To Pimp a Butterfly: A Haunted Painting Of “Modern America” (Part 1 of 3)

Exploring the making & meaning of Kendrick Lamar’s dazzling, unforgettable and politically charged masterpiece.

May 25th, 2020. It took an agonising 8 minutes and 46 seconds of torture before George Perry Floyd Jr. was murdered by Derek Chauvin, a police officer supposedly acting to “serve and protect”. His unnecessary death spawned protests and riots that would shake the globe, screaming a painfully clear and obvious message that people were beyond sick and tired of black lives being wasted at the hands of the police.

A week later on June 6th and hundreds of protestors began to gather on Black Lives Matter Plaza, a two-block section within Washington D.C. that was renamed amid the BLM protests. It was the ninth day of protests against police brutality. The chants of protestors were carried for miles as they spray-painted the words “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the Police”. The speakers that the protestors had brought with them suddenly began to play Kendrick Lamar’s Alright, a single from his album To Pimp a Butterfly. Hundreds of protestors began to sing along, a glimmer of hope shining from a moment of anger and despair. On the same day, that same song was blasted from portable speakers that had been strapped to the back of a truck in Denver, Colorado. Protestors following the truck began to dance and sing along, “we gon’ be alright”. Kendrick Lamar was by no means the first artist to use his music to speak out against injustice but it was made clear that his music was seen as a motivator for BLM supporters worldwide.

Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus, To Pimp a Butterfly, is an album that continues to resonate deeply with Black America. It’s an album that switches from soft, timid and jazzy beats to explosive, violent and fiery lyrics commenting on race, economics and much more. Kendrick’s fearless delivery on societal issues cut deep and the elegant, smooth production carries his voice to create a haunting picture of Modern America that melts away to reveal pure evil and corruption.

Kendrick Lamar Duckworth was born in Compton, California on June 17, 1987. His parents originally lived in Chicago before moving to Compton, escaping Chicago’s violent gang culture. Kendrick grew up surrounded by danger and violence, though he seemed to take inspiration from his environment rather than harm. As explained by his mother, “he was always a loner”. One of Kendrick’s earliest memories was witnessing the Los Angeles riots in 1992, protests fuelled by rage over footage of Rodney King being savagely beaten by police. Witnessing these events at such a young age clearly influenced Kendrick’s views on the world, specifically on police brutality, that no doubt motivated him to tackle these same subjects years later on To Pimp a Butterfly.

“So the police beat up a black man, and now everybody’s mad? OK. I get it now.”

In 2012, Kendrick Lamar released Good Kid M.A.A.D City to massive commercial and critical success. The album was inspired by Kendrick’s upbringing as a teenager and the city that he grew up in. It was an incredibly sinister album, bringing up issues such as drug and alcohol abuse, gang violence, trafficking and more. It was styled as a “short film” chronicling the events of his teenage life. One standout track, in particular, was Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst. In the first half of the song, Kendrick explored various points of view in each verse. The first verse detailed the inevitable fate and death of one of his close friends, the second verse told the tragic tale of a sex worker becoming lost to abuse and the third verse explored Kendrick’s response to them both and his motivation to speak on such daring issues.

“Look at the weak and cry, pray one day you’ll be strong, fightin’ for your rights even when you’re wrong and hope that at least one of you sing about me when I’m gone. Am I worth it? Did I put enough work in?”

It was an incredibly touching tribute to the people that he grew up with and lost. The track that followed this, Real, marked the celebratory and uplifting moment where Kendrick finally woke up to realise his self-worth. It was a stunning release of tension for both the listener and Kendrick, summarising the entire theme of the album. Kendrick managed to escape his harsh environment, gaining the power to teach people how to be better by reflecting on his own past. It was a dark and sobering project that highlighted the dangers of peer pressure and gang culture, although it ended with a glimmer of hope for the future. This “future” would inevitably lead to Kendrick’s next ambitious project.

For the next 2 years, Kendrick worked tirelessly on his next album, To Pimp a Butterfly. Kendrick travelled to South Africa in 2014, touring the country and visiting historical sites such as Nelson Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island, which began to have a massive impact on the themes and direction of the album. It had such a strong influence on Kendrick that it led him to completely scrap any material that he was working on at the time. According to engineer/mixer Derek Ali, Kendrick scrapped “two or three albums worth of material”.

