Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” Review

Kendrick Lamar returns for his sophomore studio album

To+Pimp+a+Butterfly+Artwork

To Pimp a Butterfly Artwork

Cristian Espinoza '16, Miles Littleton '16, and Ethan Phipps '16

Making his return from a two-year absence, Kendrick Lamar finally released his long-awaited project “To Pimp a Butterfly” on March 6. The album is unlike any other project he’s released before; the jazzy instrumentals are reminiscent of a soulful album from the 70s, which contrasts his usual gritty rap vibes. Not only is the music sonically unique, but the album features various underlying messages of black empowerment, societal hypocrisy, temptations he faces a successful artist, among many others.

Wesley’s Theory (feat. George Clinton & Thundercat)

Kendrick starts the album off with the P-Funk inspired “Wesley’s Theory”, centering around the often fantasized dream of making it out of the hood and blowing money on material items. It sets off the idea of “pimping a butterfly”, with the butterfly in this case being a black entertainer and the pimp being the character of Uncle Sam.

Ethan’s Rating: 10/10

Cristian’s Rating: 9/10

Miles’s Rating: 9/10

 For Free (Interlude)

The free jazz track “For Free?” features the same black entertainer character from the previous track, but with a newfound sense of self-respect. Kendrick’s fast-paced flow resembles scatting when he spits “This d**k ain’t free” throughout the track. He recognizes America’s history of pimping blacks and now wants reparations. He raps: “America, you bad b***h, I picked cotton and made you rich, now my d**k ain’t free”.

Ethan’s Rating: 9.5/10

Cristian’s Rating:8.5/10

Miles’s Rating: 9/10

 King Kunta

In the third track “King Kunta”, Kendrick starts off with a rant, addressing all of the other rappers that have been “sitting in [his] throne”. Kendrick angrily states that he’s back from his two-year hiatus and he’s here to be the king of the new school rap industry once again. In the hook, he compares himself to Kunta Kinte (of the movie “Roots”). Similar to Kunta, Kendrick feels that he is being chained and paralyzed by rappers in the industry, resulting from his time in the spotlight. He goes on to address the prevalence of drugs in the world, referring to “yams” as code for evil forces in the world. Additionally, he argues how freely the drug trades are carried out in the streets- often protected by the powerful hands that are there to stop them.

Ethan’s Rating: 10/10

Cristian’s Rating:10/10

Miles’s Rating: 10/10

 Institutionalized (feat. Bilal, Anna Wise & Snoop Dogg)

In the fourth track, “Institutionalized”, Kendrick speaks on his upbringing, and how that mindset he developed as a child transcended into his life as an adult with newfound fame. Snoop Dogg, who is featured on this track explicitly states that “You can take the boy out the hood but you can’t take the hood out the homie”. Kendrick gets across the point that living in poverty can “institutionalize” youth, leaving their minds imprisoned to the same stagnant frame of mind. That mindset of doing whatever it takes to survive – whether it be lying, cheating, robbing, or killing.

Ethan’s Rating: 10/10

Cristian’s Rating: 10/10

Miles’s Rating: 10/10

 These Walls (feat. Bilal, Anna Wise & Thundercat)

“These Walls”, features a complex metaphor, implicitly comparing literal walls to the walls of a woman’s vagina. Kendrick uses this basis to explore the contrasts of sex, emotions, abuse, his career, and the human psyche. But deeper than just sex and lust, he analyzes the idea that vaginal walls need someone to live in them, saying, “Your flood can be misunderstood, walls telling me that they’re full of pain, resentment, need someone to live in them just to relieve tension”. He suggests that a woman longs for a commitment and love as opposed to the sensuality she is accustomed to. Kendrick then juxtaposes the concept of vaginal walls with the prison walls of the man that killed his childhood friend and the baby daddy of the woman that Kendrick mentions earlier in the song.

