Thinkpiece

Did ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ Age Well? A Discussion About Longevity

A look at how an album's legacy is impacted by subject matter and the streaming era.

A few weeks ago, I opened up my group chat and saw this comment:

To Pimp a Butterfly might not have aged well.”

Admittedly, this friend of mine has a penchant for hot takes. When the group is discussing musical topics, he often finds himself alone on an island, defending a point that no one else in the group would dare entertain. At first glance, I thought he was just trying to spice up what was a dry day in the chat.

But I got to thinking about this unprovoked comment; the first thought that came to mind was, “Well, when was the last time I listened to TPAB?”

I went over to my iTunes to see the timestamps of the album’s most recent plays. The song that I had played the most recently was “Alright,” on November 28, 2017 — about 22 months ago. Most of the other songs were played on April 13th of that same year, which means that that was the last day I played the album all the way through in its entirety.

So essentially, it’s been almost 2 and a half years since I listened to To Pimp A Butterfly.

I looked back at the chat, at my friend’s comment. Is there even a remote possibility that he has a point?

To Pimp A Butterfly has been almost universally recognized as one of the seminal hip-hop works not just of this decade, but of all time; an album that was both the apex of hip-hop’s mainstream political treads of the mid-2010s, as well as an album that helped vitalize modern jazz music by featuring artists like Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, and Robert Glasper. TPAB ended up earning 11 Grammy nominations, the most for a rapper in a single night in Grammy history. It was also one of the first albums I purchased on wax, as part of my fledgling vinyl collection.

Given just how much acclaim it has garnered up to this point, and given my personal love for the album, why has it been so long since I last listened to it? Better yet, why, even now, do I have little desire to listen to it?

An important part of this discussion involves recognizing that our music habits can impact the replayability and ultimate longevity of an album. I consider myself a music junkie, as I end up listening to hundreds of music projects on a yearly basis. There’s just so much music coming out and so many new artists to discover; I don’t get to revisit some of my favorite albums as often as I want to, because I’m constantly looking for something new.

For example, the last time I played Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition — one of my favorite albums released in this entire decade — in its entirety was in December 2016 — literally almost 3 years ago! And it’s certainly not because I dislike it or because I thought it didn’t age well; on the contrary, I loved it and actually wish I would revisit it more often. It’s just that there’s SO MUCH MUSIC I want to get to.

Likewise, the music habits of many people, especially young millennials and Gen X-ers, has shifted as we’ve transitioned into the streaming era. The decentralization of the music world, as well as the rise of music curation, has changed the way we listen to albums — by making us listen to albums less. With streaming services making virtually every piece of music easily accessible to the people, consumers are encouraged (through marketing and strategic recommendations) to listen to more artists and more music. The logic: why replay one album 15 times when you can now play 15 different albums?

On top of that, this over-saturation of the music market ends up encouraging listeners to subscribe to playlists and other curation services. Playlist curation is at an all-time high, and for understandable reasons: if audiences aren’t interested in doing the work of listening to an artists discography or trudging through a 30-song album and picking out their various favorites themselves, they can simply subscribe to a pre-made playlist that will lump that album’s “best” songs together, along with a litany of other songs from similar artists.

We also have to acknowledge the fact that some albums, like TPAB, are not easy listening experiences, and will likely warrant fewer plays based solely off the nature of the subject matter or concept. My friend later clarified his first statement by emphasizing this point: “TPAB is too challenging to go back to often…it’s just too much for the soul to handle.”

Honestly, I understand this sentiment. It is a challenging album. It does, at least in some regards, weigh heavily on the soul. Kendrick sacrificed simplicity and commercial-ability for something intricate and uneasy. Albums that are heavy on socially conscious themes generally tend to get less plays off rip, since weighty topics like discrimination and violence are not typically things that people want to bump repeatedly in their cars or at social functions.

Which is why songs that focus on relatively lighter topics — intimate relationships, wealth, family, etc. — tend to be what we dwell on the most and typically get more plays (although I should add that, just because they get more plays doesn’t automatically mean that that kind of music is “better”). It’s no surprise that DAMN performed much better, commercially, than TPAB, despite the fact that a lot of people still recognize TPAB as the superior album; DAMN was a lot easier on both the listener’s ear and heart.

The topic of how music ages is so interesting, because so much can influence how music is remembered. Sometimes, a great song can be restrained by the nature of the time of its cultural references (i.e. Drake’s “Draft Day”); sometimes an acclaimed album from back in the day can sound “dated” compared to the music of the Internet Age (i.e. Eminem’s early albums); and other times, the music is just plain bad in hindsight, and we wonder why we were even enamored with it in the first place.

But back to my friend’s original comment — has TPAB aged badly? Well, I’m not inclined to say so (yet), but I certainly wouldn’t argue with anyone that thought so. The album, which came out in 2015, is still fairly young. It will be interesting to see how we view TPAB in five or ten more years, which is when I believe we’ll have a much clearer idea about whether it genuinely stands the test of time.

2 comments on “Did ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ Age Well? A Discussion About Longevity

  1. A very interesting article! I don’t think TPAB has aged badly, rather that it has just been so ingrained as a “classic album” at this point that we don’t HAVE to listen to it repeatedly to say we like it. I don’t know many people who listen to “Madvillainy” and “Illmatic” super frequently, but I also don’t know many people who would say those albums have aged badly either. And of course, your point about TPAB being “heavy on the soul” is also a contributing factor to this lack of replayability.

    Liked by 1 person

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