There are surprise releases and there are accidental releases. The appearance of Kendrick Lamar’s highly anticipated new album, To Pimp a Butterfly, on iTunes and Spotify Sunday night — more than a week before its scheduled March 23rd release date — apparently falls in the latter category. “Somebody’s gots 2 pay 4 this mistake,” Anthony Tiffith, the head of Lamar’s record label, Top Dawg Entertainment, tweeted in response. (The tweet has since been deleted.)
Fans, however, are enjoying the early release — a 16-song set that Lamar describes as “honest, fearful and unapologetic” in the cover story of the new issue of Rolling Stone.
1. “Wesley’s Theory”
In his interview with Rolling Stone, Lamar reveals how influential Seventies funk was on To Pimp a Butterfly‘s sound. The album’s first song plays that out, opening with a sample from Boris Gardiner’s cheery manifesto of black pride “Every Nigger Is a Star” off the soundtrack of the 1974 Calvin Lockhart-directed blaxploitation film of the same name. With the song and film, Lockhart and Gardiner aimed to turn the meaning of “nigger” around, destroying its negative connotations. The track also includes an appearance by Rock & Roll Hall of Famer George Clinton, whose group Parliament Lamar mentioned by name as an inspiration in his RS interview. Clinton had been suggested as a collaborator by Flying Lotus, who produced “Wesley’s Theory” and additionally brought in bassist Thundercat, best known for his work alongside Lotus. But the track’s biggest cameo comes in the form of a voice message from Dr. Dre, in which he offers wisdom to Lamar on the fact that it’s easy to get success but more difficult to maintain it, a topic addressed in Lamar’s verses.
2. “For Free? (Interlude)”
Crossover jazz pianist Robert Glasper — whose Black Radio, an album featuring verses from Yasiin Bey, Erykah Badu and To Pimp a Butterfly collaborator Bilal, earned a 2013 R&B Grammy nomination — lays down hyperactive keys on this “interlude,” while Terrace Martin, himself the son of a jazz drummer, handles production, just as he did for Kurupt’s Streetlights, Kendrick’s “m.A.A.d. city” and one track on Glasper’s own Black Radio 2. For his part, Lamar spits dense, nearly-spoken bars that come across like fast-rap version of the Last Poets. “This dick ain’t free,” he insists, surrounding the refrain with lines like “I need 40 acres and a mule/Not a 40-ounce and a pitbull.”
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3. “King Kunta”
A funky stomper with a Shaft-evoking call-and-response, “King Kunta” takes a darker turn once producer Mark “Sounwave” Spears cues an unsettling sample of “Get Nekkid” by Mausberg, the Compton-bred DJ Quik protege who was fatally shot at age 21. Lamar sounds desperate, even while referencing pop hits by Michael Jackson (“Life ain’t shit but a fat vagina/Screaming ‘Annie, are you OK,’”) and Parliament (“We want the funk!” — though it’s filtered through the 1994 track by West coast rapper Ahmad, who gets a writing credit). “It’s just [Lamar] expressing how he’s feeling at the moment,” Sounwave says. “And right now, he’s mad.” Remember, Lamar named this song after the titular character of Roots.
Produced by Rahki and Tommy Black, “Institutionalized” tells a thwarted Compton coming-of-age story, switching between characters to depict the struggles of one who’s “dazed and confused/Talented but still under the neighborhood ruse.” When Lamar closes his first verse, he introduces neo-soul impressionist Bilal, who sings the chorus — “shit don’t change until you get up and wash your ass” — from the perspective of the rapper’s grandma. Snoop then introduces the final verse as chatter from two people at a club. Sonnymoon’s Anna Wise (who sang on Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city) and Sa-Ra’s Taz Arnold also contribute vocals, the latter offering a “zoom zoom” adlib like the scatting from Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock.”
