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Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’: A Track-By-Track Guide

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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. The 16-song set has been pulled from iTunes since popping up there last night, but it’s still available on Spotify. “Somebody’s gots 2 pay 4 this mistake,” Anthony Tiffith, the head of Lamar’s record label, Top Dawg Entertainment, tweeted in response.

Fans, however, are enjoying the early release — an album that Lamar calls “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.”

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.”

4. “Institutionalized”

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.

6. “u”

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.

Read more: Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’: A Track-By-Track Guide

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