Lamar’s ‘Butterfly’ soars into artistry

By: Ben Louviere

As the 2015 year in music unfolds, one thing’s for sure: It’s an incredibly exciting time for hip-hop fans. Among the releases from J. Cole, Joey Bada$$, Lupe Fiasco, Drake, Wale, Big Sean, Action Bronson, Earl Sweatshirt and upcoming releases from Kanye West and A$AP Rocky, it’s safe to say I’m feeling spoiled. However, the pinnacle of significance attained to this year’s first quarter is the release of acclaimed West-Coast rapper, Kendrick Lamar — “To Pimp A Butterfly.” But why?

Since Lamar’s first album, “Section 80,” it was evident that he possessed an impressive dynamic — with his nasally voice, he demonstrated an ability to write catchy, relatively accessible hip-hop tracks with personality and a socially conscious edge. Lamar went on to hone his talent and released his major label debut album, “good kid, m.A.A.d. City.” Acknowledged as one of hip-hop’s best records and one of modern music’s best concept albums, it is a masterpiece of technical rapping and structured storytelling that redefined the conventions of the genre. Lamar creates a character portrait which accounts his experiences as he grew up in Compton, Calif. Symbolizing an ode to troubled youth, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” consequently fell into the small overlap of critical acclaim and popular adoration.

The album was tremendously appealing, with singles such as the trap-influenced “Swimming Pools” — a song with an anti-substance abuse message masked as a trendy drinking song. However, the album left me questioning where Lamar would go as he prepared to release his next project, and he certainly answered. In spite of his prior commercial success, Lamar takes his music to a shocking new direction with an uncompromising stride. “To Pimp A Butterfly” is a whole lot to handle, to say the very least. You may certainly not love this album — and that’s what’s so important.

Rappers tend to align themselves with the familiar. Rarely do we see anyone trying to innovate. Innovation doesn’t sell. Formulaic art, however, keeps us stagnant — to an extent, imprisoned. The sole purpose of art is to evoke, and those who strive to evoke new things are those who embody art itself. There must be a voice willing to progress music and art itself — a voice unafraid to move ideas and concepts forward, regardless of the times. Lamar encapsulates ambition and courage with his own voice that will serve as a landmark — putting the final nail in coffin for the era of 2000s bling-rap and swinging the door wide open for a new era of conscious genre progression.

This album is exhausting. There is no “Swimming Pools.” In terms of sonic direction, Lamar pulls influences from jazz, grooves from drums and bass, funk and psychedelic neo-soul – pushing boundaries as the genres burst amongst each other as they manipulate the confines of rap-music presentation. Amidst the dizzying sounds and sonic detours of producers such as Flying Lotus, Lamar implements styles of old school rappers such as Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur — the latter being a major influence to Lamar on this project — as well as the incorporation of spoken word samples as his ideas are conveyed.

Lamar’s vocal delivery is as unpredictable as the rest of the project — each time his voice is heard being unlike the last. From spastic slam poetry to exasperated drunken sobs, one thing is clear: Lamar’s head has a lot going on inside.

In terms of lyrical content, Lamar is fearless and eloquent in addressing the heated political issues of today’s society. While not everyone may not agree entirely on the political stances that he takes — bordering on ideas of respectability politics in the past, of which he has received criticism for — it is powerful to hear the personal and emotional levels to which Lamar takes these issues.

While it is difficult to briefly address the complex themes of the project, among them are black pride and artistry, racism, the downfalls of fame and success, aspirations, friends and family, and the celebration of audacity in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

“To Pimp A Butterfly” is a tremendous amount to digest, for any listener. It is intricate, bewildering, bold and most significantly, progressive. Lamar has already proven himself as a rapper. He has now proven himself as a true artist. As hip hop continues to flourish, we can only hope to see more positivity and depth from the glorious evocation that only art can provide.

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