“I felt like I belonged in Africa. I saw all the things that I wasn’t taught. Probably one of the hardest things to do is put together a concept on how beautiful a place can be, and tell a person this while they’re still in the ghettos of Compton. I wanted to put that experience in the music.”

Whilst developing To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick assembled a stunning collection of artists including Anna Wise, Thundercat, Rapsody, Pharrell Williams and even Ronald Isley from The Isley Brothers. Kendrick not only featured these artists but allowed them to have creative input with the project. For example, Anna Wise wrote These Walls alongside Kendrick and helped to create the album title. Although Kendrick had the final say on every decision made, To Pimp a Butterfly served as a collaborative process that was born out of a wide pool of ideas and emotions, taking up countless hours inside of studios and tour buses.

To Pimp a Butterfly was eventually released on March 15, 2015, to an overwhelmingly positive response from both fans and critics alike. It was a work of art that would lead to Kendrick receiving his first Grammy win in 2016 for Best Rap Album. It worked to uplift, inspire and ultimately give the black community an extremely loud voice that was impossible to ignore, speaking on the life and struggles of a modern-day Black America. It was an unapologetic masterpiece that would send an unforgettable shockwave throughout America and beyond.

“To Pimp a Butterfly is a celebration of the audacity to wake up each morning to try to be better, knowing it could all end in a second, for no reason at all.” – Craig Jenkins, Pitchfork, 2015

Wesley’s Theory

To Pimp a Butterfly certainly doesn’t embrace subtlety nor does it pull any of its funky punches, as revealed in the opening track Wesley’s Theory. The album opens with a sample of Jamaican singer Boris Gardiner’s Every [Explitive] Is a Star, a song from the 1974 film of the same title. The film’s entire motive was to change the perception of the “n-word” in Jamaica, encouraging black pride during the 1970s, a theme that Kendrick also uses within TPAB. In an interview with Mass Appeal in 2015, Kendrick was asked why he decided to open with Boris Gardiner’s sample:

“It represents how I felt when I first got signed. That’s the first initial state – you get money, you feel like this. But overall, in general, it represents those without money of my color that’s rich in spirit. You don’t need dollars to feel like you have a place in the world.”

Funk artist (and abusive misogynist) James Brown’s iconic “hit me” is used to break away from the sample, catapulting the listener into the captivating production handled by Flying Lotus and Thundercat. The intro is handled by Josef Leimberg, whose deep vocals deliver the first glimpse into the theme of the album. Josef’s introduction to Wesley’s Theory is a clever nod to the album’s title, To Pimp a Butterfly. “When the four corners of this cocoon collide”. When someone breaks out of their “cocoon”, a reference to the ghetto, their journey begins as a butterfly. Josef is asking the listener to look inside of themselves and decide whether or not they are staying true to who they are. If they’re pimped then they’ve lost their beauty, being no better than those who are idolised in gang culture such as sex traffickers and murderers. If they don’t realise their self-worth then they’ll be lost to corruption and violence. It’s also a haunting link to what Kendrick mentioned in the Mass Appeal interview, where the music industry uses promises of money and fame to “pimp” artists. It’s the first sign that Kendrick is trying to inspire black pride.

The relationship that Kendrick refers to in the chorus is a metaphorical representation of the rap scene, “At first I did love you, but now I just wanna fuck”. From genuine love to lust, Kendrick was enticed by offers of money and fame from the industry. The music industry has been exposed countless times for using predatory tactics, especially when it comes to the Rap/Hip-Hop genre. The temptation of money and success is everything to someone who grew up with nothing, such as Kendrick who was raised in such a hostile and poor environment. It’s a sad reminder of institutional racism and how morally corrupt the industry can be. Once they own you, it’s nearly impossible to break away as they pimp their next naive butterfly.

