After his 2012 release of “Good Kid Maad City”, to say I was skeptical of Kendrick Lamar’s new album would be an understatement. GKMC was my personal favorite hip-hop album to that point, which says a lot. The album produced hit after hit, while still managing to tell the story of a young boy growing up in the slums of Compton, California and the things he encountered through everyday life. Not only was I skeptical that Kendrick’s next album would be as good or better than his last, but I was skeptical that anyone ever would make a hip-hop album that good again. But I was wrong. Although TPAB turned out to be a classic, it didn’t click for me right away.
My first time listening to Kendrick’s new album “To Pimp a Butterfly”, I was simply confused. The record didn’t produce a single song that I’d recommend to a friend to show how great the album was. No song sounded anything like his last album. I didn’t think any of the beats were really that cool, and the fact that a good portion of the songs were accompanied by jazz instruments just felt wrong.
It wasn’t until I was able to sit down and listen, and pay attention, that I was able to really enjoy the album. And even then I wasn’t satisfied. It took nearly ten times listening from track one to the sixteenth and final track for me to honestly say that I understood the concepts and storyline, and that I truly loved this album. It grew on me with each listen more and more, until my brain landed on the conclusion that this album was not only amazing, but was even better than his last, which I originally thought would be impossible.
Once listened to carefully, the album plays out almost as a novel, or a motion picture with just audio. So many ideas and issues are represented and discussed throughout the album that it becomes slightly overwhelming at first listen. Once I listened enough to get used to the new style Kendrick presents in TPAB, I truly recognized that it will be an album that goes down in history. Kendrick’s storytelling abilities infused in his rap music are pure genius, as presented first on “Good Kid Maad City”.
Kendrick says Tupac visited him in a dream as a kid, and said “don’t let my music die.” (Photo courtesy of randomrocker.co)
Although each song in the album represents a new concept, the bigger picture of the album is revealed on the final track “Mortal Man”. After an “interview” (real interview conducted in 1994) the 12-minute song ends with Kendrick reading a poem, titled “To Pimp a Butterfly.” After listening to this poem, going back and listening to the album over again reveals many things not caught by the first, or even fourth or fifth, listen.
The poem, assumingly titled “To Pimp a Butterfly,” was “something a good friend [of Kendrick’s] wrote.”
“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 notices ways to survive. One thing it notices is how much the world shuns him and praises the butterfly. The butterfly represents the talent, thoughtfulness and 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 its 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. 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. Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations that the caterpillar never considered, ending the eternal struggle. Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one in the same.”
As explained on Vice.com, the first three tracks represent Kendrick as the caterpillar. On “Wesley’s Theory”, Kendrick describes the time in his life where he is just beginning to become famous. Although his success is growing, he isn’t as a man. His environment is holding him back, or imprisoning him. “He’s a prisoner of the streets, a caterpillar who consumes the product of his environment,” (Vice). In the second verse, Kendrick takes on the role of Uncle Sam, speaking to Kendrick. Uncle Sam represents capitalist America. He tempts Kendrick to buy material objects, causing him to gain debt so he can be taxed and contribute to the capitalist system that controls so many naive entertainers.
The next track, “For Free? Interlude,” reveals Kendrick using his rhymes in a different way than rapping. Kendrick recites more of a slam poetry piece, using the perception that black, American men are only successful in sports, or in rap music, and that Kendrick owes them something.
The third track “King Kunta” takes listeners through Kendrick discussing how when he wasn’t famous nobody was really there for his support and had his back, but now that he is more of a “King” of the rap game, everyone either wants to be with him or cut him down from his King-like status in the rap game. The name King Kunta comes from an African American slave in the 1800s named King Kinte, whose feet were cut off to prevent escape. “Kunta” also describes how in his first two years of fame, each and every day, Lamar wants to run back to the ghetto in which he grew up, visit his enemies from the hood, and basically say “look at me now”.
The next five songs show Kendrick in the cocoon stage. In the track “These Walls,” the four corners of the cocoon close in on Kendrick (as explained on Wesley’s Theory), essentially trapping him inside his mind, causing him to question tons of things he’s done throughout his life.
