To Pimp A Butterfly : A Review
The great thing about music is that it is unrestricted, uncensored, and a free-flowing stream of consciousness with any subject matter that the creator pleases. Artists can display pride, sorrow, happiness, pain, anger, any emotion one can think of in order to display whatever message one pleases.
To Pimp a Butterfly tells the story of a black man trying to maximize his potential in spite of internal and external problems caused by the hostile environment he once grew up in and the environment he is transitioning into. Kendrick Lamar, once an impoverished boy, has now made a substantial amount of money and has escaped from Compton, at least from a physical standpoint. Upon departure, Kendrick realizes that there are two separate roads leaving Compton that run in opposite directions. The first road will lead him to becoming a butterfly. Kendrick says that the butterfly represents “the talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar” (Mortal Man). The second road will lead him to becoming a caterpillar. The caterpillar is described by Kendrick as being a person who is either “a prisoner to the streets that conceived it” or a person that “see[s] the butterfly as weak and figures out a way to pimp it to his own benefits” (Mortal Man). The caterpillars attempt to stunt the growth of the butterfly by trapping it inside a cocoon. Kendrick sees this cocoon as made up of threads relating to his prior environment, inner conflicts and a country that feeds off the exploitation of citizens based on their socioeconomic backgrounds. Kendrick gives an important and needed commentary on the obstacles that prevent him and others from breaking the barriers of the cocoon and blossoming into great individuals, while at the same time trying to encourage the people who might be caterpillars today to see the butterflies in both themselves and everyone around them.
“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.”
Some caterpillars might not be in control of their own nature. The cocoon surrounding the caterpillars might be subconsciously constructed due to the environment they were bred in. Throughout To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick drop tracks related to the materialistic and money hungry nature of the both himself and his friends he grew up with, and really makes the listener ponder whether their nature is conscious or subconscious.
On the fourth song of the album, “Institutionalized”, Kendrick raps in the perspective of his friends from Compton at the BET Awards who are acting up. He says, “F**k am I ‘posed to do when I’m lookin’ at walkin’ licks? The constant big money talk ‘bout the mansion and foreign whips, “ he continues and says, “Remember steal from the rich and givin’ back to the poor? Well, that’s me at these awards.” Kendrick’s friends get into an aggressive mood when they see signs of wealth and money around them. I think one reason for including this part of the song is to tell his friends and people with the same attitude that the idea of stealing from the rich and giving back to the poor is a bit childish and negative. I think this is reiterated in the chorus where it says, “S**t don’t change until you get up and wash yo’ ass.” He portrays that their robinhood like mentality for material gain is holding them back from becoming a butterfly and truly happy and successful. He reiterates his criticism of this same material gain in “How Much A Dollar Cost”. While in South Africa, a poor man comes and asks him for a dollar. Kendrick declines on the basis that no one ever helped him when he was poor and that “every nickel is [his] to keep”. The man responds and says, “I’ll tell you just how much a dollar cost. The price of having a spot in heaven, embrace your loss, I am God.” While I doubt that the man was actually God, the story does a good job displaying that material wealth and greed don't outweigh humility and charity in the truly important moments, which Kendrick probably wasn’t taught in his upbringing.
On a bigger note however, I think Kendrick is suggesting that tendencies such as crime and longing for wealth which cause him and the people around him to build cocoons for themselves are a product of the society we live in rather than the people themselves. I think he is asking the American culture as a whole to reflect on the why so many impoverished people are in a cocoon. A majority of Americans, along with myself, would agree that crime is morally wrong, but how high of a priority is a moral code when survival isn’t a given, and how high should it be? We live in a country founded on free enterprise and capitalism. People strive do do well in school so they can get a good job and build their wealth, because wealth is a form of safety. What happens when a person doesn’t have the means and tools to find a job and is therefore unsafe due to their economic situation? Are they just supposed to sit by and hope for a lucky break, or should they do whatever it takes to ensure security? Does the environment subconsciously wire them to “eat or consume everything around it in order to protect itself from this mad city” (Mortal Man), and if so, can they really be blamed for their mentalities? There aren’t any absolute answers to these questions, but I agree with Kendrick’s message that it is unfair for the majority of the American culture who is above the poverty line, 87.3 percent to be exact (“What is the current poverty rate...”), to come to any sort of conclusion if their answer doesn’t consider the perspective and circumstance of Kendrick and his friends who have been below the poverty line. Those who do come to these absolutes are in danger of being negligent and oblivious to the help that these impoverished people need in order to escape their situation, therefore aiding the construction of the cocoon that will prevent them from expressing themselves, while also feeding into their own caterpillar-like tendencies. Kendrick preaches that perspective is important when considering issues within our culture.