Ethan’s Rating: 10/10

Cristian’s Rating: 10/10

Miles’s Rating: 10/10

 u

“u” presents Kendrick in his most vulnerable state, one that we as listeners have never seen him. The track places the listener in Kendrick’s mind as he drunkenly contemplates suicide in a hotel room. He screams at himself into a mirror “Loving you is complicated”, a sentiment that many can relate to. Throughout the song, Kendrick sounds like he’s barely getting his words out – he raps through what sounds like a teary-eyed mental breakdown; not only can you hear him fighting through tears, but you can even hear the clinking of beer bottles along with him taking a swig in the middle of the song. The dark, brooding atmosphere of the song forces the listener to hear his pain and re-examine the glitz and glamour that everyone thinks fame brings. The song touches on how Kendrick feels he let his family and friends down. He brings up how he has so much influence around the world, but couldn’t seem to reach his little sister who became a teenage mom despite his efforts. Kendrick also touches on how fame caused him to miss the passing of his dear friend, who he should have been watching over. All of these issues drove him to the edge of insanity, and that insanity was expressed beautifully.

Ethan’s Rating: 10/10

Cristian’s Rating:9.5/10

Miles’s Rating: 9/10

 Alright

After leaving off on the introspective, sorrowful note of the previous song, Kendrick shifts the energy completely in the light-hearted and upbeat seventh track, “Alright”. He begins by saying, “All my life I had to fight nigga, hard times like “God!”, bad trips like “yeah!”, Nazareth, I’m f*cked up, homie you f****d up, but if God got us then we gon’ be alright”. Through the hardships of living in drug and gang infested neighborhoods Kendrick is able to see the good and attempts to spread and uplifting and positive message. He further explores the temptations of the devil, using the name “Lucy” as a metaphor for Lucifer. From this concept he addresses the consumer culture present in hip-hop culture and our money addicted society.

Ethan’s Rating: 10/10

Cristian’s Rating:10/10

Miles’s Rating: 10/10

 For Sale? (Interlude)

In “For Sale?”, Kendrick alludes to Lucifer (Satan) when mentioning “Lucy” in multiple lines. In his allusions to Lucifer, Kendrick points out the negative aspects of a hip hop career. He emphasizes how many artists “sell their souls” to the devil for record production but adds a small twist. In the song, Kendrick raps as Lucifer and said, “Usually I don’t do this, but I see you and me Kendrick.” This line talks about how there are temptations within the rap industry and how Lucifer is attempting to seduce Kenrick. Though it’s usually the person that goes to sell their soul to the devil, Lucifer is the one trying to get the Kendrick Lamar to side with him/her. Kendrick continues rapping as Lucifer throughout the rest of the track and lists the many things Lucifer would “provide” if Kendrick fell to the temptation.

Ethan’s Rating: 10/10

Cristian’s Rating:10/10

Miles’s Rating: 10/10

 Momma

In “Momma”, Kendrick focuses on the idea of “going home”. This aforementioned home relates not only to his abode in Compton with his mother, but also heaven and the motherland of Africa (which is why he titled the track ‘Momma’). Kendrick coming home represents his growth as a person. In the previous track, Lucy persuades Kendrick to participate in the evil that (s)he unleashes onto the world –  ‘Momma’ is Kendrick’s refusal to do so. He contemplates how although his fame and newfound popularity drove him away from home, it was also the reason why he came back. After seeing what Lucy had to offer, he was not enticed. The vices of money, women, and fame seemed fabulous but only served as a detriment to his spiritual, mental, and even physical health. He spits, “Thank God for rap, I would say it got me a plaque, but what’s better than that? The fact it brought me back home”. By coming home, Kendrick was able to reflect on the knowledge he had gained (“morality, spirituality, street s**t”, etc), but also come to the realization that through his wiseness, he still knows nothing.