The song’s title is a clever nod towards American actor Wesley Snipes, who was involved in tax fraud throughout the 2000s which led to him receiving a three-year jail sentence in 2010. The U.S. government stated that Wesley was using a “tax protestor theory” in an attempt to escape his charges. “Everything you buy, taxes will deny, I’ll Wesley Snipe your ass before 35”. Kendrick warns rappers to be smart with their funds or else the government will burn their career before they reach their potential.

In the first verse, Kendrick emulates a younger version of himself as he dreams about what will happen once he’s signed to a label. It’s a smart link to Backseat Freestyle, a track from Good Kid M.A.A.D City, which also emulates a younger Kendrick dreaming of money and fame. Kendrick indulges the stereotype of a wealthy and successful rapper, bragging about what he can do with all the money he’s earned. “When I get signed homie, I’ma buy a strap, straight from the CIA set it on my lap. Take a few M-16s to the hood, pass ‘em all out on the block, what’s good?”. He reminds the listener of the CIA’s contribution to the crack epidemic in the 1980s and their introduction of weapons in urban areas across America. His satirical endorsement of a government that drops bombs on innocent children acts as a criticism of rappers who glorify a lifestyle of crime. Instead of promoting black pride and self-worth, they’re contributing to the same tactics that the government has been exposed for doing countless times.

Kendrick switches to the character of “Uncle Sam” in the second verse, who attempts to manipulate Kendrick by promising endless wealth and fame. “What you want you? A house or a car? Forty acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar? Anythin’, see, my name is Uncle Sam, I’m your dog, motherfucker you can live at the mall”. Uncle Sam encourages insane spending as he gains money from the taxes paid, also improving the economy due to the spending multiplier. He attempts to motivate the listener to spend more than they have so that they borrow more, trying to make them feel invincible until they inevitably get “Wesley Sniped”. Uncle Sam is a clear metaphor for the American government, deceiving the black community to turn to materialism through purchasing expensive brands and products. It’s the vicious and unforgiving cycle of a capitalist society with the African-American community being a target for them to manipulate and abuse.

For Free? (Interlude)

For Free builds on the metaphor that was raised in Wesley’s Theory, where we find Kendrick being grilled by a woman (Darlene Tibbs) who seems to represent either America in general or Lucifer, as Kendrick continuously makes references throughout TPAB to someone named Lucy who seems to represent evil and corruption. “You ain’t even buy me no outfit for the Fourth”. The relationship between Kendrick and who we assume to be “Lucy” acts as a metaphor for the way America has continually treated the black community by devaluing their character and destroying their self-esteem. Kendrick uses the stereotype of a gold digger to show how America is only interested in Kendrick’s potential for money and fame. If Kendrick begins to disappoint them, he’ll be thrown away for another man. America doesn’t see Kendrick as a human being but as an object with the sole purpose of making them a massive profit.

As Kendrick repeats in his response to Lucy throughout For Free, “this dick ain’t free”. Kendrick feels as if he should be reimbursed rather than offering his services for free. “You lookin’ at me like it ain’t a receipt”. Apart from the obvious sexual innuendo, Kendrick realises he’s being manipulated even though he’s put so much effort into the relationship he’s had with Lucy. “Matter of fact it needs interest”. For Kendrick, being paid money just simply isn’t enough. Kendrick needs to be paid with interest along with the rest of the black community who have worked without proper compensation, an obvious reference to their work and contribution to society being covered up and forgotten.

Elvis Presley is often claimed as the “king of Rock ’n’ Roll”, but no one seems to mention that the genre spawned from Black American music such as gospel, jazz and blues. It’s a genre that was manufactured in the 1950s by appropriating the musical features of rhythm and blues and repurposing them for white audiences. Why credit black creators when you can just rip them off and sell their hard work to a white audience? Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Beatles… all so-called “greats” who earned their money and status by stealing from black culture in America with absolutely no credit to the people who influenced them and started it all.

King Kunta

According to Sounwave who produced the beat for King Kunta, it was originally supposed to be the “jazziest record in the world”. Kendrick however wanted a nastier version, leading Sounwave to remove the ten guitars that he had on the track. Upon removing the guitars, Sounwave was left with a remake of Mausberg’s Get Nekkid which was released in 2000. Mausberg was an artist that Kendrick largely admired whilst growing up and so the beat became a homage to him. Speaking to NME in 2015, Kendrick referred to Mausberg as “a guy that never got to see his full potential”.