“The Caterpillar Sees the Butterfly as Weak, and Figures Out a Way to Pimp it to His Own Benefit.”
On To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick believes that the American economy is setup to exploit his material gain due to his socioeconomic background. In my favorite verse on the whole album, Kendrick describes how America is encouraging him to spend money when they know that he doesn’t know how to spend it. In “Wesley’s Theory”, Kendrick raps in the perspective of Uncle Sam. Kendrick raps :
“What you want you? A house or a car? Forty acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar? Anything’, see my name is Uncle Sam, I’m your dog... I know your kind (That’s why I’m Kind), don't have receipts (Oh, man, that's fine)... And when you hit the White house, do you, but remember, you aint pass economics in school. And everything you buy taxes will deny. I’ll Wesley Snipe your a** before thirty-five.”
Uncle Sam is encouraging Kendrick to go on a spending spree. He knows that people from Kendrick’s background “don’t have receipts” and “ain’t pass economics in school”, but it's all about the dollar bills. Kendrick uses Uncle Sam to represent the producers of the goods who run America. Kendrick thinks that these producers encourage the people rising out of the lower society to spend all of the money that they attain. Kendrick suggests that due to lack of education in the low-income community, they will most likely get in trouble with the law through taxes and lose all the social and material importance that they have, therefore ensuring that the producers always have the advantage.
While I don’t think that Kendrick is suggesting that every wealthy upper-class person is plotting on the downfall of these figures rising from the lower and middle class, I think it is important to realize the possibility that some of them are. Statistically, most individuals from lower-income homes are immediately at a disadvantage when they acquire large amounts of money due to their lack of education. The average graduation rate in 2014 reached eighty percent for the first time, which is great. What’s not so great is the 15.6 percent difference between poor and non-poor citizens (Cosman). 64.6 percent of poor people graduate from high-school, a requirement for most jobs that ensure economic prosperity. To make it even worse, only 16 percent of low-income students complete college (Musto). Would you trust a high-school graduate to manage your finances? I bet you wouldn’t. How many people have graduated high-school and college, but find other people to help them manage their finances and investments? A good amount. Considering that, I think it is safe to conclude that a majority people that make it out of their low-income environments without schooling, whether it be a rapper, basketball player or a football player are probably at a disadvantage when they accumulate their wealth. I also don’t think it is too out of the ordinary to suggest that there are people high up in the American industry who recognize this disadvantage and exploit or “pimp” the ones who are at the disadvantage, all for their own benefit. Therefore, I think it is important for a citizen from a low-income background such as Kendrick to have the will and confidence to voice out about how they feel taken advantage of, which can help the citizens who aren’t from the background to understand where Kendrick and those like him are coming from.
“He Can No Longer See Past His Own Thoughts. He’s Trapped.”
More than anything, Kendrick sees himself as the issue when it comes to growing into a butterfly. All throughout the first half of the album, he finds himself abusing his power and influence, associating with Lucy, his nickname for Lucifer, and finding himself in states of deep depression that prevent him from functioning.
“I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence. Sometimes, I did the same.” These are the first words of “These Walls”. On the surface, “These Walls” describes Kendrick’s relationship with a woman, but by the end dives deep into the negatives of lust, revenge, seduction, and crime. The first two verses describe Kendrick having intercourse with a woman, and focusing on the lust of the situation instead of the feelings that the woman might have for him. He is utterly fascinated with this interaction that is made possible by his rise to fame and accumulation of wealth. The third verse directly addresses a man in jail. Throughout the verse, we learn that this man is someone who shot and killed Kendrick’s friend when Kendrick says, “Killed my homeboy and God spared your life. Dumb criminal got indicted the same night.” We also learn that the woman from the earlier verses was the girlfriend of the imprisoned man. Kendrick then taunts the man who is now in jail by revealing that he is having relationship with his girlfriend. Kedrick says, “So when you play this song, rewind the first verse, about me abusing my power so you can hurt. About me and her in the shower whenever she horny. About me and her in the after hours of the morning... about the only girl that cared about you when you asked her, and how she fu**ing on a famous rapper.” Revisiting the opening two lines of the song that I mentioned before, the listener can see that even though that Kendrick might have gotten revenge for the murder of his friend, he still feels conflict and guilt for using his talents and status for negativity.
