Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly Review – Rap Music Analysis

Let me set the tone for this piece right off the bat: To Pimp A Butterfly is the greatest rap album of all time.

Now, I know a lot of rap albums, and practically study them over and over through playing them not just all the way through in one take, but also on multiple mixes and playlists. For instance, one single song — “How We Do” — occupies 4 different playlists on my computer (a swag one, a Top 10 Dre Beats one, a workout one, and another playlist.) In fact, iTunes tells me that I’ve listened to Cam’ron’s song “Dip-Set Forever” 95 times, which is about 4 minutes long. That works out to 372.4 minutes, or about 6.2 hours. That’s almost a week’s total of listening to only that single song, and that play count doesn’t even take into account how many times I’ve listened to “Dip-Set Forever” elsewhere, like on my iPhone. I mention all of this for two reasons: 1.) To show that I can judge Kendrick’s TPAB against a lot of other rap albums, and 2.) To show what kind of listening treatment To Pimp A Butterfly got from me. (I can even compare Kendrick’s TPAB album against Kendrick’s other album, “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” which I reviewed in another article that you can read by clicking here.)

One of the contexts I want to judge TPAB against is the format of the rap album throughout the genre. Now, for me, the format of rap albums breaks down into two basic categories that really describe a spectrum. First, there are rap albums where every track has a completely different sound from the next one. On the other side are rap albums where every track leads in a very unified manner from one to the next. In the first category falls a lot of the mega-albums, like Lil Wayne’s The Carter III. “A Milli,” by Bangladesh, has an electronic, chopped and screwed sound. Meanwhile, Kanye’s beat “Let The Beat Build” has a soul sample that sets it completely apart from Bangladesh’s production. The fact that these albums sound so different from one track to the next is primarily a result of the fact that there are different producers for every track.

But then there are albums that largely have only one sound world, and each track then works to explore and expand out that sound world. A great example of that album is Dr. Dre’s Chronic: 2001.It’s no surprise, then, that Dr. Dre produced every song on that album. His ability to guide the album in a single direction means that all the songs sound similar, without ever being repetitive. For example, many of the songs use the minor scale, which gives the album that dark feel, as on “Forgot About Dre” or“Let’s Get High.” In fact, Dr. Dre’s aesthetics and artistry are so deeply logical that I wrote an entire article about his choice of instruments after his 2001 album, which you can read here.

Kendrick’s TPAB, then, is an album that falls into the latter category. It has an incredibly unified sound, even though there are many different producers on it. For example, we have Pharrell, Flyin Lotus, and Boi-1da as credited producers. But it’s actually Sounwave who appears the most on tracks, a total of 7 times. But every track except 1 has more than 1 producer listed in the credits on Wikipedia. In fact, “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” has a grand total of 4 producers listed! But somehow, overall, Kendrick managed to pick beats that all sound related. Jay-Z probably has one of the best ears for a beat in the game — discovering Kanye, discovering 9th Wonder — but Kendrick is right behind him. The difference is Jay-Z follows the sound of his time, while Kendrick, like Kanye,is currently defining it. What I think is interesting about Kendrick’s own unique type of unification is that it doesn’t consist primarily of subgenres of rap, or the sounds of his songs; it actually consists of strictly musical aspects, like harmony. For instance, there are tons of jazzy chords on “For Free?”.

On this song, normal, triadic (3-note) chords are replaced and extended to have lots of notes (into chords that include 4 or even 5 notes.) These extended, spacy chords are reflected all over the album, as on“Institutionalized,” or the opening of “Hood Politics.” Jazz has been in rap for a while, as on Tribe Called Quest’s songs. But those were always samples. TPAB sometimes comes across as a live performance of a jazz quartet where the lead singer just happens to be rapping. But, of course, most of those aesthetic choices were made by session musicians, not Kendrick himself, who almost definitely doesn’t know any harmonic music theory. In this way, then, Kendrick shows the ability to guide his unofficial artistic collective as well as RZA did Wu-Tang, or Dr. Dre did Aftermath records. RZA coached all 9 members of his clan to huge success, making all of their beats and business decisions (such as what label each group member, like Raekwon, would sign with.) Dr. Dre, meanwhile, also obviously made beats for Snoop Dogg, N.W.A., and others, but he also launched Aftermath Records, which directly or indirectly discovered Eminem, 50 Cent, and Game. Kendrick, in picking unified beats and session musicians that worked great together, displays the same kind of foresight and genius.

