To Pimp A Butterfly - Why This Album is a Classic - Part Two
Updated: Jul 30
This album is Kendrick Lamar at his best, unleashing his emotions on to an incredibly beautiful canvas.
'To Pimp A Butterfly' has to be considered one of the greatest albums of all time, and it's not even up for debate. This album is something that hip-hop had never seen before, combining inspiring live jazz in the background with Kendrick Lamar opening his mind to the world, is something which is truly mesmerising. The album's concept explores themes of self-love and hate, fame, depression, violence, race, and politics through a spoken-word poem that interweaves between songs, leading up to the climax of 'Mortal Man'
His album 'good kid, m.A.A.d city' was released in 2012, three years before this album was released, to widespread critical acclaim. That album was about what it was like growing up in Compton, and Kendrick rapping to us about what it was like being a good kid, living inside of a mad city. GKMC was damn near perfect as it was, and after hearing it, would probably leave you asking yourself: "How could it get better from here?" Creating an album better than that one seemed like an impossible task, but never doubt Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick describes the album as “honest, fearful and unapologetic”, something which rings entirely true throughout the 16 track record. It's easy to tell that everything on this record was executed perfectly with precision, even down to the album title. The word 'pimp' has negative connotations and sounds so aggressive, which could represent Kendrick's emotions throughout the record. Furthermore, the word 'butterfly' has positive connotations, being something that is beautiful, which is what this entire record is.
Track One: 'Wesley's Theory'
The album kicks off with the song 'Wesley's Theory', sampling Boris Gardiner’s manifesto of black pride 'Every N***er is a Star'. The song attempts to remove the negative connotations of the word n***er, and replace it with something more positive and uplifting. Josef Leimberg makes an appearance with his speech at the start of the record: George Clinton also makes an appearance on the track, an artist who has been inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame. The chorus goes: At first, I did love you, But now I just wanna f**k, Late night thinkin' of you, Until I got my nut". This could be a metaphor made by Kendrick, perhaps referring his hometown of Compton. I read a brilliant comment on it somewhere, reading: "Could it also be the woman as a metaphor for his love for his hood back home, Compton? After all, his first girlfriend was Sherane, as described in GKMC. With increasing fame and more of a message, he goes for greatness but has to sacrifice his ties to home in the process. The isolation and inability to be there for the tragedies of his family/friends nearly caused him to commit suicide, and now he’s pursuing to be the best rapper ever to compensate." The song has Dr Dre calling Kendrick on the phone towards the end, talking about how it is easy to become famous and successful, but the real challenge is being able to stay at that level after you have achieved it.
Track Two: 'For Free?' (Interlude)
This is a track that was produced by Terrace Martin. The track is about a relationship Kendrick has with a girl, which in a way reflects the way that America has treated black people in the past, by trying to destroy their self esteem and diminish their character. The woman at the beginning goes on a rant about how she needs a man who is a 'baller' and won't be satisfied unless Kendrick is making tonnes of money. It kind of plays with the perception that black people can only make it in America if they are a sports star or music artist. An annotation on Genius also summed this up well, reading: 'She was only interested in his potential for money and fame, so she’s content to find the next man who’s willing to put aside his integrity for superficial objects. This is how America expects Kendrick to “make it” as a black man.' Kendrick then goes on a rant himself, sounding like a fast-rap version of poetry. Throughout it, Kendrick stands up for the man in the relationship, ranting about how "this d**k ain't free". Uncle Sam is also referenced throughout, and at the end the woman says: "I'm gonna get my Uncle Sam to f**k you up"(Uncle Sam is a common national personification of the American government or the United States in general that, according to legend, came into use during the War of 1812).