5. “These Walls”
Like “Institutionalized,” “These Walls” features singers Bilal and Anna Wise and bassist Thundercat. As the title implies with its reference to the adage “If these walls could talk,” the song teases the dark underbelly of sudden fame and offers a peek at the rapper’s life when he hit his lowest points. The track’s emotional tone is made clear as quickly as the first line of the first verse, where Lamar makes a reference to Frank Ocean’s “Swim Good,” a supremely melancholy 2011 song about heartbreak and suicide.
The optimistic, self-affirming, Grammy-winning “i” finds its much darker counterpart here. “That was one of the hardest songs I had to write,” Kendrick told Rolling Stone. “There’s some very dark moments in there. All my insecurities and selfishness and letdowns. That shit is depressing as a motherfucker. But it helps, though.” The song’s second, more striking half — wherein Kendrick freaks out into a hotel bathroom mirror — comes produced by the little-known Sacramento producer Whoarei, whose fans on Soundcloud love his crate-digging sensibilities. Those jibe well with the tenor sax stylings of Kamasi Washington, a 34-year-old, Los-Angeles-based musician who’s played with everyone from Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock to Flying Lotus and Snoop Dogg. “u” is also yet another track on To Pimp a Butterfly that re-introduces the singer Bilal to younger millennials who missed his ostensible “neo-soul” heyday of the early 2000s. He’s joined here on backup vocal duties by Jessica Vielmas and SZA. The latter’s an alt-R&B favorite also signed to Top Dawg Entertainment. Her 2014 EP Z, full of the kind of ethereal, electronic leanings currently beloved by the blogosphere, landed at number nine on the Billboard R&B charts.
This track opens with lines from The Color Purple. For his sole production credit, Pharrell, who made the track with Sounwave, sings the hook.
8. “For Sale? – Interlude”
A look at temptation in the shadow of fame, Lamar is joined by his usual background vocalists — Bilal, Taz Arnold, SZA — alongside Preston Harris, an emerging R&B star whose debut EP dropped in February.
Knxwledge, a prolific Los Angeles-based beatmaker who has already released three Bandcamp tapes this year, produced this peek into the existential crises that ensue once hard work pays off. In 2013 Leaving Records put out a two-cassette comp of Knxwledge’s crate-digging-gone-collage work. Unsurprisingly given his era-spanning aesthetic, the underground hip-hop bastion Stones Throw has signed him to its roster. Bilal provides some woozy counterpoint vocals to the song’s more languorous first half, as does “First daughter of soul” Lalah Hathaway (she’s the daughter of Donnie). Hathaway’s 2008 track “On Your Own” also winds through that section; its lyrics, which are aimed toward a person experiencing a breakup, are chopped up in a way that evokes a comforting dreamscape. “Momma” also borrows from Sly & The Family Stone’s “Wishful Thinkin’,” a spaced-out track from the band’s much-plundered 1974 album Small Talk. Lamar describes a sometimes-harrowing journey into his own mind, which gradually shifts from a gratitude-filled look at how far he’s come to a heart-racing search for “the feeling I can barely describe, where you reside?/Is it in a woman, is it in money, or mankind?” — a dilemma faced by Lamar in the wake of good kid, m.A.A.d. city‘s raging success.
10. “Hood Politics”
This song is built primarily on a sample from indie-rocker Sufjan Stevens’ 2010 album, Age of Adz. That record was inspired by the work of outsider artist Royal Robertson; and like him, it appears Kendrick is most at home operating outside the boundaries of the status quo. A State of the Union Address, with Sufjan Stevens as Speaker of the House and Kendrick as second-term, IDGAF Obama, “Hood Politics” ticks off a laundry list of the potential pitfalls (the draw of the block, the peril of the bid, the complacency that comes with fame) that threatened to derail his campaign, takes appropriate breaks for photo ops — “I’ve been A-1 since day one” — then arrives at a rather sobering conclusion soon after his swearing-in ceremony: Shit is fucked up, from Compton to Congress. Lamar lashes out at the hypocrisy of both the critic and the consumer (“Critics want to mention that they miss when hip-hop was rappin’/Motherfucker, if you did, then Killer Mike would be platinum“) and the self-serving “Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-icans” that look to block progress at every step of the way.
