Already so much has been said about To Pimp a Butterfly. I don’t want to talk so much about the quality, but the content. From the artwork, to the interview, to the production, I want to talk about it all.
First, I have to state this album is drenched in pride for all things Black and African, even if it criticizes some aspects of it. Kendrick has love for all of it but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t see its problems. His aim with this album seems to be change and reform.
Second, I want to focus on the origin of this new sound. This new album has an amazing sound with a lot of Jazz, Funk, Soul, and some classic hip hop stylings. It is absolutely gorgeous and powerful. “King Kunta” is just a stomper of a track, “Blacker the Berry” hits harder than a freight train. Everything has a paranoid and eerie tone about them, beats change quickly and are always moving and reverberate. It seems chaotic and unruly all the while being structured, much like Jazz and certain parts of Poetry.
Third, this album is really an extended metaphor, each song progresses the poem of “I remember you were conflicted...” While at the same time it references each line with its own song. I want to specifically talk about the schizophrenic “U” that begins with screaming in a hotel room, to cries of “loving you is complicated”. It seems as if that remark is directed at Lamar himself, for his leaving Compton, for not visiting a wounded friend.
Kendrick continues to question and judge himself on “alright”. The chorus of “we gonna be alright” doesn’t sound like a statement, it sounds more like a question. As if they are questioning whether they’ll survive for much longer. Questioning if they will get killed by the police or by gang members. They state that they are running for the preacher’s home, most likely running from “Lucy” and her temptations.
“For sale? (Interlude)” chronicles Kendrick’s interactions with Lucy, Lucy states that she can give Kendrick anything in return for him. His talent, his creativity, his identity, and his soul. Kendrick is searching for answers and he finds them when he goes home.
“Momma” finds Kendrick at home, he now knows everything. It is most likely that home and Momma in this song both refer to Africa. Africa is not only the homeland of Kendrick’s ancestors, but also the motherland of all humanity.
On “How Much A Dollar Cost” Kendrick is in Africa at a gas station. Where he is stopped by a homeless man who wants a dollar. Kendrick believes that the man is going to use it for crack or alcohol. The transient tells Kendrick that he has mastered temptation and asks if Kendrick has ever read Exodus 14. Kendrick denies him and he gets in his car, but he doesn’t leave. He stares at the man getting angry and thinking about killing him. He finally denies the man a third time because selfishness is what brought Kendrick his success.
“I looked at him and said ‘Every nickel is mine to keep”
He looked at me and said, ‘Know the truth, it'll set you free
You're lookin' at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, the higher power
The choir that spoke the word, the Holy Spirit, the nerve
Of Nazareth, and I'll tell you just how much a dollar cost
The price of having a spot in Heaven, embrace your loss, I am God"
How much a dollar cost? it cost Kendrick his spot in heaven because he denied Christ three times, much like the disciple peter. Whereas on good kid, m.A.A.d. city accepted Christ as his lord and savior; now he is denying him for dollar. He denied both Christ and Satan as well as resisted uncle Sam. What does this mean for Kendrick? If he cannot enter heaven he will be subject to hell’s eternal torment.
“Complexion (A Zulu Love)” is the only song with a guest feature and it comes from one of my favorite artists, Rapsody. The song is pretty straight forward for an album so dense with subtext and metaphors. Kendrick and Rapsody talk about how people shouldn’t hate each other because of their complexion and should love all the colors of their skin. “Black as brown, hazelnut, cinnamon, black tea. And it’s all beautiful to me”
“Blacker The Berry” the most intense and angry song on the album, deals with how those in power degrade black culture. While also dealing with how blacks treat each other; the last verse we see that Kendrick talking about stereotypes and then saying how gang banging made him kill a man blacker than him. This seems to indicate that those in power are not who we thought they were. It is those who are in the culture. Kendrick is not talking about how whites are destroying black culture, but that blacks themselves are destroying each other. They want Kendrick to bend to their will, to see that Kendrick is worthless to the world. A message that would seemingly come from those who it has been ingrained in. Kendrick states in the first verse”You hate me don't you? You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture. You're fuckin' evil I want you to recognize that I'm a proud monkey!”. In the light of the last verse we see Kendrick is distancing himself from black culture and telling them that he is different. That they are destroying themselves. He reiterates this in the second verse with this line “You hate me don't you? I know you hate me just as much as you hate yourself. Jealous of my wisdom and cards I dealt.” this seems to expand upon what Kendrick said in an interview with Billboard “when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within.” This seems to allude to a quote Malcolm X made “ We cannot think of being acceptable to others until we have first proven acceptable to ourselves.” They hate themselves so who would respect them.
“I” the most radio friendly song on the album, which won Kendrick two Grammies. Also has the most upbeat message of the album, and some references to the rest of the album. First I want to state the album version is different from the single, the album version is better because it has an ending message which needs to be heard. I know most people believe that this song contradicts “Blacker The Berry”, however I believe that they work in tandem. Kendrick states in the chorus that he “put the bullet in the back of the back of the head of the bully.” That bully is the same as that in “Blacker the Berry” those that are in black culture. But Kendrick has discovered the self respect that he talks about, he has found a way to love himself and not be influenced by others negative and evil comments. The love he has found is his way out. He states that “he went to war last night” and this war is against culture, not to terminate like stated in “Blacker” but to reform. So that children will be able to learn from his example and why he wanted to reform the culture that is destroying him.
“Mortal Man”finds Kendrick wanting to be compared to civil rights leaders and interviewing 2pac. He also tests fans loyalty by asking if they will still be a fan if his character is assassinated by false charges. Although this is not that important it plays nicely into the culmination of the poem. The poem turns out to be for 2pac, someone Kendrick has looked up to for the majority of his life. Here is the poem in its entirety.
"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
But that didn’t stop survivor’s guilt
Going back and forth trying to convince myself the stripes I earned
Or maybe how A-1 my foundation was
But while my loved ones was fighting the continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one
A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination
Made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned
The word was respect
Just because you wore a different gang color than mine's
Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man
Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets
If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us
But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man, maybe I’m just another nigga”
The poem relates Kendrick and Pac through certain life experiences, it shows Kendrick theorizing about they could have reformed black culture. The interview with Pac is interesting, Kendrick asks him about certain metaphors and how to deal with current situations in Kendrick’s life and the lives of blacks as a whole. In the end Kendrick talks to Pac about something a friend wrote for Kendrick. This is one of the craziest and deepest things on an album that is already deeper than almost all music made today. I don’t want to paste it in here because it will just make this that much longer. However I just want to talk about it a little bit.
The caterpillar is what came before the butterfly it lived in the cocoon that institutionalized it, but it outgrew the cocoon and transformed into the butterfly by gaining new perspective and knowledge. It transformed itself by using all of its talent and ability to become new. Yet it is still that caterpillar just with a different perspective and outlook. So one has to decide whether to stay the caterpillar or become the butterfly.
Kendrick believes that the butterfly can not only change itself but change its surroundings. He poses this to Pac who does not answer, whether the silence is a yes or a no, I believe we will see the answer in the future.
Lastly the artwork, Kendrick is in the middle of a mob of black men along with a few children and women. All of the men are seen holding bottles and money, while Kendrick is holding a child. They are standing in front of the white house as well as standing over a judge who appears to be dead. The child most likely represents the future, I posit this because Kendrick talks on the album about the children and changing the future. The future that I believe this album cover is wanting is one that has less discrimination against blacks and finds more blacks in power in the government and judicial capacities.
To finish this off I just want to say that I love this album and I have gained more appreciation by delving into its content. If you made it this far congratulations to you.
by Addison Garry (@addisonagarry)