Track Three: 'King Kunta'
This is Kendrick expressing his frustration with some of the people he has known. With production from Sounwave and Terrace Martin, King Kunta is one of the more popular tracks on the record. Kendrick references Michael Jackson's 'Smooth Criminal' with the line "Life ain’t shit but a fat vagina/Screaming ‘Annie, are you OK?'”, and Parliament with the recurring ad-lib of the track "We want the funk!" Kendrick's mad at the people who didn't support him in his journey to fame, but now he's got it, they want to be his best friend. He says "Bitch where you when I was walkin'? Now I run the game got the whole world talkin', King Kunta Everybody wanna cut the legs off him, Kunta". He shows that he isn't fooled by what they want to do to him, he thinks that they just want to cut his legs off, to keep him from running away with the rap game.
Track Four: 'Institutionalized'
Produced by Rahki and Tommy Black and featuring Snoop Dogg, 'Institutionalized' is a song which is a binary opposition to 'King Kunta'. This song covers how people become brainwashed about the dream of getting rich, and the realisation that the murky past of Compton is still prominent inside of Kendrick's psyche. Kendrick is saying that whether you are rich or poor, everyone is institutionalized, and no matter who you are, you are a loser in the game, but your perspective is the only answer. Snoop Dogg describes Kendrick as the new leader of the West, which sets up Kendrick's final verse. Although Kendrick is now a superstar and no longer in Compton, this song shows how his heart still, and always will lie there, with the lines: "What money got to do with it, When I don't know the full definition of a rap image? I'm trapped inside the ghetto and I ain't proud to admit it, Institutionalized, I keep runnin' back for a visit." and "You can take your boy out the hood but you can't take the hood out the homie."
Track Five: 'These Walls'
This track features singers Bilal and Anna Wise, who are also both featured in 'Institutionalized', with production from Sounwave, Terrace Martin and Larrance Dopson. At the beginning of the song, the line "If these walls could talk' is repeated, with the line getting louder and louder, just as the intensity in sex increases before reaching the climax. When the woman says "sex" it symbolises reaching the climax. "If these walls could talk" is a phrase mainly used to describe the walls of a room where secrets are kept. 'These Walls' are usedr for multiple things in the song such as prison walls, but is mainly a metaphor for the walls of a vagina. The woman in the song could be the baby mother of the man who killed Kendrick's friend in "Sing About Me, I'm Dying Of Thirst', a reference that he makes in the third verse. The woman in the song is horny and wants to have sex with her imprisoned lover, but she hates the fact that he is still trying to control the relationship whilst in jail. The line "Shoutout to the birthday girls" could suggest that she is at a party, ready to hook up with someone. I could go on about this song all day, but I don't want this to be too long, maybe I'll write an article exclusively on the song one day.
Track Six: 'u'
This is hands down my favourite track on the record. I have never heard someone explain their emotions on a song better than Kendrick does here, whilst he is having an argument with himself. This song is the complete opposite to 'i', which is a more joyful record about self love, with this being about self hate. The second half of the song strikes a chord like no other, with a drunken Kendrick arguing to himself in a bathroom mirror. Kendrick has admitted to battling depression and suicidal thoughts with fame, with having so many people look up to him. He also shows how he has been suffering with survivors guilt after leaving Compton on this track. The poem in the album (I'll get into it later) is inspired by this track. In the poem, Kendrick writes about how he 'found himself screaming in the hotel room', which is exactly what is happening in this track. Survivors guilt is a big theme in this record as Kendrick raps "I know you're irresponsible, selfish, in denial, can't help it, Your trials and tribulations a burden, everyone felt it, Everyone heard it, multiple shots, corners cryin' out, You was deserted, where was your antennas again?" This line refers to the fact that whilst Kendrick was getting rich and famous, his friends were still fighting a war to stay alive back in Compton, including his friend Chad, who was sadly murdered. This made Kendrick feel immense guilt for 'deserting' Compton, which pushed him even further into a spiral of depression. Again, could write about this all day, but I need to move on.
