Before I say anything else about this album, I need to say this: I have the highest respect for Kendrick Lamar. As an artist, as a role model, and as a human being, I’m extremely impressed with who he is and what he hopes to stand for as someone with fame and influence.
And that’s what To Pimp a Butterfly comes from: Kendrick Lamar’s deep desire to utilize his influence for good. It’s an album about leadership and celebrity. It’s Kendrick wrestling with the temptations associated with his new platform – the “evils of Lucy” (aka Lucifer) as he calls them. It’s his sophomore album – which typically has insane pressure to build off a successful debut project – isn’t anything what you’d expect from a rising star in the world. Instead of diving deep into his newfound wealth and power, he has chosen to take a step back and comment on how his status can be problematic, and how he strives to “pimp” that status for the benefit of others. Speaking value into his home community.
Kendrick Lamar is from Compton. He was raised in a world with a certain perspective and a certain way of life. No one ever told him he could amount to anything – that there was a world out there he could explore and learn from. He was born into a system of madness – which is the focus of his first album, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” – and one of his primary goals in his new album is to preach potential to his community back home.
The opening track, “Wesley’s Theory,” speaks to poverty and imprisonment. Opening up the collective mind of the systematic oppression experienced by those who grow up in the narrative of Compton and similar communities. There are places to visit, there’s a world out there to learn from – there are other ways of life. You’re not stuck in the narrative of cyclical generational poverty you’re been raised into.
It’s a fascinating album from a structural standpoint. The album continues in that vein through “King Kunta” and “Institutionalized” and “These Walls.” But the album seems to be framed in two parts around two songs: “u” – which focuses on the depression and suicidal feelings stemming from Kendrick experiencing a lack of control in painful things in his life – and “Alright” – which is the inverse narrative declaring that regardless of how bad things get, “we gonna be alright.”
Laced throughout the album is a poem. The first time you hear it, it’s only the first couple lines, but each recitation reveals more and more of the complete poem.
I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence
Sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power, full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression
Found myself screaming in the hotel room
I didn’t wanna self destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers
Until I came home…
The first time through the album, it’s confusing and disruptive. It’s tempting to skip the spoken portions to get back to the music, but the listener does him/herself a disservice if he does it. If Kendrick Lamar was about writing singles and pop hits, he’d never want the monologue there. It segments the flow and forces you to consider the words through repetition. The words provide the thrust of the album’s content.
But then you get to the end of the album – to “Mortal Man” – and you realize this isn’t a poem at all, but it’s a letter to Tupac. Apparently, while Kendrick was in Germany, some dude gave him a recording of an interview with Tupac from years ago when he was still alive. Kendrick takes that audio and creates an interview dialogue out of it between he and Tupac. It’s unbelievable. If you didn’t know/believe Tupac was dead, you’d be convinced he somehow sat down with Kendrick. It’s seamless and still so relevant to the world today.
In fact, get this: the orginal title for the album was going to be Tu Pimp a Caterpiller – Tu.P.A.C. – but went with butterfly instead because it represented Kendrick’s desire to pimp the beautiful things in life. There is so much happening here structurally it’s hard to nail it down unless you take the time to zoom out and consider the full context. The whole structure of the album is brilliant. Once the first listen is over, suddenly the end opens up the entire album in a new light – like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, to be honest. Lamar doesn’t shy away from the painful realities in the world, so there are moments on the album which, when taken out of context, can communicate something totally different than Kendrick’s big idea of the album. But when you listen to its entirety and begin to break down the themes and what he’s doing structurally, the album manages to open up to something incredible.
Admittedly, this isn’t an album that you can sit down and bump around to. It’s also not an album with singles you can throw into a playlist and listen to individually. Again, his goal isn’t to create a bunch of pop hits (which is basically exactly Taylor Swift’s goal in creating 1989) – it’s a cohesive creative unit with a message throughout.
The only single that was released for the album was “i” where features a looped Isley Brothers sample that really grooves. The phrase “I love myself” is repeated in chorus. It’s an anthem for those who society puts down – specifically young black community. Instead of believing the narrative of their world, to discover that everyone has value and ought to love themselves.
Except then on the album, it sounds like a live version! What?! Why would you do this to us Kendrick?! You can hear a crowd clamoring and someone introducing Kendrick as a guy who has “traveled all round the world but came back” – so apparently he’s performing for the people of Compton.
And then toward the end of the song he stops singing and starts talking to the people instead. He’s addressing the community about what it means to be black in the world – trying to create a new narrative for his home. He asks how many people have died in 2015 alone before doing a sort of etymological study on the N-word. He presents the Ethiopian word “negus” meaning “royalty” – a reclamation on a word taken and perverted by Americans over the decades.
By releasing the single version and then changing the album version, Kendrick further pushes his agenda. In fact, he actually sets up the speech in the “live” version by giving the single version beforehand. People come to the album expecting to bump to “i,” but end up startled by Kendrick’s message to home.
The album is honest and vulnerable. Kendrick’s message of positive influence is clear. He wants to denounce the evils associated with fame and celebrity and focus on communicating positivity to the system he came from.
It’s clear that Kendrick Lamar views himself as the butterfly that was able to come out of the system he was born into – not in a boastful or arrogant sense, as is the norm in hip hop. Rather than chasing more money and status and pointing the finger at his success, he points the finger at his struggles and pain. The album is about transformation. He hopes to change the narrative of those who grew up in the culture he did. The caterpillar he talks about in the final minute of the album are all those who are born into that system, and Kendrick hopes his voice can be one that begins a process of transformation.
If you want to know more, I recommend watching this 4-part interview Lamar did with MTV. Here’s the first of the four interviews…
Again, I respect the guy immensely. To Pimp a Butterfly is an incredible album. One with a purpose of making this world a better place. Most people probably don’t get that, and they won’t look past the controversial album cover. I believe strongly that this album deserves to win Album of the Year at the GRAMMYs. I’m rooting for it. It’s obviously highly regarded (Kendrick led all artists with 11 nominations), but can it beat out T-Swift’s 1989 – one of the most successful pop albums in recent history? We’ll see. No offense, Taylor.
Top tracks: u, King Kunta, Alright, i, Mortal Man, Wesley’s Theory