 

I’ve always thought it interesting that rap is almost inherently a collaborative process. No one blinks twice when a producer makes a beat and then gives it to a rapper, with almost no interaction or aesthetic discussion between the two. In fact, 50 Cent wrote the raps for “In Da Club” without ever having heard the beat. This would make almost no sense in other arts, or musical arts. For instance, classical composers write their own complete music, and then give it to musicians to play. Kendrick seems to be an excellent mediator of this relationship. In fact, I wanted to pitch an article to one of my freelance media outlets, WatchLoud or Pigeons and Planes, that would be a complete review of To Pimp A Butterfly without ever mentioning Kendrick Lamar once. That’s how essential part I think the session musicians and unheralded or unnamed contributors are to this project.

 

As for Kendrick’s rap itself, this album continues a general theme in Kendrick’s music. Since Section.80, and down through good kid, m.A.A.d city on to To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick has slowly simplified his technical style. Since “Rigamortis” on Section.80, Kendrick hasn’t ever utilized a musical motive to the same complex, sophisticated extent, an idea that I covered for Pigeons and Planes here. But, somehow, this doesn’t really matter to me. That’s because his poetic message is so strong. There are some interesting musical aspects to it though.

 

But he does do something melodically (strictly musically) that I’ve only heard once before, from Pharoahe Monch. I want to compare Kendrick’s own rap verses and the variations form in classical music. In classical music, variations is a form where a composer takes a small idea and creates a series of somewhat different sections of music that places that small idea in extremely different contexts. The idea is to show that the composer can come up with a great melodic idea that is flexible and inventive enough to appear in tons of different places, like an imitative canon, or a dance. Such an example is the “Variations On A Shaker Melody” form Aaron Copeland’s masterful 1944 piece “Appalachian Spring,” which you can hear here.

 

If you listen closely, you can tell that sometimes the opening musical idea is played quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes in by one group of instruments, sometimes by another, and so on. In this way, the entire piece is unified, and Copeland displays his versatility and originality.

 

I noticed on TPAB that Kendrick does something similar, which puts his rap technique on the same level of someone like Nas (whose own raps I talk about in an article that you can read by clicking here.) On the opening song “Wesley’s Theory”,Kendrick raps these words:

 

What you want?
You a house or a car?
Forty acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar?
Anythin’, see, my name is Uncle Sam, I’m your dog
Motherfucker, you can live at the mall…

 

This song “Wesley’s Theory” has a musical speed of 120 Beats Per Minute (BPM.) This speed is quite fast for a rap song.

 

Later on in the album, on the song “Alright”, Kendrick actually raps an extremely, unmistakably similar verse:

 

“What you want, you a house, you a car?
40 acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar?
Anything, see my name is Lucy, I’m your dog
Motherfucker, you can live at the mall…”

 

But the speed of “Alright” is actually much slower than when that same exact verse is rapped on “Wesley’s Theory.” The speed of “Alright” is 56 BPM, much less than the 112 BPM of “Alright.” It’s also important to mention that the musical rhythms from one song to the next on those bars are also the same, allowing the astute listener to recognize them as the same melodic idea. In this way, then — by placing the same melodic idea in a new musical context — Kendrick is engaging with the variations form in a way that rappers often don’t.

 

So, yes. That whole 1500 page article is actually only a small, small part of why I think To Pimp A Butterflyis the greatest rap album of all time.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like my one on the most repetitive rappers, found here, or my one about Eminem’s rhythms on his song “Business,” found here.

 

15 Comments

  1. Well done. I still think you could have gone on for days describing the extensive use of prose poetry to link each section of the album (similar to how GKMC was interlinked by skits & a story) followed by the intense conclusion in "Mortal Man" where it is revealed to the listener that Kendrick has been reciting said poem to 2Pac in the spirit world the entire time. Brilliant.

    I'm quite certain this has never been done before in Hip Hop, let alone in music.

    I would, however, love to be proven wrong on this. I can't think of another instance where an artist simulated a figurative seance as part of the theme for a concept album.