Track Seven: 'Alright'
This is a much more upbeat song than 'u', and is also one of the most popular tracks on the record, whilst still having a deep meaning, with the track being produced by Sounwave and Pharrell Williams. The line "We gon' be alright" is repeated throughout the song, which probably means that even though we go through pain and suffering, we will all survive in the end. The message is actually associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, with activists actually chanting the lyrics at protests. The first line in the opening verse: "Uh, and when I wake up, I recognize you're lookin' at me for the pay cut." Refers to the fact that the music industry only wants Kendrick for the economic advantages, and they don't care about him personally. The next line "But homicide be looking at you from the face down" refers to the countless unnecessary murders of black people by police officers in America. The line "And we hate Popo, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure" also references this, and actually caused controversy in the media, something which Kendrick samples on 'DAMN.'
Track Eight: 'For Sale?' (Interlude)
This track is related to the other interlude 'For Free?' as that song plays on Kendrick's value as a musician and person. In this song, it is all about temptation. This song offers a deeper insight into Lucy (Lucifer, the Devil) and what Lucy has to offer. Kendrick sings and raps about the seductive nature of the hip-hop lifestyle, and the temptation to sign a contract that will guarantee all of the bling, girls and cars that come with being a famous rap artist, and that all of their dreams will come true. At the beginning of the song, it could be Lucy speaking to Kendrick or his own conscience asking him whats wrong, and telling him that this lifestyle is what he wanted to have. The line: "My baby when I get you get you get you get you I'ma go head to ride with you" is the beginning of the hook. This is Lucy telling Kendrick that they will fall in love and go on long journeys together. Lucy represents all that is evil, with evil in this situation being the hip-hop ideology of blowing all of your money on girls and cars. This song is nothing short of a masterpiece. (The song is in the second part of 'God Is Gangsta', linked above.
Track Nine: 'Momma'
'Momma' showcases the personal growth that Kendrick has achieved after overcoming the struggles he faced with 'Lucy', which was the main theme of the previous track. Kendrick's poem plays at the end of most tracks on the album, and inspires the track that comes after. A perfect example of this is on 'For Sale?' When he says: "The evils of Lucy was all around me So I went runnin' for answers, Until I came home." This could be Kendrick saying that he is returning to himself before fame, that he is returning to Compton, or that he is returning home to his motherland of Africa. "The opening line of This feelin' is unmatched, This feelin' is brought to you by adrenaline and good rap" this could be the feeling that Kendrick receives after overcoming the evils of Lucy, and how he is now on a path to find God, which is referenced in 'Alright'. The track was produced by Knxwledge and Taz Arnold.
Track Ten: 'Hood Politics'
This is Kendrick picturing himself in the time when Compton was all he knew, instead of reminiscing like he did on 'Momma'. The track plays on the survivors guilt that Kendrick referenced in his poem, with Kendrick rapping in a higher pitched voice, to make it seem like he was recording this song back in the time period it is set in. The song is based around a sample from Sufjan Stevens, and was produced by Tae Beast, Sounwave and Thundercat. The track begins with a voicemail from one of Kendrick's friends, who fears that since his rise to fame, Kendrick has forgotten about the place he grew up in and has deviated from his Compton roots. Kendrick also takes on some of the pitfalls that comes with fame such as complacency and at the end takes on hypocrisy of the critic and consumer with the line: “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip-hop was rappin’/Motherfucker, if you did, then Killer Mike would be platinum." This refers to critics disliking the fall of lyrical talent in hip-hop. Killer Mike is an example of an incredible lyricist, but his records don't sell much. The track closes out with the recurring poem, closing out with the line: "But while my loved ones was fighting a continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one.
