Although it was only released four years ago, Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album To Pimp A Butterfly is already considered by many to be one of the most compelling Hip Hop albums of all time.
The album succeeds with achieving mainstream appeal by having these catchy, rhythmic and appealing tracks throughout the album. Five of which went on to win Kendrick five Grammies. But the album is a lot more than a collection of pop bangers. It acts as one of the most nuanced and fascinating forms of social commentary in music that has emerged in the past decade.
The narrative of the album focuses on the rise of Kendrick, or a protagonist like Kendrick, through the music industry. This new found fame and success brings a lot of pleasures and inflates his ego, but it all comes at a terrible price. The problems Kendrick faces vary, some being as carnal as using his new found fame to get laid while others reflect the soul sucking nature of the music industry. How the industry essentially takes these artists from these deprived areas, creating art commenting on these conditions of crime and poverty while ultimately doing nothing to alleviate it.
Lamar likens this double edged sword of fame to a deal with the devil, in which the benefits gradually tarnish over time. This moral crisis leads to a deep depression, mixed with suicidal thoughts that can only be soothed by Kendrick returning to his roots to seek knowledge he had lost along the way.
But upon returning home, Kendrick feels disconnected. On his journey he’s seemed to have changed, but his environment has not. He lives, while many of those he knew did not. He suffers from a form of survivors guilt. He continues his journey, all the while educating himself on the history of his ancestors, his community and respect for one another.
Kendrick then acknowledges his role as an artist, a spokesperson or teacher of his community. He comments on how he wishes to share what he’s learned with his community, with his audience, so that they can better themselves. But he fears that his message ultimately falls on deaf ears as they begin to divide amongst eachother.
He begins to doubt himself, fearing that unlike his idols- Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela- he isn’t fit to serve in this kind of position of authority.
Now I could talk about the genius sound design throughout the album. How almost each of the sixteen tracks begins or ends with a snippet of a poem, each final line then introducing and following through on the theme of the next song. I could talk about Kendrick’s commentary on the duplicitous nature of show business and the music industry. Or his comments on both police brutality and gang violence- but there are far smarter people who have analysed these topics and have communicated their findings better than I ever could.
So today I’m going to discuss one of my personal favourite track’s one the album; Mortal Man.
Just over twelve minutes in length, Mortal Man is one of the most fascinating contributions on the album. The first five minutes of which act as one of the more sombre songs of the album. Commenting on previous assertions of being a role model or spokesperson of the black community, Kendrick decides to lash out at his fans by asking “if shit hit’s the fan, will you still be a fan?”
It touches upon a lot of fears most people have about trust. Whether or not your friends are reliable enough to bear with you through great hardship. But in the case of Kendrick, this fear is brought onto an entire different level due to his apparent authority. Will his followers remain loyal through potential turmoil, or will they turn on him as easily as they turned on Michael Jackson, a figure he references directly in the song.
He ends the song by reciting a poem he has been reading snippets of throughout the entire album, all of which tie the various themes and messages of the album tightly together.
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 nigga
Upon finishing this poem, Kendrick begins to ask questions to the man who had been listening to it all along; Tupac Shakur.
Using snippets of a three hour interview conducted back in the nineties while he was still alive, Kendrick conducts this respectful and cohesive dialogue between the two rappers. Beginning with a question about a metaphor expressed in one of his songs that Kendrick is interested in, the two begin dabbling in the realms of politics- specifically racial discrimination.
Tupac comments that the way American society is shaped, the pressure and anxiety upon black people- particularly young black men- eventually erodes away at their pride and self esteem. In his own words:
“In this country a black man only have like five years we can exhibit maximum strength.
And that’s right now while you a teenager. While you still strong or while you still wanna lift weights, while you still wanna shoot back. ‘Cause once you turn thirty it’s like they take the heart and soul out of a man- Out of a black man in this country and you don’t wanna fight no more. And if you don’t believe me you can look around, you don’t see no loud mouth thirty-year old muthafuckas”
He also predicts that if poverty is not alleviated, the turmoil will continue to fester resentment towards the outer society. That this resentment will lead to a riot that will end in bloodshed. Basically, Tupac predicts that if racial tensions are not quelled then a violent Communist uprising may take place. An idea he had briefly touched upon at the beginning of the interview by saying “The poor might eat the rich“.
The two discuss Tupac’s career, his influence on music and black culture. They make a point to clarify how important music is to the community in regards of the culture as a whole. Tupac comments that their medium allows for them to communicate the messages their dead loved ones could not, a theme throughout the album is that music allows for new concepts and ideas to be communicated to a wide audience who would have never heard them before. Effectively, it’s a form of preaching.
Kendrick ends the song and interview with Tupac by reciting a poem that summarises the key themes of the album. In the context of the track, Kendrick says that this poem was written by a close friend who was trying to describe his world.
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 begins to notice ways to survive
One thing it noticed is how much the world shuns him, but praises the butterfly
The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness, and the 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 his 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
When trapped inside these walls certain ideas start to take roots
Such as going home, and bringing back new concepts to this mad city
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 and the same
At the end Kendrick begins to ask Tupac his thoughts on the matter, but there is no response. Just as Kendrick’s final song acts as a harsh reminder of what the death of Tupac and other influential artists have brought upon the community. It also reflects his own anxieties about his message falling on deaf ears, a fear expressed throughout the album.
Like all forms of art, the meaning of this album is subjective. The literal meaning and intended message of the artist is one of self esteem, pride in community, respect. The themes are intended to reflect the troubling nature of fame and the anxieties that come with being a spokesperson for this environment.’
In the same regards, the final poem of To Pimp a Butterfly reflects Kendrick’s own personal journey that he has commented on throughout the album. The trauma of growing up in poverty, what Kendrick refers to as “this Mad City” takes a tole on his outlook. Creating a cynic who sees his artistic intuition as nothing more than a means to make profit.
Through abusing his talents in pursuit of fame and glory, or pimping the butterfly, the artist becomes even more isolated. The strife he then faces acts as a crucible for which he can find a solution for his predicament- realising the true potential of his artistic capabilities and coming to peace with the softer, more elegant side of his soul.
In doing so, the caterpillar becomes the butterfly. He no longer needs to pimp it, he can wilfully use his influence for the greater good.
The niche interpretation and intended meaning of the artist is to communicate the strife that comes with the black experience in America, particularly that of the music artist. But the poem can be interpreted on a grander scale, can be related to many people from many different backgrounds who feel that their environment stifles their ability to grow and that their stagnation leads to the pursuit of toxic behaviours.
Only through becoming lost in this path of self destruction does the wanderer face a situation where they can grow, can change and learn. Upon doing so, their harsh exterior makes peace with their soft interior and the two unify to live on as something more unique, more beautiful- a butterfly.