    All Hail King Kendrick

  2. >Well done. I still think you could have gone on for days describing the extensive use of prose poetry to link each section of the album (similar to how GKMC was interlinked by skits & a story)

    Yeah, I probably could've, but claiming right up front that, without caveat, TPAB is the greatest rap album ever made already seemed to be audacious enough, haha 🙂

    >I'm quite certain this has never been done before in Hip Hop, let alone in music.

    I can't think of another time it's been done either, which is cool as fuck. But I would focus on the general, and not the specific, in proclaiming Kendrick one of the greatest musicians, rap or non-rap, ever. The important thing about TPAB's structure, to me, isn't that an artist simulated a figurative seance as part of the theme, although obviously that's cool as shit; it's just that that is a poetic consideration, so I leave that to other people to talk about. What's important to me is that, throughout TPAB, Kendrick set up a unifying, recurring coda that developed a motive over the course of a multi-movement symphony (which are only musical considerations.) Check it out:

    Coda definition: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coda_(music)

    Motif definition: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motif_(music)

    Development definition: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_development

    Symphony definition: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony

    Also, it means a lot for you to write to me personally and let me know you liked it. Even though I sink 20+ hours a week into my writing about rap, and even though other outlets like Complex, BET, and XXL all profit off it by just taking my material and re-posting it, I don't make any money off this stuff, so I rely a lot on my readers like you to give me some extra motivation and encouragement to keep doing what I'm doing, especially when I get rejection letter after rejection letter from publishers and potential employers saying they don't think people will care about what I'm writing about, even though your letter proves the opposite. So really, thanks!

    To show my appreciation, here's a full excerpted chapter from my upcoming book that will be fully published next year on McFarland Books. It won't be published for at least a year, but like I said, I really appreciate you writing, so I wanted to show you that with something actually real. If you go to Dropbox here, you can download my whole chapter about Kendrick there, for free (it'll be $30 for the whole book), since you seem like a big Kendrick fan:

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/v6cvessvsx1fxcz/1%20Ch%205%20Kendrick%20Visionary%20F.doc?dl=0

    Enjoy!

    And if you hit me up at mepc36@gmail.com I'd be happy to pass you some other stuff on your other favorite rappers…or more Kendrick, we can never get enough Kendrick, can we? haha, later bro!

    Peace,

    Martin

    >All Hail King Kendrick

    Sure you don't mean All hail, King Kunte? haha 🙂

  3. This album is little more than critic bait. Neither the music nor the subject of discussion is novel. And lord, it's hard to listen to. It's one thing to appreciate good art, it's another thing to enjoy it. Many other artists – Marvin Gaye, for e.g. – married important themes to music you wanted to build your life around. TPAB fails at this, but the critic bait has worked.

    1. Hey man, I really like this thing you said:

      >It's one thing to appreciate good art, it's another thing to enjoy it.

      If you hit me up at mepc36@gmail and say a little more about what you mean – for example, the difference between "appreciating" art and "enjoying" art – I'd definitely be down to listen to anything you had to say.

      Thanks for commenting man! And thanks for keeping your discourse civil, I was waiting for the word "douche bag" or "ass hole" to show up the whole time, and was disappointed by the end 🙁 haha, really though, I appreciate it!

      Peace!

      -Martin

    2. It's simple Martin:

      One can appreciate technical adeptness and even the extent of thought a person puts into a piece of art and, at the same time, not enjoy the art that is created.

      Music unlike many other forms of art, requires a relistenability. It's not important to touch on black themes – the sociopolitical struggle of the black man – but it is important for people to appreciate your art. Why, you may ask? Because artists like Kendrick put their work in the public sphere for a reason: they want to share it and influence others.

      And if people don't like listening to your music, regardless of how important you think it is, then you have failed at a very crucial element of making music.

      Now I realise you stayed to more technical aspects but I wonder if you didn't buy into the almost immediate positive critical appraisal of the album people all over the internet engaged in. People want to feel like art should be more than just love songs or club songs or what have you. But is love, loss, or other emotions not more universal?

      Aside from that, it comes across as the quintessential critic bait work. In these days, especially with the music and film industry being so liberal, anything with a pro-gay, pro-black or anti-establishment theme is eaten up. It's the 12 years a slave of a rap album.