The title of King Kunta is intriguing since it is Kendrick contrasting the highest and lowest levels of society and putting them next to each other. Kendrick uses this oxymoron as he can relate to both titles, being referred to as a king in the music industry whilst also feeling oppressed like a slave. Kunta Kinte, a fictional 18th-century slave in the novel Roots written by Alex Haley, has his right foot cut off for his attempts to escape a plantation. “King Kunta, everybody wanna cut the legs off him”, Kendrick alludes to the idea that people who weren’t interested in him before his success now suddenly want to know him. However, he’s not fooled by their deceitfulness as he believes they will cut his legs off to stop him from running away with the success he has. He’s surrounded by veiled smiles.

“The yam is the power that be. You can smell it when I’m walkin’ down the street”. This line in the first verse includes a reference to Invisible Man, a novel written by Ralph Ellison that focused on the overwhelming issues faced by the African-American community in the early twentieth century. In chapter 13 of the novel, the narrator walks through the streets of Harlem before being alerted to the scent of yams which reminds him of his upbringing in the South. The narrator suffers from an internalized form of racism and so he avoids eating sweet potatoes due to their significance with African-Americans. However, the narrator pays for them as he famously declares “I yam what a am”, accepting his status as an African-American. The yams are a symbol of authenticity and so Kendrick uses them in King Kunta to declare his own authenticity along with his money, power and prestige, unlike the other rappers that he disses in the rest of the verse.

In the second verse, Kendrick continues to use the symbol of yams. “The yam brought it out of Richard Pryor, manipulated Bill Clinton with desires”. On June 9, 1980, comedian Richard Pryor set himself on fire whilst under the influence of cocaine and alcohol, running down a street in California before being subdued by police. Kendrick juxtaposes this with Bill Clinton who infamously cheated on his wife in 1995 and lied whilst under an oath when questioned about the affair. The juxtaposition is used to show that everyone from celebrities to political figures can be seduced and corrupted by power and addiction. The yams can be a symbol for anything, whether it be authenticity or something much more sinister.

Kendrick continues to diss his competition whilst also celebrating his success and status in the third verse. “From a peasant to a prince to a motherfuckin’ king”. Kendrick intentionally appears selfish in this particular track, saying that he’s a king and that the peasants are below him and can’t touch him. Kendrick starts to become materialistic in this verse, “limo tinted with the gold plates”. Is Kendrick just having fun and celebrating or has he been corrupted by the yams? Could this be the music industry starting to manifest its malicious intentions into Kendrick’s head? It’s completely up for interpretation.

King Kunta also marks the first time that Kendrick begins to read out his poem. At the end of the track, Kendrick reads out the first line, “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence”. It’s the first of many times that Kendrick begins to tease in this album that there’s something much deeper and meaningful happening behind the scenes of the music the listener is currently hearing.

Institutionalized

If King Kunta was Kendrick at his highest point, then Institutionalized is the realisation that his sinister past that he covered in his previous album still lurks within his mind. It’s a response to the selfishness and ignorance that he showed in King Kunta.

“What money got to do with it when I don’t know the full definition of a rap image?”. Kendrick realises that he can’t go back to the life he once had as he is now insanely famous. He’s now found himself in a life of building an image for himself that fans can admire and respect. “I’m trapped inside the ghetto and I ain’t proud to admit it”. Kendrick still has his heart and soul in Compton and he feels ashamed of it. He managed to prevent himself from falling into a life of violence and although he’s escaped from the ghetto, he feels as if he could still be corrupted by a violent lifestyle. It’s not that Kendrick isn’t proud of himself for improving his situation nor is it a diss towards people who are trapped in the ghetto, it’s more of a diss towards the mindset of getting rich and leaving everything you care about behind. Kendrick feels like he has a purpose to give back to where he grew up and who he grew up with.

The interlude in Institutionalized, sung by Anna Wise and Bilal, carries the idea that Kendrick cannot think outside of his “ghetto” mindset.

