It’s no secret that Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp A Butterfly was a critically acclaimed success. Especially following the 2016 Grammy Awards where Lamar was nominated 11 times and consequently took home 5 awards, including Best Rap Album. Furthermore, To Pimp A Butterfly was heralded by some as the best rap album to grace this generation; and with an increase in population of marginally talented MCs, the album left nothing to be desired for the ‘true school’ hip hop fan…or did it?
Kendrick Lamar is no overnight success. Many of us caught wind of Kendrick with his then groundbreaking full length follow up to O(verly)D(edicated), Section .80. In 2011, Section .80 was on the cusp of the digital hip hop revolution when the unwritten rules of releasing projects were being bent. Though classified as a mixtape, it felt and sounded like a studio album, which probably has a lot to do with it’s reclassification as Kendrick’s debut studio album following the arrival of G.O.O.D. Kid, Mad City. Section .80 was jam packed with content covering issues ranging from teenage prostitution to millennial black pride. With such a broad range of topics, Lamar established himself in 2011 as a promising-content intensive artist who also possessed the technical skill to compete with industry greats. This brings me to my next point. There’s an old adage that many people live by, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” This holds true in hip hop as well. To Pimp A Butterfly, reveled for lyrics like,
“…I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015
Once I finish this, witnesses will convey just what I mean
Been feeling this way since I was 16, came to my senses
You never liked us anyway, fuck your friendship, I meant it
I’m African-American, I’m African…” -The Blacker The Berry
bare resemblance to lyrics on Section .80 such as,
“…Who said a black man in the Illuminati
Last time I checked, that was the biggest racist party
Last time I checked we was racing with Marcus Garvey
On the freeway to Africa til I broke my Audi
And I want everybody to view my autopsy
So you can see exactly where the government had shot me…” – Hii Power
Both songs identify Lamar the intellectual, a young black man-self reflective and cognizant of societal structures and systematic oppression while vying for his independence and acknowledgement of his blackness. Contextually, Lamar’s position has not budged from that of his “debut” regardless of how intricately woven and complex his rhyme schemes and accompanying musical choices have become. In fact it can be argued that because of broad range of topics on Section .80, for some hip hoppers including me, Section .80 is the better album. Undeniably, the beat selection on TPAB is incomparable to that Section .80 based off of the supporting producers, musicality and arrangements. However, the minimalist approach taken on Section .80 gives listeners the opportunity to fully submerge themselves in the lyrics, which is what hip hop is about, right?
Part of the acclaim with TPAB, is the direct correlation between Kendrick’s lyrics and the current the social climate that blacks are currently facing in America. 2015-2016 was the bloodiest year in terms of police violence against blacks since the change of the century. As of Christmas Eve 2015, there were 965 Americans fatally shot of which 40 percent were black and resemblant to the times of our elders, a cry for justice fell on seemingly deaf ears. It was the alarming statistics and fatal shootings both swept under the rug and nationally televised that made declarations like Lamar’s “i” that much more pivotal and relevant.
“Fuck do you want from me and my scars?
Everybody lack confidence, everybody lack confidence
How many times our potential was anonymous?
How many times the city making me promises?
So I promise this And I love myself
(The world is a ghetto with guns and picket signs)
I love myself
(But it can do what it want whenever it wants and I don’t mind)
I love myself
(He said I gotta get up, life is more than suicide)
I love myself
(One day at the time, sun gone shine)” – i
Let’s diverge, for a brief moment and draw a parallel to one of music’s biggest icons, Michael Jackson. In 1979 Michael Jackson released his 5th studio album, Off The Wall, which was his first solo album following his departure from Motown. Off The Wall is 8x Platinum in the US, 5x Platinum in Australia, and 6x Platinum in both New Zealand and the UK. Three years following Off The Wall, Michael followed up with his chart topping album, Thriller, which to no surprise quadrupled the number of times Off The Wall went Platinum in all of the previously mentioned markets and to this day is heralded by some as his best work.
Now, I’m not here to question your level of fandom for Michael Jackson but if you are familiar enough to call yourself a fan, think about which album (between Off The Wall and Thriller) you are likely to play the most; not for anything other than sheer musical enjoyment. If you said Off The Wall, you’re not alone and with good reason because of jams like “Lady In My Life,” “Off The Wall,” “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” “Rock With You,” “Girlfriend,” I could literally list every single track on the album. Also like Kendrick, Michael created Thriller during a changing social climate reflective of the advent of Hip Hop. Tracks like “Beat It,” “Thriller,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin,” “P.Y.T.,” “The Lady In My Life,” all hold notable sentimental value for us, but are they honestly better songs? Was Thriller the better album and more importantly; did Michael Jackson do anything different from his previous album to ensure of his meteoric rise? Chances are no, but the way people buy, hear, and support music have a lot to do with the societal influences around them.
To Pimp A Butterfly was a phenomenal album and was definitely one of the better hip hop albums I’ve had the pleasure of listening to in my more recent years. However, as a Kendrick fan, a lover of the culture and craft of rhyme writing, he delivered more in a mixtape with a minimalists approach because his words had to carry the project on a limited budget. The black experience in America has always been documented via hip hop and as jarring as Kendrick’s declaration pieces on TPAB are they are no match for the empathetic-emotion stirring and powerful songs on Section .80 such as “Keisha’s Song,” “No Makeup,” and “Hol’ Up” because of the solidarity it provided for a generation. He didn’t do anything different with G.O.O.D. Kid, M.A.A.D. City, or TPAB so it’s safe to say you probably weren’t listening.