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The Strongest 3 Tracks on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly
K-Dot, aka Kendrick Lamar, is well and truly a king.
He is The Next Big Thing: suffice to say for the hip-hop newcomers that he is exceptionally well received by both fans and critics alike, and is praised particularly for his lyrical density and storytelling prowess in a pop scene where hip-hop representation is notably lacking in both. Section.80 saw him collaborate with huge names such as Lil Wayne and Snoop Dog. good kid, m.A.A.d city won Album of the Year in at the 56th Grammys, in 2014.
Noteworthy is his new take on gangsta rap, where he eschews bragging about fame and riches and instead critically examines life in the hood for what it is: violent, desperate, messed up. good kid, m.A.A.d city, in fact, is an album dedicated to this, examining a period of time when he fell in love with a girl from the bad part of town, resulting in the death of a close friend and a spark of realization that this was not right.
To Pimp A Butterfly was long awaited as the sequel to good kid, m.A.A.d city. It is certainly a spiritual successor, examining Kendrick and his struggles post-fame, post-hood.
Despite not being particularly oppressed, or even that much of a hip-hop head (I listened to TPaB before GKMC), I do think To Pimp A Butterfly is truly great, and this lies with its music: its overriding influence is jazz, an unusual partner for rap that, if given some thought, really does make sense. For the most part, typical hip-hop sounds focus on a steady, heavy drum and bass foundation, and work around this: jazz, similarly, plays within the sparse context of a constant timing and a loose, sometimes even nonexistent chord agreement.
There is restraint in keeping the approach familiar enough to be comfortable (i.e. no odd timing shifts or collapses as one would think of at the mention of free-form jazz, for the most part); the result is, I would argue, broadly accessible, with most of the sound acoustic in nature and enhanced electronically rather than the other way around.
Of course, on every album, there are ones I like more, and others that I am more inclined to skip as the playlist rolls along. Below are my picks for the three strongest tracks. Every entry comes complete with links to Youtube and their lyrics, so you can check them out and compare notes. The criteria is simple—I sort them by which ones I liked most and least, based on my two straight playthroughs of the album and the months that have passed since, with every track shuffled into a regularly visited playlist. I look for music, aesthetics and intention, and I'll explain these as we go along.
If you've listened to the album already, great—let me know what you thought of my choices. If you haven't, however, this is a good opportunity to see if the highs will make you excited to check it out.
#1: You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said)
My personal favourite of the album is a soulful, atmosphere-rich piece. To say that I love the music in You Ain't Gotta Lie is an understatement—I've been listening to the whole album as part of a shuffled playlist for at least several months (admittedly, I do not clean out my song bank often) and I still crank it up every time this comes on. There are no credited samples, meaning there is nowhere else I can go to get my dose of dope: a beautiful tinkling of piano notes elevates a relaxed instrumental and a simple, classic-sounding beat.
The message, in line with what Kendrick is known for as a whole, is an exploration of hip-hop culture. In this case, it's a merciless callout of its tendency to exaggerate wealth. Kendrick's mother has some choice words for him:
Circus acts only attract those that entertain
Small talk, we know that it's all talk
We live in the Laugh Factory every time they mention your name
And he passes this on to other rappers and hip-hop as a whole:
What do you got to offer?
Tell me before we off ya, put you deep in the coffin
Been allergic to talkin', been a virgin to bullshit
And sell a dream in the auction, tell me just who your boss is
Paired with his quiet, remarkably straightforward delivery (as of compared to How Much A Dollar Cost), it veils the aggression like a knife hidden in a cloak, and when you parse the lyrics it's hard to not be surprised. The relative clarity of his enunciation is also a big plus. Keeping it simple for a song about being real is not only apt, but also makes room for the writing and the music to shine. Every element in this song works in harmony to produce an experience. Think Pharrell's Happy, or Daft Punk's Get Lucky, songs you can really sync to with every fiber of your being. You Ain't Gotta Lie is the king of that.
If you enjoy music, I feel that you do yourself a disservice if you don't give it a listen.