“If I was the president
I’d pay my mama’s rent
Free my homies and them
Bulletproof my Chevy doors
Lay in the White House and get high, Lord
Whoever thought?
Master, take the chains off me!”

If Kendrick was the U.S. President then his “ghetto” mindset would push him to act as if he was still in Compton. It would be quite extreme for Kendrick to do these things as President but he is too institutionalized to think outside of the mindset that he currently finds himself in.

The first verse of Institutionalized covers wealth’s corruptive powers and how many people are brainwashed by the idea of becoming rich. “Truthfully all of ’em spoiled, usually, you’re never charged, but somethin’ came over you once I took you to them fuckin’ BET Awards”. The person who Kendrick brings to the BET Awards is suggested to be similar to Kendrick coming out of the hood. He’s been surrounded by poverty his whole life and now suddenly he has been awakened to the idea of becoming rich and famous after seeing that particular lifestyle in person. “Somebody told me you thinkin’ ‘bout snatchin’ jewellery”. He’s prompted to steal just to try and get away from his poor lifestyle. Kendrick believes that the admiration of wealth has been institutionalized within the black community and that it’s dangerous.

The second verse explores the response from this young person who Kendrick confronted in the previous verse. “Fuck am I ‘posed to do when I’m lookin’ at walkin’ licks?”. This person is surrounded by money and power that he once thought was unachievable and he likely feels insulted, feeling like Kendrick is showing off and being selfish. He loses his cool and begins to rant about celebrity lifestyles, threatening to rob them of their possessions and money and bring them back to the hood to give to the poor. People are out there starving and yet here’s a massive group of celebrities showing off their wealth and status. This entire verse is an example of what Kendrick is trying to say about the institutionalization of the black community in poor areas and the corruptive power of money.

Snoop Dogg appeared earlier in the track’s bridge and now appears again in the outro. Although Snoop never names the person, it’s clear that he’s referring to Kendrick. “You can take your boy out the hood but you can’t take the hood out the homie”. Kendrick made it out of the ghetto but he still remembers the lessons that he learned whilst growing up. He will never forget his home or his friends. Kendrick condemns wealth, violence and envy which is all brought on by money. We shouldn’t criticize Kendrick for taking the person to the BET Awards nor should we criticize the person for having such a violent response.

Institutionalized people are continuously told that there is something is wrong with them. The problem is the institution itself. The institution is money.

These Walls

Produced by Terrace Martin and Larrance Dopson, These Walls is arguably one of Kendrick’s most complex songs to date. With the unmistakable bass being played by Thundercat in the background and the additional production from Sounwave, this particular track somehow manages to sound seductive, which is fitting considering the themes that Kendrick explores within the song.

“If these walls could talk”. The sexual innuendo couldn’t be any more obvious, but what’s interesting is that Kendrick also uses the “walls” as a juxtaposition to refer to a man who is surrounded by the walls of his prison cell. This man is revealed to be the same man who killed Kendrick’s close friend who was mentioned in Sing About Me, a song featured in Kendrick’s previous album. This track turns out to be a direct sequel to that song, with Kendrick revealing that he’s managed to hook up with the killer’s girlfriend. These Walls is not only a tale of vengeance but also an exploration into Kendrick’s psyche. Sure, he’s getting revenge on his friend’s murderer but at what cost?

Anna Wise sings the first verse as it suggests that the killer’s girlfriend is at a party where she seems to meet Kendrick. “She just wants to close her eyes and sway with you”. With her lover now finding himself behind bars, she’s suggested to be at this party to meet someone new. However, this is a Kendrick Lamar song, so it’s not that simple.

The next two verses explore Kendrick’s definition of the “walls” that he loves to sing about so much. “These walls are vulnerable, exclamation, interior pink”. Kendrick could be making an obvious comment about her vagina but it’s much deeper than that (pun definitely intended). It’s a comment on his mind, exploring “every nook and cranny” to try and find an excuse for why he’s having sex with this woman. Is it morally acceptable to manipulate a woman’s feelings and affection to get revenge on someone else? The answer is an obvious no, but Kendrick tries to justify his actions by referring to the death of his friend.