      So why has it garnered your nomination as the greatest rap album of all time? Was it all about the technicality?

      Another thing I have to mention: despite the glowing critical reviews; this isn't an album a lot of people listen to. That might sound anecdotal until you see how its songs charted (half of them didn't) and the sales performances it had against Drake's mixtape IYRTITL or J.Cole's 2014 FHD.

      Why does this matter? Because music is subjective. Whether you're a critic that writes a blog or one that just listens to music and nothing else; no opinion is superior to another. People voting with their hard earned cash are speaking their mind. That might irk a lot of people who have an elitist opinion of what art should be, but their opinions are irrelevant. If you really care about what TPAB was about, you wouldn't care about TPAB. It doesn't say anything that isn't studied at highschool level sociology and if you get into college and beyond these topics are simplistic. It only sounds deep to the uninitiated – ironically, the faux elitists.

      Is this album going to be listened to 10 years from now? Highly unlikely as it didn't get that much play even now.

      That's why I can give it props for the extent of effort and technicality that went into it. But it's not even the best rap album of the year IMO, let alone of this decade, let alone of all time. Only something that I can live my life to will ever garner that acclaim.

  4. Half of the album doesn't even sonically correlate track to track, and Kendrick is far from the only emcee to use motifs as lyrical ideas, (It's a Rap concept album, no shit of course he is gonna vary certain motifs).

    Everyone from Wayne, Kanye, Rakim, and Jay-Z, to Del The Funky Homosapien (Deltron 3030), Jeru The Damaja (he did that sound motif thing you described in 1994l has done what you described.

    This just shows you don't know shit about Rap except Dre-affifiliated artists and as far of the West Coast (where I live and have live my whole life), this is an embarrassing overall representation and reduction of what people assume the region is
    solely characterized due to your fucking Kendrick dickriding. Kendrick is great, but there is nothing remotely original about TPAB (aside from the poem refrain thing, he does on every track, which BTW was taken from Pac's posthumous catalog of Poetry), which includes production styles, even how he executed it.

    This is mere predictable ass, ultimate West Coast revival tribute album for any short attention White person who has never explored the West Coast outside of Pac, Snoop, Cube and Dre.

  5. Also the fact that you don't even take the time to go into other emcee's discographies based on how they are generalized, (such as Twista and N9ne and you being obsessed with Em in Hip-Hop, and you not talking about the myriad of other Midwest emcees that are just as famous, if not legends), just confirms you have a childish bias toward Rap artists in general and which is why you barely have anybody coming to your OCD articles, which could use diversity and realism for one thing.

  6. You have changed the way I look at rap, sir. Once I used to only be able to compare "flows" and punchlines, now I can objectively decide which rappers are the best. Thats just a small example of what I've learned here.

    1. Leo! Thanks so much man. Seriously, I only ever started this website 5 years and 500,000 views ago for just ONE person to tell me what you did:

      >You have changed the way I look at rap, sir. Once I used to only be able to compare "flows" and punchlines, now I can objectively decide which rappers are the best.

      Seriously, thanks so much. In return, I want to hook you up with an excerpt of some uncut material from my upcoming book that McFarland & Co. will be publishing for me later on this year. You can get it for free at Dropbox here, with no log-in or password needed:

      It's about Kendrick, since he seems like one of your most favorite rappers 🙂

      https://www.dropbox.com/s/cx01l587qjtdevp/1%20Ch%205%20Kendrick%20Visionary%20F%20MCNOTES.doc?dl=0

      And if you get at me at mepc36@gmail.com, I'll give you a whole lot more, haha 🙂

      Thanks man! Really, you rock.

      Peace,

      Martin

    1. “Au contraire, mon frère — Don’t you even go there!” haha, sorry, had to quote Lauryn for this one, because there’s a Nas article here:

      https://www.rapanalysis.com/2015/04/15/how-to-appreciate-rap-music-3-is-nas/

      Enjoy man! And hit me up at mepc36@gmail.com if you want to see other articles I’ve got on him. That article is called, “Is Nas The Greatest Technical Rapper Ever…By Far?”

      PEACE, Faheem! And thanks for writing!

      -Martin

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