The biggest religious reference in To Pimp a Butterfly is the inclusion of Lucy or Lucifer. In “For Sale (Interlude)”, the listener gets to hear the first time that Lucy introduces herself to Kendrick. From the point of view of Lucy, Kendrick says, “My name is Lucy, Kendrick. You introduced me, Kendrick. Usually, I don’t do this, but I see you and me, Kendrick. Lucy give you no worries... Lucy gon’ fill your pockets, Lucy gon’ move your mama out of Compton.” After more persuasion from Lucy, she finally says, “All your life I watched you, and now you all grown up to sign this contract if that’s possible.” In my opinion, Lucy represents the evil and selfish side of Kendrick trying to convince his compassionate side to give in, to sell his soul in order for selfish and personal gain. In the song “Alright” we see that Kendrick gives in at least a little bit. During the second verse of Alright after Lucy tries to persuade him with material items, Kendrick says, “I can see the evil, I can tell it, I know it's illegal. I don’t think about it, I deposit every other zero.” We can see that Kendrick is willing to turn a blind eye to morally incorrect actions in order to put a couple more dollars in his bank account, and this ends up taking a toll on him when he reflects on “Mortal Man”. In a monologue on this track, Kendrick says, “ I didn’t want to self-destruct. The evils of Lucy was all around me, so I went running for answers.” Obviously, the negligence Kendrick displays in order to “deposit every other zero” is having a major effect on him, almost driving him to self destruct.
“U” is a beautifully sad song. I think Kendrick does a great job displaying the despair he is feeling through the events of this song. “U” shows Kendrick talking to himself angrily after slipping into a state of deep depression and anguish. He starts the song repeating that “Loving you [himself] is complicated.” He then starts a flurry of self-deprecating remarks, telling himself that “you ain’t s**t” multiple times. He then asks what he can blame himself for, then starts naming multiple events where he sees himself at fault. In the first verse of “U”, Kendrick starts with his little sister, who got pregnant when he was away chasing fame. Kendrick says, “Situation, I'll start’ with your little sister bakin’. A baby inside, just a teenager, where your patience? Where was your antennas? Where was the influence you speak of. You preached in front of 100,000 but never reached her.” Kendrick is obviously upset that he has not been able to prevent his teenage sister from getting pregnant.. He exclaims that he is a “failure” and that he “ain’t no leader.” He believes that if he can’t influence the people closest to him, then he isn’t a leader, even if he has “preached in front of 100,000”. Throughout the rest of the song, Kendrick blames himself for his relationships with his family, claiming that he’s lying to himself when he says that he loves them, and also falling out with the friends he grew up with. In the final line Kendrick exclaims, “And if I told your secrets, the world’ll know money can’t stop a suicidal weakness.” In the most important line in the song in my opinion, Kendrick claims that depression and wealth are not mutually exclusive. He tries to explain that no matter how rich he or someone else may be, they can still be susceptible to depression.
The big idea from Kendrick is that if one can’t see past his own flaws, they will be the biggest reason for their imprisonment within the cocoon. I think this idea is very important in our society and culture that is very oriented towards material success, which many believe is the key to happiness and contentment. Kendrick is taking this idea and dispelling it, explaining that if one abuses their power for selfish purposes, abandons their moral compass for material gain, or runs from the people they are supposed to protect, they will never find the enlightenment, trapping themself in a stasis of being a caterpillar and never reaching their full potential.
“When Trapped Inside These Walls, Certain Ideas Take Root, 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.”
While the first half of the albums focuses more on the flaws of Kendrick which sees him failing to transform from a caterpillar, the second half of the album sees Kendrick trying to find his way to becoming a butterfly.