Track Eleven: 'How Much A Dollar Cost'
This is one of the greatest storytelling tracks in hip-hop history, and was even one of Barack Obama's favourite songs of 2015. In this song, Kendrick raps about how a homeless man was begging him for money, but Kendrick refused as he thought that he would just go and spend it on crack. At the end of this song, we found out that the homeless man is God, trying to teach Kendrick a life lesson. It's actually after the man asks Kendrick if he head read Exodus 14, which is the story of Moses splitting the red sea, and the line rapped is: "A humble man is all that we ever need." After this line is rapped, Kendrick starts to feel guilty and feeling resentment. The hook that comes after this ("It's more to feed your mind, Water, sun and love, the one you love, All you need, the air you breathe") is sung from the perspective of God to Kendrick, as these are all the things we need to survive in this world. The song ends with the lines: "I wash my hands, I said my grace, what more do you want from me? Tears of a clown, guess I'm not all what is meant to be, Shades of grey will never change if I condone, Turn this page, help me change, so right my wrongs." This is Kendrick recognising his greed and lack of humility for the homeless man, making him regretful of not giving him the money. He asks God what more he can do to be a better person, and explains how after this, he is going to become a new person, right his wrongs, and start onto a new path to redemption.
Track Twelve: 'Complexion (A Zulu Love)'
This song featuring Rapsody, is Kendrick educating himself and society on beauty standards, mainly focusing on colourism. Kendrick discusses how colourism affects his people down to their roots, but raps about the importance of loving everyone, no matter what their skin colour is. Kendrick believes that we shouldn't let events in history dictate the future. Kendrick also references slavery multiple times, for example: "You know I'd go the distance, you know I'm ten toes down, Even if master listenin', cover your ears, he 'bout to mention." Ten Toes Down was where a slave owner would cut off the toes of a slave, so they were unable to run away. This is similar to the fictional slave Kunta Kinte, who Kendrick had referenced in 'King Kunta' The line "Cover your ears" could actually be Kendrick talking to the listener, as talking about race in music is more of a taboo subject. Rapsody's verse at the end speaks of a world where a racial hierarchy no longer exists. "The final line on the track was when Kendrick said: Barefoot babies with no cares, Teenage gun toters that don’t play fair, should I get out the car? I don’t see Compton, I see something much worse, The land of the landmines, the hell that’s on earth." This could be similar to one of the main themes of the album, which is how America has tried to teach black people to self hate, with Kendrick seeing Compton as Lucy's hell.
Track Thirteen: 'The Blacker The Berry"
This is Kendrick's most enraged, aggressive and confrontational song. Instead of celebrating being black like he did on 'i', Kendrick deals with radicalised self-hatred on this song. Kendrick started to write the song when he saw the news of Trayvon Martin’s murder, saying that the even put an entirely new anger inside of him. Comparing this song with 'i' may represent the double-consciousness that has always been apart of the African-American experience, with both of the songs contradicting each other. The opening monologue goes: "Everything black, I don't want black (they want us to bow), I want everything black, I ain't need black (down to our knees), Some white some black, I ain't mean black (and pray to God), I want everything black (we don't believe)." This describes the struggles that African-Americans face in modern society and the frustration that comes with wanting and deserving more than you have. Kendrick opens each verse by calling himself the biggest hypocrite of 2015, speaking to an individual mindset, whilst being angered by the treatment of black lives. The song ends with the line: "So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? When gang banging make me kill a n**ga blacker than me? Hypocrite!" This line explains why Kendrick has said that he was a hypocrite. Michael Chabon said this about it: "This revelation forces the listener to a deeper and broader understanding of the song’s “you”, and to consider the possibility that “hypocrisy” is, in certain situations, a much more complicated moral position than is generally allowed, and perhaps an inevitable one."
Track Fourteen: 'You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said)'
Its title is a reference to the posthumously released 2Pac track, 1997’s "Lie To Kick It"which also inspired Ice Cube’s "You Ain't Gotta Lie (To Kick It). In this song Kendrick is warning the listener that they should never lie for personal game or respect, similar to both of the interludes. The track kicks off with Kendrick introducing his mother as the first bit of knowledge that we hear on the record. The opening line of "Study long, study wrong" is Kendrick saying that you can't just read up on something to learn it, but in life you must experience things to gain knowledge. In Kendrick's case, he left Compton to learn what the rest of the world had to teach him. There are racial undertones throughout the song, discussing the use of stereotypical black imagery paints Kendrick as a hood figure which can be applied in other places in life, where you feel like you have to perform or act or be a certain way due to peer pressure. The lines: "Askin', "where the hoes at?" to impress me, Askin', "where the moneybags?" to impress me, Say you got to burn your stash to impress me, It's all in your head, homie" show that Kendrick is trying to move away from the stereotypes that mainstream hip-hop artists receive, which follows the narrative of Kendrick telling people back in Compton that they don't have to lie to impress him.