By far, the sixth track, titled “u” is the one where Kendrick pours out his emotions the most. It takes us through a scene of Kendrick in a hotel room, contemplating suicide, along with lots of things that he’s done wrong in his life. Kendrick is literally sobbing while reciting the lyrics by the end of the song, freezing his audience to really sit and listen. The emotion in his voice is strong enough to really stick with you. His mere sobbing is emotional enough to probably make you start crying yourself. “U” is followed by “Alright” which takes us to the morning after the hotel incident, where Kendrick is feeling quite the opposite as the night before. Kendrick feels uplifted, and knows that “if God got us than we gonna be alright”, but runs into Lucifer aka Lucy on the next track “For sale? Interlude”, where the devil is once again tempting Kendrick.
On the next three tracks, Kendrick describes his return home, to Compton, while still trapped in the cocoon. Although he thought he’s learned a lot, he realizes that he hasn’t learned much at all on “Momma”. Kendrick addresses that he no longer cares about the rap politics on “Hood Politics”, when his friends are being shot in the street.
Kendrick showcases his incredible storytelling abilities on “How much a dollar cost”. The track opens with Kendrick asking, how much does a dollar really cost?
He begins to tell a story of him pulling up to a gas pump in his luxury car, when a homeless man asks him for ten rand (South African equivalent to about one American dollar). We now know that Kendrick is in South Africa at the time. Although this contradicts that Kendrick is returning to his home in Compton on this track, he may even be suggesting that Africa is his home as well.
After the beggar asks Kendrick for the dollar, he assumes the man will use the money for drugs, so he tells him to beat it, and gets in his car. The homeless man stares at Kendrick blankly. When Kendrick is about to leave, he stays, wondering why this man would stare at him this way, wondering why he was “mad at a stranger like I was supposed to save him, like I’m the reason he’s homeless and asking me for a favor.” Kendrick feels disrespect and anger towards the man, not understanding why anyone would ever take a handout in life like this man.
Kendrick admits that selfishness is what got him famous today, but explains to the man that every penny he’s earned is his, and that he needs it himself. The homeless man goes on to explain that he is really God in disguise, and that this incident has cost Kendrick a spot in heaven.
After showcasing his storytelling abilities, Kendrick begins to “break out of the cocoon” with “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” “The Blacker the Berry,” (two tracks dealing with race today) and “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said).” Breaking out of this institutionalized state inside of his cocoon, Kendrick doesn’t hold back anymore, and begins to spread ideas to those around him, with two powerful tracks dealing with race. On “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said),” Kendrick feels that now he’s famous, those around him are lying to act cool enough to hang with him, but he doesn’t want them to do this. Instead, he wants everyone to be themselves, and show him the real person inside.
(Photo curtosey of pitchfork.com)
The second-to-last track titled “i”, was released months before the album. Although the single version gained instant success for its positive message and uplifting rhythm, Kendrick decided to change it a bit for the album. Instead of the single version, the album version is supposed to be Kendrick performing the song live, which really helps the listener feel his upbeat and lighthearted emotions.
“Mortal Man” is the last track of the album, and basically the conclusion. The cocoon has been broken, and Kendrick is free as a butterfly is. Kendrick tells what he’s learned on this journey throughout this track. Kendrick repeats the idea that Nelson Mandela’s legacy is what “keeps his flows stay propelling”. Kendrick questions each and every one of his fans, friends and family, by repeating, “when shit hits the fan, is you still a fan?”, which represents loyalty, a big theme throughout the album. Kendrick describes some events that could possibly happen to him. Being tried in a court of law, cops planting coke in his car, etc. He asks if any of these things happened, would you still be a fan and stick with him, or would you not be?
Before reading the poem, marking the end of the album, Kendrick “interviews” the late Tupac Shakur about different themes discussed throughout TPAB. One thing Tupac discusses is how blacks are going to start protesting more and more, until violence and bloodshed occurs in these riots. The interview, taped in 1994, practically predicted the racial protesting that occurred in Ferguson, MO., after the Mike Brown case.
Overall, TPAB is an album that’ll stay on repeat on my phone for some time. Kendrick declines to talk about the album much in interviews, because he wants people to interpret it themselves. You can tell by the style of the music on this album that rather than blasting this music with your friends like his previous album, he really wanted you to listen what he has to say. And what he has to say is something I want everybody to hear, and to understand. I highly recommend “To Pimp A Butterfly” to not only fans of hip hop music, but to fans of all kinds of music. And remember, if you’re listening to it and don’t seem to understand it, give it some time. It grew on me 100 percent, and I hope it’ll do the same for you.