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?”.
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.