The beginning of 2015 was a transitionary period for hip-hop. As much of the East Coast’s new breed mourned A$AP YAMS, Pro Era’s Joey Bada$$ was coming of age on his major label debut. Heading southward, internal conflict between Lil Wayne and Birdman became public knowledge, while Young Money’s golden child Drake racked up another triumph with If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.
Amid these tremulous events, and with Big Sean’s Dark Sky Paradise holding court at the top of the charts, a crucial component of what made the genre vital was missing. Previously defined by Chuck D as “black America’s CNN,” most of the biggest hip-hop albums in recent years had felt apolitical or, at worst, consciously apathetic.
Lacking its informative might, hip-hop’s retreat from the frontlines of social discourse was incongruous at a time when Black Lives Matter’s hashtag activism and police brutality demonstrations had reached a fever pitch. Overrun by triviality and self-obsession, relief would come in March 2015, courtesy of a Compton-born artist who used his platform as his forebears had intended. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly arrived with the force of a sledgehammer, remaining just as (if not more) impactful now as it did on first arrival.
“I started this album already knowing what I wanted to talk about, just based off the idea of feeling like you’re being pimped and manuevered in the industry,” Lamar reflected to MTV. “Thinking ‘how can I make that something positive for my community?’ As I’m doing this, all these events are happening. Trayvon, Ferguson… I couldn’t write these songs after these events, it’s too intricate.”
Rather than mimicking the formula that had taken him from obscurity to superstardom with Good Kid M.A.A.D City, Kendrick funneled his energy into crafting a musically and thematically rich project which surveyed a crumbling society and all of its grotesque, systemic ills.
Nowadays, most albums are ingested by their intended audience before being discarded to the wayside. Routinely overloaded with material in order to flood the market and maximize streaming revenue, everything from Drake’s Scorpion to Migos’ Culture II has lived and died on the strength of name recognition as opposed to a clearly-defined sense of purpose. Yet in the case of Kendrick’s enthralling Butterfly, the project has refracted in so many directions over the past five years that its allure and central message has only magnified with time.
No enduring piece of artistry was made without a degree of risk. But when it came to the musicality of Butterfly, Lamar threw caution to the wind like few before or since. Dabbling with horns and other brassy inflections on both his breakout mixtape Section 80 and Good Kid M.A.A.D City, Kendrick renounced the relative safety of the 808-laden bombast that defined his work in favor of a sound that more closely resembled the former project’s “Ab-Soul Outro.” A fusion of hip-hop and jazz orchestrated by Terrace Martin, it was this decorated multi-instrumentalist who first acknowledged Kendrick’s unconscious tendencies.
“He was like, man, a lot of the chords that you pick are jazz-influenced,” Lamar told GQ. “You don’t understand: You a jazz musician by default… he just started breaking down everything, the science, going back to Miles, Herbie Hancock.”
Incorporating dashes of blues, soul, funk and spoken word, Butterfly’s emphasis on eclecticism culminated in a sound that essentially doubled as a whistle-stop tour through the history of black music in America. After unveiling The Isley Brothers-sampling, self-love anthem “i” as a prelude to the album, Ron Isley and Kendrick discussed “the experiences his mother had with our records” that wouldd pave the way for his contribution to the sorrowful album-cut “How Much a Dollar Cost?”
Meanwhile, another icon was forced to place his preconceived biases aside while at work on the project. Before providing an uproarious vocal on the Flying Lotus-produced “Wesley’s Theory,” P-Funk originator George Clinton had only heard Good Kid’s “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and thought “it sounded silly as hell.” After grasping Kendrick’s vision, his perception changed, stating “he was saying things in brand new metaphors that I knew was going to fuck people up.” Operating in a reciprocal space between genres, time periods, and demographics, this intersectionality would be key in sculpting both the album as well as the diverging branches of its legacy.