The fourth and final verse takes a completely different direction, with Kendrick now directly addressing his friend’s murderer. “If these walls could talk, they’d tell you it’s too late”. No matter whether he considers Kendrick’s actions as morally right or wrong, he is unable to change his fate. His choice to murder Kendrick’s friend was his decision and he can’t blame anyone for his current situation. He has to sleep in a cell knowing very well that Kendrick is outside taking revenge and this verse is Kendrick reminding him of that. Why take physical action when Kendrick can just mentally haunt this individual for the rest of his life.

“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 her baby daddy currently serving life
And how she think about you until we meet up at night
About the only girl that cared about you when you asked her
And how she fuckin’ on a famous rapper”

Kendrick starts to appear quite malicious and evil in this verse and he even blatantly admits that he’s used his power and fame to take advantage of a woman who was in desperate need of someone to care for her. However, it’s also insinuated that the man in prison has put this woman through pain himself, either through abuse or just by throwing away his life in prison. It’s quite haunting to see Kendrick admitting his faults but not apologising for them. Sure, it’s a fictional tale to tell a bigger story but for listeners familiar with Kendrick, it’s still quite jarring to hear. Is this the yams that he mentioned in King Kunta? Kendrick has every right to resent his friend’s murderer but has he gone too far in his act of vengeance?

U

The sixth song within To Pimp a Butterfly opens with Kendrick screaming to set the mood for an incredibly depressing song. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Kendrick revealed just how tough it was to record this track:

“That was one of the hardest songs I had to write. There’s some very dark moments in there. All my insecurities and selfishness and let-downs. That shit is depressing as a motherfucker. But it helps, though. It helps.”

Thankfully the album does get much lighter towards the end but this is definitely the lowest point of the album in terms of mood. The chorus leaves Kendrick repeatedly exclaiming “loving you is complicated”, his voice reaching a haunting screech as he talks to himself. Kendrick has been open on his battle with depression and it’s actually what led him to record, “i”, a track found later in TPAB that acts as the complete opposite to this current track, where he expresses self-love and care.

It’s an interesting choice to have this track appear after These Walls, almost as if Kendrick hates himself for abusing his power, “abusing my power, full of resentment”. It’s the complexity of battling your struggles and emotions, ultimately leading you to hate yourself. I’m sure it’s an issue that many of us can relate to and it’s a deeply personal track for Kendrick himself.

Kendrick blames himself in the first verse for not being a bigger influence in his sister’s life. Whilst he was out touring and helping thousands of people, his sister ended up getting pregnant at a young age. The irony is that he could help a massive group of strangers but he couldn’t help the person closest to him and he’s left to be haunted by that fact. Even though his previous album went platinum, Kendrick tricks himself into believing that the sales are fake and that the world doesn’t need him.

The beat switches to the second verse where we find Kendrick rapping as per usual, but he appears to perform this verse whilst under the influence of alcohol. His depression has turned so bad that he swirls into a drunken rant where he second-guesses everything in his life. Kendrick blames himself for ordinary people dying in Compton including his best friend, Chad Keaton, as he was too busy enjoying his success as a rapper. Kendrick reveals that he didn’t even visit Chad whilst he was in a hospital and only ever opted to speak to him through Skype. “God himself will say, you fuckin’ failed, you ain’t try”. Before Kendrick can finish the verse he begins to break down and cry.

In the third verse, Kendrick’s consciousness begins to take over and talk. “I cry myself to sleep, bitch, everything is your fault”. He reveals that he suffers from mood swings and that alcohol is the only thing keeping him stable. Kendrick’s voice appears in and out as he battles with his conscience. “If I told your secrets the world’ll know money can’t stop a suicidal weakness”. Kendrick finishes the song with the threat of suicide as his consciousness appears to ultimately win the fight.

In an interview with Billboard in 2015, Kendrick talked about his fiancé and High School sweetheart, Whitney Alford, who no doubt saved his life…

“That’s my best friend. I don’t even like the term that society has put in the world as far as being a companion — she’s somebody I can tell my fears to.”

End of Part 1

Self-proclaimed connoisseur of anything you can view on a screen. Procrastination is my speciality. You can probably tell by now that I make terrible jokes...

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