As anyone who has ever argued about hip hop albums will tell you, one of the criteria that must be considered in any legit debate on what constitutes a classic is whether or not the LP in question has stood the test of time. Time separates what was a fad and what is authentic. One might hear an old record and be enamored with it for purely nostalgic reasons, but a true classic will resonate on deeper levels, making listeners aware of previously unnoticed nuances that give one a newfound appreciation for the work even decades later.
While five years may not seem like enough time, Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012) can be called a classic not only for its impact upon release and lasting playability but for its highly personalized narrative that can be felt even by non-rap fans. It also represents a milestone in the Compton rapper’s career that we keep going back to, the pivotal moment when the world at large acknowledged a talented artist with unlimited potential. From that point on, all eyes have been on him.
In the time since, Kendrick has released the acclaimed To Pimp A Butterfly (2015), along with Untitled Unmastered, a compilation of outtakes from previous recording sessions and non-LP tracks performed during late night TV performances, as well as the impressive-as-hell DAMN.
If we’re sticking to the test-of-time criteria, that would, of course, take DAMN., released this past April, out of the running for classic status. (But for the sake of argument, we’ll take a closer look at that album in just a bit.) And for all its strengths, Untitled Unmastered is more of a gift to Lamar’s fans than a fully conceived album.
That would then leave us with To Pimp A Butterfly as the other possible classic under Kendrick’s belt so far. Only a few years old, one can again argue that it’s too early to deem it a classic even though it was hailed as one by critics only hours after it was released. But when you take into account the disposable era we currently live in, where every little thing is hyped beyond belief then forgotten a week later, it really does feel like TPAB was released an eternity ago.
To Pimp A Butterfly is that rare record with the ability to bridge the gap between old head curmudgeons who constantly complain about current rap being dog shit and young rap fans who couldn’t care less about what old heads think. The album personifies artistic freedom and youthful idealism but also has enough old school-mixed-with-‘90s influences—from P-Funk to Prince to OutKast—to appeal to the over-30 crowd. That it ends with a cleverly-edited exchange between Kendrick and Tupac was not only one of the best unexpected moments on any rap record, but it showed the rapper’s reverence for his elders, something that means a lot to older listeners who care deeply about hip hop’s legacy.
Furthermore, George Clinton’s inclusion on the opening track gives props to a forefather who was extremely influential to Dr. Dre’s dominant G-Funk sound. Kendrick, who has worked with Dre, seems interested in connecting generations because he’s aware of how important the history of black music is. In fact, taken as a whole, TPAB often sounds like a short lesson on all the various musical styles invented by black artists, fusing together jazz, blues (his conversations with “Lucy”—a thinly-veiled reference to Lucifer—on “For Sale?” hearkens back to age-old lore of blues musicians selling their soul to the Devil in exchange for success) and rock guitar solos as if on a whim.
As far as typical rap requirements go, TPAB is chock full of outstanding lyrics, wordplay, flows, concepts, you name it. (Hell, “These Walls” alone is a shining example of all those categories combined.) Plus, the production is next level. Even people unaware of the intricacies that go into the craft of beat-making notice the luxurious layers in songs like “You Ain’t Gotta Lie.”
Still, there was an inevitable backlash to TPAB. There were several reasons for this, starting with the hype. The overflow of critical praise, where it seemed like some writers were tripping over themselves to get the first review out to the masses, undoubtedly rubbed some people the wrong way. (It also doesn’t help that hyperbole runs rampant on the clickbait-reliant internet and everything is either THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME or THE WORST EVER, meaning good works are often deemed classics when they shouldn’t be. These exaggerations are harmful forms of criticism.) One has to question whether or not some of the negative reaction to the album (comments ranged from “overrated” to “trash”) stemmed from expectations that could never be met.
To Pimp A Butterfly also must have alienated a segment of white rap fans who couldn’t relate to its overt pro-black message. That’s a sentiment that some might not agree with or possibly even find offensive, but post-Trump we’ve seen more clearly the racial divide in this country that’s always existed yet seemed dormant for awhile—at least to white eyes.
Then there’s the simple fact that some people just didn’t like the album. That happens, even to great albums. But let’s not forget “classic” and “popular” are two different things.
So is TPAB a classic? Well, minus all the hoopla that surrounded the album upon its release, it’s a little easier to be more honest about it now than it was back then.
On one level, Kendrick made the type of album many rap artists before him have made after they’ve experienced overwhelming success. From De La Soul is Dead to The Eminem Show, rappers have been inspired to document their lives once they’ve become household names in what is often an intriguing mix of art and therapy.