“[Butterfly] changed music, and we’re still seeing the effects of it,” proclaimed Lamar-collaborator turned jazz titan Kamasi Washington. “It meant that intellectually stimulating music doesn’t have to be underground. It just didn’t change the music. It changed the audience.”
By enlisting virtuosos who were “as fluent in J Dilla and Dr. Dre as in Mingus and Coltrane,” Butterfly uplifted the careers of those who aided in its inception while simultaneously broadening the scope of what modern hip-hop can co-mingle with. Prior to Butterfly’s arrival, the swell in non-specialized engagement with jazz that precipitated Washington’s instant notoriety on 2015’s The Epic wouldn’t have been imaginable, while Rapsody’s verse on “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” had a similar effect in plucking the Carolina MC from obscurity. Now revered as a generational great, she’s been candid with DJ Booth about how “everything snowballed” after she accepted the summons from K-Dot.
Enlisted as both a musical focal point and a welcome flourish throughout, no one reaped the rewards of their toil on Butterfly quite like Thundercat. “Pretty much on the entire album,” the presence of his bass at the heart of the project raised his profile to such an extent that 2017’s Drunk peaked 144 chart places higher than his previous albums. On a personal level, the profound effect the album had on him far outweighed any success that it’s yielded since: “I just broke down in tears when I got home after hearing it,” Thundercat recalled. “So much information was passed and conveyed… There wasn’t a misfire. Everybody put their best work forward, and you could feel it, I think.”
As we now know, this was an understatement on his part. Rather than just feeling it, Butterfly became a conduit through which the disenfranchised and grief-stricken contextualized their own experiences. No where was this more evident than the liberating refrain of “Alright.” Essentially a “The Times They Are a-Changin'” for the era of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Alton Sterling, it became a familiar rallying cry at Black Lives Matter demonstrations, as well as emanating from speakers in suburbs and section-8 housing alike. Unsurprised by its resonance, Kendrick felt that the song’s jubilant tone amid such injustice tapped into an ancestral coping mechanism.
“Four hundred years ago, as slaves, we prayed and sang joyful songs to stay level-headed with what was going on,” Lamar told NPR. “We still need that music to heal. And I think that ‘Alright’ is definitely one of those records.”
Defiant and rousing yet quietly cognizant of the uphill battles that still need to be waged, “Alright” isn’t a piece of music so much as a public service announcement appealing for calm amid a time of crisis. A record that he was “sitting on” for six months after Pharrell crafted the now iconic instrumental, Kendrick’s cultural presence grew alongside the track and, in turn, allowed him to understand how its power surpassed all traditional barometers for a ‘hit’ song.
“You might not have heard it on the radio all day, but you’re seeing it in the streets,” he told Variety in 2017. “You’re seeing it on the news, and you’re seeing it in communities, and people felt it.”
Tackling hypocrisy, drug abuse, societal entrapment, mental health, imposter syndrome, and Demo-Crips & Re-Blood-licans across the project’s immersive hour-plus runtime, To Pimp a Butterfly was rightly awarded the Grammys that had previously eluded him, and it was instrumental in informing David Bowie’s final album Blackstar. Yet while the late icon and producer Tony Visconti strived to “avoid rock & roll,” Butterfly wasn’t born of some self-congratulatory whim to stretch artistic horizons. Instead, it aimed to expand minds and empower those who had borne the brunt of this uncaring and hostile world.
The rightful winner of the Pulitzer Prize he would later receive for 2017’s DAMN., Butterfly is the crystallized moment in time where Kendrick became a generation’s most potent artistic voice. A platinum-selling record that he abstained from performing live (save for the intimate run of “Kunta’s Groove” Sessions), a beautiful depiction of the album’s true purpose came when Terrace Martin was asked why they didn’t book a lucrative arena tour. Simply put, this wasn’t a musical phenomenon, it was a message:
“We didn’t do that album for popular culture. We did that album for people who have no way out. We did that album for people who can’t even afford to go to the shows. We did an album for people who need hope. You don’t prostitute that.”