Track Fifteen: 'i'
Instead of using the original version of this song which was released the year before the album was released, Kendrick opted for a live version of 'i' (the original one two Grammys for best rap song and best rap performance). The song was designed to spread the idea of self love, and embracing yourself for who you are, no matter who you are, which is a complete contrast to one of the previous tracks 'u'. The track opens with Ronald Isley introducing Kendrick, saying that he has travelled all over the world, which could be a reference to one of the main themes of the album, which is Kendrick returning home to Compton after leaving the city for a while. The opening lyrics: "I done been through a whole lot Trials and tribulations, but I know God, The Devil wanna put me in a bow-tie, Praying that the holy water don't go dry, yeah yeah, As I look around me" references Kendrick's faith and growing up in Compton. He raps about what he's seen in Compton such as murder and gang violence, then discusses how the Devil wants to kill him or someone he knows (bowtie meaning funeral), but through his belief in God, Kendrick hopes that he can continue, with the holy water never going dry. The album version ends with Kendrick cutting off the music and making a rant to the listeners, discussing that now that Kendrick has returned to the hood, he won't allow anything so small like arguments to get in his way of empowering the black community. The original version is below
Track Sixteen: 'Mortal Man'
This is the best final track to an album that I have ever heard. When I first heard it, I was mind blown. The beginning of the song is Kendrick rapping about if his career goes downhill, or if he gets accused of something, will his fans still be fans? He said this about it: "I’ve felt that pressure in Compton, looking at the responsibility I have over these kids. The world started turning into a place where—where so many were getting no justice. You got to step up to the plate. ‘Mortal Man’ is not me saying, ‘I can be your hero.’ “Mortal Man” is questioning: “Do you really believe in me to do this?” So to close off the record, Kendrick is asking multiple questions of his fans, asking if they will stay fans and if they believe in him to continue on the path that he is on. After the song part, we get the final version of the poem which has repeated throughout each song. It goes:
"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 mines 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 n**ga" The poem outlines the album perfectly. I found the full meaning of the poem throughout the album, and it read: Kendrick rose to power and influence on "King Kunta", ascending from a "peasant to a prince, to a motherfucking king" and felt lost and jaded in the four corners of fame (the cocoon) during "These Walls." The turning point came as he contemplated suicide in a hotel room on "u", wrestled with Lucy (Lucifer) during "For Sale?" and struggled with “survivor’s guilt” during an internal war with himself on "Hood Politics".
He alludes to "Complexion (A Zulu Love)", "The Blacker The Berry", "You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said)" and "i" - songs inspired by a trip to South Africa in 2014.
Towards the end of the poem, Kendrick details his determination to educate his community. This is something he’s touched on during the outro of "Real" from 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, where Kendrick's mother tells him to go back to Compton to preach what he has learned. After this, Kendrick used an unreleased Tupac interview given to him by a journalist, and taped himself over it to make it seem like he was interviewing Pac, which absolutely left me amazed when I first listened to it. Pac talks about how he's been a hustler, how he believes that poor people will destroy the rich people and how he achieved success through his faith in God, among other things, much like Kendrick has done.
To conclude, this album is one of, if not the best hip-hop record of all time, and has an incredible narrative. The way all of the songs tie together is something that I don't think anyone has seen before, and is truly groundbreaking in music. I could not believe how perfect this album was upon my first listen, and I don't think anything will be able to beat it anytime soon. I've never even heard any rap artist managing to put live jazz together so well. It is a true testament go Kendrick's genius how well this album is put together, the stories it tells, and the meaning every single little thing has behind it. Kendrick is one of the greatest ever, and if you disagree after listening to this album, I don't understand how.