aesthetic, with all these different blues, jazz, spoken word, and beat poetry influences, which I think is good because you don’t find that anymore. You look at the more prominent hip-hop albums and they’re all the same. Beat after beat after beat. They’re all repetitive.
KC: Well, I do think that there are some rappers that have responded to a successful album in the same way. Aquemini by Outkast was followed by Stankonia, and Aquemini was very sleek and very stately almost in the good kid, m.A.A.d. city sense; and then Stankonia is just like, “Let’s do everything, and we’re just so good at what we do that we somehow manage to keep it together.” I think that’s where Kendrick’s at right now. He has a lot more opportunity to do whatever the fuck he wants.
MC: Yup! That’s it, right?
AR: Beatles syndrome.
MC: That’s part of why I think the album is as experimental as it is. Perhaps it didn’t have to be, but he had the freedom to do it.
AR: Do you think that’ll turn people off?
MC: One hundred per cent sure it already has.
AR: I don’t mean like just the sound itself, but the very variety of sounds.
MC: Yeah, definitely. Even though good kid, m.A.A.d. city was a bit influenced by like jazz and blues, it wasn’t overly so. I mean, you still had pretty solid hip-hop backing to kind of every track.
KC: It was more of its time; it had that cloud rap going on, and it had the — well, there was Dr. Dre in it. You could tell that there was a lot of Dre.
MC: And the features. You know, you had the Dre. But it still seemed relevant in terms of the sound. This album doesn’t, apart from like two songs, which is good I think because, in my opinion, hip-hop likes to be injected with different sounds, different opinions, and different views.
Was it better than good kid, m.A.A.d. city? No. Was it worse? Also no. Because it was different. I think this is the problem. It’s not good kid, m.A.A.d. city Part Two; it’s a completely different body of work that aims to do a different thing.
AR: Revolver versus The White Album.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.