Simplified to its core, TPAB is about Kendrick coming to terms with fame and all the ramifications that come with it. Right from the start, on “Wesley’s Theory,” he lets us know that he’s fully aware of all the pitfalls of success and all the stereotypes of rappers wasting money on material goods. He knows about rappers selling out and that not only is the “mo’ money, mo’ problems” proverb true, but being rich causes most people not to care about your problems. In light of the current controversy over NFL players protesting police brutality during the national anthem—which has resulted in some fans boycotting the league—the refrain, “We should never gave niggas money… go back home” takes on an even stronger meaning.
All these observations might seem enough to sustain an entire album, but Kendrick, wise beyond his years, is just getting started. On tracks like “Institutionalized” and “Hood Politics,” he talks about the predicament of bringing one of his street-raised homies to an event full of wealthy people (his friend envisions robbing them) and how, regardless of Kendrick’s new status, he can still get caught up in neighborhood beef if he’s not careful. But he also acknowledges that his pride for Compton can keep him on track and help him from falling off.
As if his life wasn’t hectic enough, we learn on the jarring “u,” and elsewhere on the album, that Kendrick has struggled with depression for most of his life. His struggles lead him to a trip to Africa, as described on “Momma,” which gives him a newfound perspective on what’s really important. The album closes out with cuts like the (self) love song, “Complexion,” and the explosive “The Blacker the Berry,” which delves into the insidious, far-reaching effects of racism that can manifest itself as black-on-black crime and self-hatred. The song’s potent climax, in which Kendrick calls himself a hypocrite for his contradictory behavior (“So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street when gangbangin’ make me kill a nigga blacker than me?”) rings louder than a gun blast.
On the album’s final track, “Mortal Man,” Kendrick accepts the role of being a leader but asks fans for their support. What we’ve just witnessed is a transformation not unlike the caterpillar turning into a butterfly.
Kendrick’s journey is not without a few missteps, like the warbled voice he uses on “u,” which takes you out of the song, and the heartfelt-but-somewhat-underwhelming revelation that the homeless man who asks him for money on “How Much a Dollar Cost” turns out to be God. But “classic” doesn’t necessarily mean “perfect.”
When compared to Damn, an album that seems more likely to be played in the clubs, one can better see TPAB’s purely artistic ambitions. DAMN’s commercial intent seems obvious, not only by its sound—which seems geared more for his younger fans—but by its guest artists. The fact that pop superstar Rihanna appears on DAMN. while respected lyricist Rapsody appears on TPAB speaks volumes.
But as good as DAMN is—and at times it is mind-blowing, including the Rihanna track—one has to wonder how much more amazing it would’ve sounded had TPAB never existed. Because as the follow-up to that the momentous album, it’s bound to be compared to it.
In his first interview after releasing DAMN., Kendrick gave some insight into his intentions with both albums: “TPAB [was] the idea of changing the world and how we approach things” while “DAMN. [is] the idea of: ‘I can’t change the world until I change myself.’
Folks have claimed that TPAB can’t be enjoyed by listening to individual tracks on their own, that you have to dig into the entire thing to get the most out of it. (That every song is vital to the overall experience suggests there’s no filler to be found on the album.) It’s also been said that you have to be in the proper mood to listen to TPAB. But even if that were the case, that doesn’t stop it from being a classic.
There’s also the connotation that comes with the word “political,” a common descriptor for TPAB, which perhaps affects listeners in ways they don’t realize. At nearly 80 minutes in length, some listeners might feel the album is more like homework that you got to get through.
But these are limitations that have been needlessly put in place by various people. TPAB is a serious record, but there are no set rules on how to consume it. It may not lend itself to massive radio airplay, but that doesn’t make it any less worthy.
Another important criteria to remember when determining classic albums is the influence it has on music as a whole. In this period where mumble rap reigns supreme, it may not seem like Kendrick’s music has had the same impact artists like Dr. Dre and Kanye have had in the past, in which they were able to change the course of the culture.
Yet, the influence is there, just in unlikely places. One could say that ATCQ’s We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (which Kendrick appears on) has, to some degree, been influenced by TPAB. Tribe, known early on for pushing the boundaries of what hip hop artists could sound like, seem reinvigorated, channeling some of Kendrick’s experimental energy.
Outside of hip hop, producer Tony Visconti turned some heads when he admitted in a Rolling Stone interview that the late David Bowie was listening to a lot of Kendrick’s music when recording his final album. It’s said that Bowie admired the rapper for being so “open minded.” When legends are looking to you for inspiration you’re doing something special.
It’s true that we don’t know how TPAB will be remembered decades from now. But the likelihood that it will be revered is strong. When protestors chanted “Alright”’s defiant hook at a Black Lives Matter rally in Cleveland and at the 2015 Justice or Else march in D.C., the song became a protest anthem and TPAB a part of a movement greater than music. And any album that can touch the soul should be considered a classic.