by June Jeong, assistant editor 

I’m not a huge fan of rap, but Kendrick Lamar’s music has always been an exception for me. His latest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, isn’t just another great album, and Lamar isn’t just another great rapper. In interviews leading up to the album’s release, Kendrick made clear that he was going with an innovative concept for his next album.  It was going to be soulful, not the traditional and basic “club hits that appeal to tweens” album.  But Kendrick was never the traditional rapper to begin with, so I wasn’t worried that his album would be a failure, but rather that he would avoid addressing crucial social problems involving Black America. He didn’t though. Not in the least.

In short, To Pimp a Butterfly is flawless. It simply can’t be restricted by one genre because it’s a conglomerate of spoken word poetry, soul, jazz, rap and funk. This album is the latest evolution of Black Music, a genre in which the main goal is the advancement and protection of Black culture.

My personal favorite on the album is “For Free?-Interlude.” The song has the kind of jazzy verses that would make Langston Hughes proud. Although some of the lyrics may leave listeners laughing, the song is crazily complex and unusual. Some consider it a condemnation of America for its terrible treatment of African American men, some view it as a Black anthem, while others just think it’s a funny argument Kendrick had with his girlfriend. People who don’t feel like listening to the entire album should at least check out “For Free.” It’s basically the entire album fit into a song. There’s just no clear definition of the song because it’s quite honestly unlike anything we’ve heard before.

Most people know the uplifting and song “i,” because it played pretty consistently on the radio since it fits the radio-friendly mold. But fewer people know “u,” the less-heard song also on “To Pimp a Butterfly, which heavily contrasts “i”s cheerful, encouraging style. In “u,” Kendrick is essentially talking to his depressed and defeated self. It’s pretty haunting; Lamar repeats the hook (“Loving you is complicated”) a total of 10 times. Throughout the song, he berates himself ruthlessly despite all of his accomplishments. With both songs, (“u” and “i”), Kendrick illustrates the difficulty of expressing self-love as a black person. 

The final, and arguably the most powerful song on the album,  is “Mortal Man,” an over-ten-minute address. In it, Kendrick reveals that he was inspired to make more racially conscious and significant music in part by his visit to Nelson Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island. The song ends with Kendrick’s interview of Tupac Shakur, legendary actor and rapper, discussing racism, riots, police brutality, income inequality, and the fate of the next generation of black men in America. It’s a clashing and blunt ending, but it’s so essential. To end To Pimp a Butterfly on such an interesting note is just so fitting, so Kendrick Lamar.

Kendrick is by far my favorite rapper right now but for some reason, referring to him as the best rapper alive just doesn’t seem right. It sounds pretty melodramatic but the title somehow seems inappropriate for Kendrick Lamar (and not the other way around). Other talented and renowned rappers like Drake, Lil Wayne, Tyler the Creator, Kanye and Eminem happily toil away to achieve the title “best rapper alive.” But like I said previously, Kendrick is different. He wants something much more momentous, as seen in “Mortal Man”: “[I] want you to love me like Nelson / Want you to hug me like Nelson / I freed you from being a slave in your mind, you’re very welcome / You tell me my song is more than a song, it’s surely a blessing.”