One more note: I am not a fan of staggered beats in general, as you'll find the chorus to be. What makes it work is the "fix" as a pumped-up chorus sings the lines on beat, providing catharsis for the four or five people out there like myself. Simply sublime.
#2: How Much A Dollar Cost
Named as Barrack Obama's favourite track on the album, How Much A Dollar Cost oozes talent. Kendrick takes up a maddeningly complex attack on the beat, a slow but purposeful piano-driven jive, as he paints the story of an encounter with a homeless man at a gas station in South Africa.
The music is perfect, its storm cloud-like intensity bringing to mind a showdown in a sandy lot. Kendrick's storytelling is showcased as he reflects on the irony of his unwillingness to help someone whose shoes he used to be in. This line in particular really gets the atmosphere going:
A homeless man with a semi-tan complexion
Asked me for ten rand, stressin' about dry land
Deep water, powder blue skies that crack open
That's when you know you're in for a trance-like recollection. And this is very much appropriate for the reveal at the end, which is all the more damning when you consider how Kendrick identifies himself—as a saved man, as a disciple of what is right, and a leader. It stands well on its own by technical strength and open lyrics, but gains much more depth when considered in context. Put another way, it's perfect in this album.
But what makes this song my top 2 is the golden voice of Ronald Isley singing the outro. It's a bit silly to think that a collective thirty seconds at most of the four-and-a-half minute song is what elevates it to a new level, but trust me, it does. It's so packed with sincerity that it will haunt you. Let me know when you stop hearing the words "tears of a clown", and then tell me how you did it, because it's firmly lodged in there.
#3: Wesley's Theory
#3: Wesley's Theory
In an album where there are more solid tracks than weak, deciding which to pick for the #3 spot was tough. Alright with its upbeat urban grooves and hardboiled yet ultimately positive message, u for its bleeding-heart honesty, vulnerability and daring use of free-form jazz, Mommafor its wistful, earnest tones—each track, including the ones at the bottom, more or less achieve what they were intended to in terms of mood and construction. Wesley's Theory simply did it better.
As a way to kick off an album, the first track of the album enjoys effects that make it a great standalone song as well—the unexpected 70's sample and the quick switch into Josef Leimberg's booming introduction instantly hooks, and invokes thoughts of descending down the rabbit hole in Alice In Wonderland. It does so much in so little time! A perfect setup for the hazy, fevered dream the rest of the verses and indeed, the album is.
The song is clear enough in its message, setting up an indulgent Kendrick spending all his money in the first verse and Uncle Sam, the government—who actually eggs him on down the path of wild spending, promising to "Wesley Snipe your ass before thirty-five". The verses flow well and there's a good hip-thrusting, fist-pumping energy radiating from the track. Uncle Sam's part is one of my favourite moments on the album:
Motherfucker, you can live at the mall
I know your kind (That's why I'm kind)
Don't have receipts (Oh, man, that's fine)
Pay me later, wear those gators
Cliché, then say, "Fuck your haters"...
Your horoscope is a gemini, two sides
So you better cop everything two times
Two coupes, two chains, two C-notes
Too much ain't enough, both we know
Not that it's ingeniously clever (merely a bit) but that it shows strikingly how the villain, how greed will go to any length to rationalize its propagation. "You can live at the mall" is a reference to Jay Z and Kanye's individual claims of wealth, where the former could buy one and the latter could stay all day at one, presumably to buy anything and everything in sight. "Fuck your haters" is not even a classic phrase, it's pure household at this point. As the album later examines, greed speaks in the language of your own, and these verses lay it down excellently.
Which track was your favourite?
The high points of this album for me were the calculated, the artistic, the admittedly pop-like tracks. In an album full of winners, the ones that stood out to me where the ones that not necessarily did something never done before, but simply did what they set out to do above and beyond a level of excellence. Clever nods to styles from the past, a measured hand applied to its music, and Kendrick's storytelling at its finest—these are, to me, what defines To Pimp A Butterfly's strong points.
Let me know what you thought of the tracks, the album and the article in the comments below! Additionally, if you'd like to see more, click here to check out my picks for the 3 weakest tracks on the album.