Ethan’s Rating: 10/10

Cristian’s Rating:10/10

Miles’s Rating: 10/10

 Hood Politics

In the tenth track “Hood Politics”, Kendrick juxtaposes the politics of federal government and the politics of the social hierarchy in his Compton neighborhood. He feels that there are bigger things to worry about than rap beef because people are dying too young due to gang violence. He further adds that government officials put a negative spin on street gangs and even do the same things, but on a larger level. Not only does the government divide people, but often times they distribute guns and drugs into impoverished neighborhoods. Ultimately Kendrick argues that political gangs do the same things that street gangs do, only they can affect every American, as opposed to the few impoverished people in one neighborhood. He even makes a witty comparison of the two when he says, “From Compton to Congress, set trippin’ all around, ain’t nothin’ new but a new flu of DemoCrips and ReBloodicans, red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’?” Much like the tenacity of the Crips and Bloods in Compton, the Democrats and Republicans can live behind a trail of destruction in their wake.

Ethan’s Rating: 10/10

Cristian’s Rating: 10/10

Miles’s Rating: 10/10

 How Much a Dollar Cost? (feat. James Fauntleroy & Ronald Isley)

In “How Much a Dollar Cost?”, Kendrick tells a story that involves an interaction between him and a homeless man in a gas station. During the dialogue between the homeless man and Kendrick, the homeless man asks Kendrick for a dollar. This leads into the philosophical question of how much a dollar really costs. Kendrick goes through the intricacies of what money means in a society where it means everything. Having money or there being a lack of money can be the difference between life and death. The homeless man introduces a dialogue on empathy, greed, and worth. Though Kendrick’s initial thought on on the homeless man was that he was a crackhead, Kendrick felt resentment and gave man the dollar. The homeless man turns out to be an image of God and the request of a dollar was a test for Kendrick to see if he cares about the poor. At the end of the song, Kendrick is asking God for forgiveness and asks God what more can he do other than prayer.

Ethan’s Rating: 9/10

Cristian’s Rating: 8.5/10

Miles’s Rating: 8/10

 Complexion (A Zulu Love) (feat. Rapsody)

Following up the last track is “Complexion (A Zulu Love)”. Kendrick educates society on beauty standards, more specifically colorism in the black community. In the hook he states that “Complexion don’t mean a thing”, meaning that people should show love to everyone around them regardless of the skin color. He also alludes to slavery in the U.S. and how complexion often dictated the roles of blacks in the social hierarchy during that time. “House negroes” were usually female and had lighter skin, while “field negroes” were of a darker complexion, but Kendrick wants to destroy this idea of separation, which is imminent in his lyrics. He says, “I’mma say something that’s vital and critical for survival of mankind, if he lyin’ color should never rival, beauty is what you make it, I used to be so mistaken by different shades of faces”.

Ethan’s Rating: 10/10

Cristian’s Rating: 10/10

Miles’s Rating: 9.5/10

 The Blacker the Berry

Right after the last track comes the dark, hard hitting “The Blacker the Berry”. His aggressive and fiery lyrics verbalize his pent up anger concerning the current welfare of the black community, and even seem to address the events that transpired in Ferguson, Missouri. Kendrick addresses the listeners and calls on them to question their own beliefs towards both him and black culture. He even turns normally insulting words like “monkey”, into a form of empowerment. He says, “You’re f**king evil, I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey, you vandalize my perception but can’t take style [away] from me”. In the last line he not only recognizes the vicious insult received by blacks, but he also sheds light on the hypocrisy of those who appropriate black culture.

Ethan’s Rating: 9/10

Cristian’s Rating: 8.5/10

Miles’s Rating: 9/10

You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)

In “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” Kendrick begins the first verse rapping from his mother’s perspective, over a groovy, old-school beat. He acknowledges that in returning to his old Compton neighborhood, it’s more difficult for him acclimate back to his old ways, before he was rewarded with money and fame. In the bridge of the song Kendrick says, “Askin’ ‘where the hoes at?’ to impress me, askin’ “where the moneybags?’ to impress me, say you got the burner stash to impress me, it’s all in your head homie”. He conveys the idea that upon his return to Compton, he tries not to portray the behavior of the stereotypical mainstream hip-hop artists. Ultimately he promotes staying true to yourself and not conforming to a fad or movement just to fit in with everyone else.

