Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly arrived, unannounced, a week early. We all listened—feverishly, passionately, with elation and joyous confusion—and bounced our thoughts around. Stream the album here as you read along, and/or go all the way up and buy it on iTunes.
Zach Dionne: To start, if anyone's pressed for time or focus this morning: Listen, attentively, to the first three songs and have your mind Miseducation of Lauryn Hill–style BLOWN.
Taylor Brown: Kendrick called good kid, m.A.A.d city a short film, but it was such a fleshed-out piece of work that it felt more like a feature. When he dropped "i," it seemed to polarize his fan base, but it was also out of context. It was like watching a sports training montage without the encompassing work. To Pimp a Butterfly feels like something akin to film noir and has tons of character and funky vibrancy to boot. The celebratory tone of the new version of "i" near the end of the album feels apt now that it has purpose as a resolution of sorts. Hopefully the Gaye family doesn't sue over the cowbell, though =/
Zach Dionne: "i" coming in at the end of this album—in a live take that ends with Kendrick speaking straight to Ferguson and to police brutality and to Oprah as a "sensitive N-word controller"—is going to make everyone feel something pretty huge, I think. It killed me and brought me back to life.
So. If you had your money on clarinets being the most prominent instrument on Kendrick Lamar's new album, you just made some pro athlete money. If you imagined that 2014's wild, wooly, wonderful Kendrick collaboration with Flying Lotus—the incomprehensible, addictive acid-neo-jazz neon-upside-down-coffee-house track "Never Catch Me"—was a clue to To Pimp a Butterfly's eventual sound, you are psychic. This LP sounds like nothing I've ever heard or imagined I would hear—like something that could've never existed in the history of music until now. It also feels 100 percent like a good kid, m.A.A.d city sequel—there's just enough of a microscopic common thread here.
Last: It sounds like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy if that maximalist masterpiece was made by a time-traveler from 1992 who met up with a time-traveler from 2025 to make an album. There won't be a release with arms this wide and a brain this big till Frank Ocean puts out his Channel ORANGE follow-up. Thoughts?
Carlos Ramirez: My biggest takeaway from To Pimp a Butterfly is how comfortable Lamar sounds doing his thing over such a wide variety of musical backdrops. With its stuttering percussion and smoky background vocal textures, “Momma” has a trip hop feel to it, combining the laid-back cool of Tricky’s seminal Maxinquaye album with the rapid-fire rap delivery of André 3000.
The buttery groove and vocal flow on “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” brings to mind the golden age of the Native Tongues collective. The drumless first half of “u” finds Lamar dropping a heated verse over a minimal bed of jazzy horns and piano, while “Alright” and “The Blacker the Berry” are more in-the-pocket-styled rap cuts. No matter which direction Lamar and the various producers chose to venture towards on To Pimp a Butterfly, the Compton MC always sounds in command of the material.
Zach Dionne: Thanks for laying out some of the best parts AND best songs, Carlos. You are a true wiseman. Feel like every conversation about this album has to include the end, where Kendrick goes back and forth, as interviewer, with five-minutes of Tupac thoughts from a long 1994 interview for a Swedish show. WOW.
Also: that feature from 27-year-old NC rapper Rapsody on "Complexion (A Zulu Love)"—jeeeesus, does she run away with that one. It's the type of cameo that makes you immediately dig up everything you can about someone because you're already a fan and now you need something to feed that ravenous fandom. Love that shot at Kanye & Co's "Clique," too—"I ain't talkin Jay / I ain't talkin Bey."
Jeff Benjamin: The terms "classic-sounding" or "throwback-inspired" are modifiers thrown ahead of a lot of albums nowadays, but the moment you start To Pimp a Butterfly it actually feels like you're throwing on something classic that was made for today. Maybe it’s the crackling vinyl opening or the Motown-esque vocals, but it really feels like someone put an old 45 on when "Wesley’s Theory" starts—but then we’re thrown straight into 2015 as the woozy electronica, drum machines and Kendrick’s creepy, tweaked vocals all ooze into the mix. The album continues with a fascinating blend of old-school elements with modern touches and forward-thinking delivery. It sounds like Lamar's delivering pure poetry, and which top rapper today can say the same with a straight face?
Zach Dionne: Nailed it and then screwed it all the way in, Jeff. A last-minute update before we send this out to the world—go Kendrick, go:
Zach Dionne: (King Yeezus is in awe, too.)