11. “How Much A Dollar Cost”
In “How Much a Dollar Cost,” Lamar details a meeting with God in the form of a homeless man asking for money at a gas station. James Fauntleroy — best known for his work as a songwriter, having co-written Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, as well as singles for Jordin Sparks, Chris Cornell, Ciara and Frank Ocean — sings the hook. Fauntleroy’s first high-profile appearance as a guest vocalist came when he sang a reworking of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” for Drake’s “Girls Love Beyoncé.” The track also features a cameo by Ronald Isley of the Isley Brothers, who provides its reflective outro. The song bears a striking resemblance to Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song,” off 2001’s Amnesiac, which also moves hypnotically as it details a dark, spiritual metaphor.
12. “Complexion (A Zulu Love)”
In “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” Lamar briefly imagines himself as a cotton-picking slave, facing his master, nodding lyrically to the William Lynch speech. For all of the references to the past, though, Lamar then quickly decides that he doesn’t have to let history dictate America’s future. To scratches and backing vocals by Pete Rock, Lamar loops in Rapsody, signee to 9th Wonder’s Jamla Records and Lamar’s one-time rap sparring partner. She speaks of a world where a racial hierarchy no longer exists and Idris Elba is, in fact, named the next James Bond — a rumor that the actor himself shot down, though a nice idea nonetheless.
13. “The Blacker the Berry”
Lamar’s most aggressive, confrontational and incisive track yet, “The Blacker the Berry” officially dropped on February 10th, but the rapper began writing the song’s lyrics about three years ago when he saw the news of Trayvon Martin’s murder. “It just put a whole new anger inside me,” he says in his interview with Rolling Stone. Lamar was assisted in getting out that rage on “The Blacker the Berry” by producer and Drake collaborator Boi-1da, as well as Lalah Hathaway, who sings the track’s intro, and dancehall artist Assassin, who has also appeared on Kanye West’s “I’m in It,” and delivers the song’s uninhibited hook.
14. “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”
Lamar opens “You Ain’t Gotta Lie” with tough love from his mom: “Circus acts only attract those that entertain…/We live in the Laugh Factory every time they mention your name.” But rather than confess his sins to her, Drake-style, the 27-year-old listens to what she’s saying. By the end of the track, he’s the one saying it to his peers.
The album version of the Grammy-winning “i” (released a single last September) stretches the Isley-sampling tune to over five minutes and features a new intro starring an unidentified announcer preparing a crowd for “nobody, nobody, nobody but the number one rapper in the world.” Three minutes later a fight in that crowd forces Kendrick to halt the song. “Not on my time,” he says. “Since Tutu how many niggas we done lost?… Exactly. So we ain’t got time to waste time.” He then ends the song with an a capella verse, slowly silencing those who continue talking.
16. “Mortal Man”
On the final track of To Pimp a Butterfly, the winding, 12-minute “Mortal Man,” Lamar lays out and ponders all that he has unpacked over the course of his album. Historical and modern-day perspectives on blackness are examined with as much abandon as he deals with his relationship to fame. He repeats the lines that cut deepest throughout the LP, citing his abuse of power and internal conflict with how to handle his influence.
A 2014 trip to South Africa inspired Lamar to pen “Mortal Man,” a song that finds the rapper name-checking Moses, Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. Throughout To Pimp a Butterfly. The track is simple and samples Fela Kuti’s “I No Get Eye for Back” from 1975’s Alagbon Close. As Lamar contemplates his own success, he weaves in samples from a 1994 Tupac interview with Swedish journalist Mats Nileskär on the show P3 Soul. The samples are woven with questions from Lamar to the late and iconic West Coast MC, creating an imagined dialogue between the pair. It’s an inspiring, humbling moment as Lamar looks to a hero for guidance as he finds himself becoming more of an influencer and spokesperson of a generation, similar to ‘Pac.