Ethan’s Rating: 10/10

Cristian’s Rating: 9.5/10

Miles’ Rating: 10/10

 i

“i” features Kendrick in a completely different mental state than the one he displays in “u”. Taking the more upbeat approach, this song sounds like it’s a live version performed in front of an audience. The live instrumentation featuring rhythmic drums and a catchy guitar riff lightens the mood. Throughout the song, Kendrick states that although there is chaos erupting in the world and a constant battle taking place in his mind, “[he] loves [himself]”. This is a feeling that he emphasises towards the end of the album rather than the beginning. This shows his mental progression as well as his maturity after the events taking place on the album. “i” gives off the positive vibe for the youth with the important message that they should love themselves. There is also a short spoken-word piece at the latter end of the song. Kendrick attempts to uplift black youth by giving them the origin of the word “nigga”, which happens to be “negus”. He tells his audience that they are all a negus, or an African king/ruler.

Ethan’s Rating: 10/10

Cristian’s Rating: 10/10

Miles’s Rating: 10/10

Mortal Man

In the concluding 12-minute epic of a track, “Mortal Man”, Kendrick recaps all of the lessons he’s learned through the metaphor of “pimping a butterfly”. The song portion of the track centers around the question Kendrick proposes: “When s**t hit the fan, is you still a fan?”. He uses this question to branch off onto topics such as being a leader, loyalty, and uncertainty. He questions his mortality through these topics, wondering if even he could fall victim to the same evils that tripped up his heroes. Kendrick compares himself to fellow movement leaders like Nelson Mandela, Moses, Huey Newton, Malcolm X, and even Michael Jackson. He pushes a message of empowerment the same way that they did, and he doesn’t want to be abandoned by his fans/followers the way they were when the proverbial “s**t hit the fan”. When the song ends, it transitions into a fictional interview between Kendrick and his idol, the deceased Tupac Shakur. This conversation covered vital issues such as the struggle of fame, oppression, and the future of blacks in America. Towards the end of the interview, Kendrick asks Tupac one last thing – his perspective on this poem:

“The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it

Its only job is to eat or consume everything around it, in order to protect itself from this mad city

While consuming its environment the caterpillar begins to notice ways to survive

One thing it noticed is how much the world shuns him, but praises the butterfly

The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar

But having a harsh outlook on life the caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak and figures out a way to pimp it to his own benefits

Already surrounded by this mad city the caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon which institutionalizes him

He can no longer see past his own thoughts

He’s trapped

When trapped inside these walls certain ideas take roots, such as going home, and bringing back new concepts to this mad city

The result?

Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant

Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations that the caterpillar never considered, ending the internal struggle

Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same.”

Kendrick ends up repeatedly asking for Tupac to respond, only to find that he is no longer there. This leaves the poem up to interpretation for the listener to decide its meaning.

Ethan’s Rating: 10/10

Cristian’s Rating: 10/10

Miles’s Rating: 9/10

 

By discovering his rap abilities in the midst of a gang infested and poverty ridden neighborhood, Kendrick Lamar was able to escape a perpetual life of hardships and preach his story to the masses. He was able to do so in such a creatively artistic way which led to the conception of a musically and socially powerful album. Kendrick’s rap methodology and talent could potentially pave the way for his name to be among the greatest hip-hop artists of all time, along with the likes of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. Because of the social commentary that is prevalent throughout the album, Kendrick will probably serve as the spark to the roaring fire of the new-age black empowerment movement. To Pimp a Butterfly is unapologetically black, sacrificing nothing to soften the message behind his songs. This album tells the world that blacks are here to stay, and that when it comes to equality, they won’t take no for an answer.

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)
(AP Photo/John Minchillo)