It starts when Kendrick goes back home to Compton in “Momma”. Kendrick starts the second verse by saying, “I know everything.” He then proceeds to to list of all the knowledge he has obtained from his years of living. At the end of the verse, Kendrick flips the script and says, “I know what I know and I know it well not to ever forget, until I realized I didn’t know shit. The day I came home.” Kendrick suggests that coming home has humbled him. He realizes that all of these things that got him to fame are pointless if he doesn’t know truly understand and appreciate where he comes from. In the third and final verse of “Momma”, Kendrick meets a little boy from Compton. After recognizing Kendrick for being famous he starts to lecture Kendrick. He emphasizes the point that Kendrick doesn’t really know anything. He says, “Make a new list of everything you thought was progress and that was bulls**t.” He then tries to convince Kendrick to connect with where he is from. He says, “But if you pick destiny over rest in peace, then be an advocate. Tell your homies especially to come back home.” The boy is telling him that if he wishes to chase his dreams (destiny) over staying in Compton (rest in peace), that he needs to use the success he gets from his dreams to ensure positive change in Compton and transform it to a place that isn’t a synonym for rest in peace. Kendrick also needs to tell the people that made it out from the circumstances that Kendrick was in to do the same to the community they were from. This song preaches empathy and compassion, two of the most important qualities in life. At the end of the day, no matter who you are, you need to give back, and with Kendrick, it happens to be giving back to the community that he comes from. Sure, using your resources to buy a big house and a couple nice cars is nice, but that isn’t what people are going to remember you for in the end. In the end, you are remembered for the positive impact that you leave on the world, and given that our nation is set up to let the individual get as much money as they are possibly able to, Kendrick reminds us that it is important to use that money on the things that really matter.
While I’ve mentioned “U”, a song that dives deep into self-hate and self-detriment, “i” is a song of perseverance, a song that preaches that if you love yourself, then you can learn to love the world around you, no matter how bad the worldmight be at some points. The verses and the chorus juxtapose themselves a little bit. The verses illustrate the bad that goes on around him. In the first verse he talks about how Compton is violent and infiltrated by drugs. While the second verse starts off with a little bit of positivity with Kendrick saying, “Lift up your head and keep moving,” it goes south saying that “everybody lacks confidence” and that the American cities and America in general promise jobs and hope, but for him personally growing up it provided poverty and violence. The third verse dives into Kendrick’s own personal depression. He says, “I've been dealing with depression ever since an adolescent... I could never take the lead, I could never bob and weave. From a negative and letting them annihilate me.” Through these three verses, he paints a pretty grim and somber picture. Between each verse however, he has a chorus that repeats, “I love myself.” No matter what variables went on and are still going on in his community and within himself, the one constant that he has come to realize is that he loves himself, which everyone should come to realize. If one don’t love themself, they will never be able to have love for the people around them, and they will never be able to grow as a person, which will leave them feeling stagnant, fueling the fire that self-hate needs to burn strong.
By the end of “U” and the beginning of “Mortal Man”, it seems as if Kendrick has come full circle to where he was at the beginning of the album. He has spread his wings that were once bound, and is ready to become a leader for people everywhere. Through this song, Kendrick makes many references to Nelson Mandela, even saying, “Want you to love me like Nelson.” Through his songs, he wants to be the leader than Nelson Mandela was in South Africa, which is made evident when he says,“The ghost of Mandela, hope my flows they propel it.” More than saying that he wants to be a leader for the people through his musical ability, Kendrick is really asking the people if they are ready and if they believe in Kendrick to be a leader, while simultaneously asking if the listeners themselves are ready to be leaders for their own causes. He displays these two ideas through many lines in the song. In the chorus, he repeats, “If s**t hit the fan, is you still a fan.” He later directs his attention towards the audience and asks, “Is your smile on permanent? Is your vow on lifetime? Would you know where the sermon is, if I died in this next line?” He wants whoever is willing to follow him to be loyal to him forever and trust where he is leading them, no matter the circumstances. Kendrick then addresses the audience and questions their forgiveness and integrity. Kendrick says, “How tough is your skin when they turn you in? Do you show forgiveness? What brush do you bend when dusting your shoulders from being offended?” “Mortal Man” is the most important song on To Pimp a Butterfly in my opinion. The songs before are telling the audience about his journey to becoming a butterfly, but “Mortal Man” is asking America if they are ready to become butterflies too. He gives a task to everyone. Kendrick is telling everyone and incredibly important message. Everyone needs to strive to be a leader, because simply being a bystander is not enough. Stand for something, or fall for anything, Kendrick is screaming from the rooftops, and I agree wholeheartedly.
To conclude, To Pimp A Butterfly is the story of perseverance through struggle. The story of inner peace through inner turmoil. More than just the story of a metamorphosis however, To Pimp A Butterfly is a call to arms, which makes it so culturally important. While To Pimp A Butterfly does do an excellent job in pointing out the flaws in our culture which include greed, inequality, exploitation, ignorance, and negligence, the album is so much more than that. The album doesn’t simply show us these flaws just for awareness, but it dares us as a culture and a society to do something about these flaws. It dares and encourages anyone and everyone to break out of their cocoon and become a butterfly.