To Pimp a Butterfly
I recall a conversation I had with a friend about the future directions of Kendrick Lamar’s music career about six months after his first studio album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was released. The album was a cohesive, thoughtful exploration of teenage life in Compton, and fans and critics alike received it as a defining album for hip-hop. Where could Kendrick possibly go from here to avoid being cast as a one-trick pony? It was clear Kendrick had the potential for rap greatness, but it was unclear whether this would be the sort of iconic status enjoyed by Jay Z or the niche appeal and recognition enjoyed by Nas.
Kendrick increased the uncertainty and speculation around his second album,To Pimp a Butterfly, when he released “i” last September, the album’s first and surprisingly happy single. It seemed a bit odd to go from exploring the nastiest corners of Compton to preaching a smiling message of self-empowerment. However, in the context of the album as a whole, the song stands out as a rare glimpse of positivity amidst a greater theme of self-reliance in oppressive and difficult conditions. To Pimp a Butterfly is powerful because it addresses so much, spanning topics including modern race relations, the changes in Kendrick’s life due to fame, and exploitation of art. It is overwhelmingly dark yet somehow still encouraging, managing to address private as well as public issues, and is both lyrically and sonically inventive. It is a beautiful album.
Race is a central theme of the pro-black album, perhaps best exemplified by the James Brown-influenced, downright funky “King Kunta.” In the song, Kendrick alludes to the Roots: The Saga of an American Family protagonist Kunta Kinte, boasting about his dominance and societal growth from the role of slave to king. The song is a radical departure from Kendrick’s previous sound, but it works very well. The racial lyrical elements are reflected in the jazz and funk influence that can be heard in most of the album’s songs, and he even experiments with spoken word at times. None address race as directly as the aggressive “The Blacker the Berry,” in which Kendrick angrily reflects on the black condition and black-on-black crime: “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? / When gang banging make me kill a n***a blacker than me? Hypocrite!” Kendrick advocates black self-reliance on the album version of “i,” which features a skit where he promotes “N****s tired of playin’ victim dog, n****s ain’t trying to play victim.” He isn’t afraid to tackle controversial subjects, and he handles them well.
The album is also deeply personal, exploring the deepest recesses of Kendrick’s mind. He expresses his ideas concerning exploitation of black artists in the United States through conversations with an imaginary Uncle Sam, like on album opener “Wesley’s Theory”: “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.” He uses this same conversational device to discuss the temptations of the devil, represented as the seductress Lucy (Lucifer). Lucy and Uncle Sam are recurring characters throughout the album, tying together themes across tracks. Kendrick admits his deepest worries and insecurities in a conversation with himself on the emotional “u,” drunkenly sobbing on the track between discussing failing friends and family back home and dealing with thoughts of suicide. His depression is referenced in other spots in the album as well, even in the cheerful “i.” It’s very dark, but his message is ultimately one of hope, as delivered on the smooth “Alright”: “My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow / But we gon’ be alright.”
Kendrick received some criticism for remarks made about Ferguson and Eric Garner in a recent interview with Billboard that were interpreted as a form of respectability politics. However, the album reveals his advocacy of self-betterment in its full form, allowing a truly effective message to shine through. “Be all you can be, true, but the problem is / Dream only a dream if work don’t follow it,” he encourages on “Institutionalized”; “I know if I’m generous at heart, I don’t need recognition,” he champions on “Momma.” Even under oppression, his spirit persists. The album comes across as a thesis for his views, and he makes a convincing and beautiful argument.