The times we’re living in are nothing short of disturbing. Police officers killing unarmed Black men in North America is unfortunately still an epidemic in 2015. Specifically, there seems to be a government sanctioned genocide of Black men happening in Ferguson and South Chicago; yet a picture of Kim Kardashian’s champagne covered ass is what captures our attention and breaks the internet? I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit I also succumb to the bullshit distractions social media creates; I try to stand firm against oppression by adding my voice to the cause by demanding police officers be brought to justice for flagrant civil rights violations but I quickly find my attention drawn to some model’s photoshopped/injected ass on Instagram. I suppose when it gets too real, I turn to the fake. My anger is genuine when racial conflicts emerge, but it quickly turns to apathy as I accept (too easily) I can’t do shit about it and look for mind numbing distractions.
I believe wholeheartedly racism is an incurable disease. No matter how much society seems to progress, racism is hiding, lying dormant inside our walls, getting stronger. And when we relapse, it cripples us and continues to spread. At times like this, I am grateful for Hip-Hop. There are no more Martin Luther Kings, Malcolm Xs, or Che Guevaras: figures who today might not survive harsh online scrutiny. The only credible civil rights leaders my generation has left to listen to are the Emcees, who are admittedly flawed, yet bravely speak the truth during these difficult times. To Pimp A Butterfly is Kendrick Lamar’s manifesto to help a Hip-Hop Head discover his or her strength, beauty and power. Specifically, this album is a tribute to the biggest civil rights leader Hip Hop music has ever created: Tupac Shakur.
Tupac Shakur, arguably the most conflicted man in Hip-Hop history, was loved for his passion but misunderstood because of his obvious contradictions. In one breath, he would show his compassion with “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” but in another, he would let his anger roar with “Wonder Why They Call You Bitch.” Tupac catapulted into super-stardom because he simply did not give a fuck about public opinion. However, the influence and responsibility that came with his fame was overwhelming, and ultimately lead to his controversial death. The only rapper who has come close to continuing Shakur’s legacy is an Emcee who yells hiii power instead of Thug Life. An Emcee who is comfortable being on some weirdo-rap shit, rather than keepin’ it gangsta. His successor is a die hard 2Pac fan, determined to bring the West Coast back to its glory days in the late 80’s when N.W.A. ripped through a poster of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
If Kendrick’s body of work has shown us anything, it’s his undeniable love for music. His talents as a rapper, though impressive, come second to his passion for the art form. Section 80 took place in a ghetto class room, and Good Kid, m.A.A.d City showed us a motion picture of Kendrick’s upbringing. To Pimp A Butterfly continues the concept album format; this time with a young poet reading an ode to his misunderstood mentor. At the beginning of the album, Kendrick is in the same position Pac was in after he left prison and the world was waiting to hear what he had next after the classic, Me Against The World. In Kendrick’s case, the world is waiting to hear his long-awaited sophomore album. Even though Pac shot to super-stardom with All Eyez On Me, many see his alliance with Death Row Records as his undoing. Despite being a role model for innercity youth, the violence and chaos which followed Tupac with the East vs. West feud, and multiple arrests stemming from assault and rape allegations, interfered with Tupac’s vision of freeing his people. Kendrick acknowledges this, starting off the poem he reads to Tupac with the haunting lines: “I remember you was conflicted/ Misusing your influence/ Sometimes I did the same/ abusing my power, full of resentment.” Although he points out his hero’s failures, Kendrick humbly empathizes with the Hip Hop legend, fully knowing how ruthlessly America destroys young Black men; especially those with a voice: Rap Stars.
To Pimp A Butterfly begins with the funkadelic intro, “Wesley’s Theory,” lead by a Hip-Hop godfather, George Clinton. This sets the tone for the rebellious pro-Black barbecue on the White House lawn, pictured on the album’s cover. On the infectious “Alright,” Kendrick flows at his best, rapping along with the beat like a piece of percussion. In “King Kunta” and “Hood Politics,” Kendrick mixes the message of Public Enemy with the careless spirit of Daz and Kurupt to create conscious West Coast jams. And to juxtapose the party, Kendrick takes us on an emotional roller coaster where he exposes the suicidal tendencies and bouts of depression his rebellion creates. One of the most powerful and disturbing moments of the album is in “u,” where a pre “Swimming Pools” Kendrick drinks himself into a pool of self-pity, succumbing to the pressures of his new found fame and the demons of his past. There are no veils Kendrick uses to hide behind. His journey, compared to that of his fallen mentor, is beautifully documented through West Coast story tellin’. Even the legendary Snoop Dogg makes an appearance on “Institutionalized,” where the rapper blesses the hook with the Doggystyle flow which helped him rule the early nineties. On “Complexion (A Zulu Love,)” Kendrick taps into his Tribe Called Quest and Pete Rock influences, providing one of the most important Hip-Hop songs of the past decade. The track is also assisted by Rapsody, who spits a beautifully calm verse, calling her people to unify and stop the gang violence the mainstream loves to glorify.
The album ends with “Mortal Man,” where Kendrick questions the loyalty of his fans, fully knowing how unfairly the American public can turn on its beloved celebrities and leaders. Although Kendrick Lamar confidently wears his crown as one of the greatest living emcees, he still humbly leads his army, fully aware that he is only human: leaving “room for mistakes and depression.” He points out his character defects and shortcomings, asking us to keep these in mind, while still trying to the achieve God-consciousness and Hip Hop greatness. And finally, as the album hits its final minutes, we are able to hear Kendrick’s poem in full, through the ears of Tupac Shakur. Masterfully crafted, an old interview of Tupac is taken to create a conversation between mentor and master where the title of the album comes to light: To Pimp A Butterfly.
Following the legacy of Tupac Shakur, Kendrick Lamar and so many other Emcees in Hip-Hop are important voices in the continuing struggle for Black civil rights in North America. Like the leaders of the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s, they possess the influence and admiration of today’s youth. However, with all of the distractions and spiritual barriers of our times, it’s hard to understand why anybody would accept this responsibility. This album, using Tupac as an example, teaches us even a misunderstood youth from the ghetto (the caterpillar,) can grow to become the unthinkable: a human rights leader (the butterfly.) But in a day and age where its no longer cool to become a preacher, a radical, or a politician, one has to pimp this image and become Tupac Shakur.
Rating: 5/5 AN INSTANT CLASSIC
Buy this album and support the artist: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/album/to-pimp-a-butterfly/id974187289
* Editors Note: This article was written before the riots in Baltimore and the murder of Freddie Gray, which has lead to legal charges against six police officers (including second-degree muder.) The Baltimore Riots only foreshadow the violence and murder Kendrick warns us of if relations do not change between police and inner-city youth in America. Also, although this review is published for the public, the official Runnin’ At The Mind launch will be May 22nd, which will see more articles, reviews, podcast links and Hip-Hop related stories. Thank you for checking us out. RUN!
Written by: Marito Lopez