With all the themes that I’ve mentioned being brought up throughout the album, Kendrick brings them to a close with the incredible “Mortal Man”. This track is a 12 minute closer very much akin to “Last Call” from Kanye West’s The College Dropout or “Note to Self” from J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Unlike those two tracks though, this is less of a celebration and more of a call to action that ends the album feeling like there is still more work to be done.
Kendrick does this through four main sections across the track. First, there is the more traditional song that goes for the first four or so minutes. Then from here, Kendrick brings everything full circle by restating the entire poem that has slowly been told throughout the album. After that, we move onto a very unexpected faux interview with the legendary Tupac Shakur, a huge inspirational figure for Kendrick. The album then closes with Kendrick telling us the true meaning of the title along with the overall purpose of everything that he’s said here.
To say the least, there is a lot to delve into here, which is why I gave this track a section entirely to itself. I will begin by breaking down the actual song section. The song begins with beautiful crooning by James Fauntleroy and Kendrick himself. From here, we pick up where “i” left off with Kendrick seemingly leading his community but then more doubt sets in as he asks the question, “when sh- hit the fan, is you still a fan?”
This is yet another example of Kendrick saying something in a simple way that anybody can understand, and that is him asking us if we’ll be with him through thick and thin. He reinforces this by saying specific scenarios that would cause people to turn on him such as getting arrested and losing his place in the industry. In addition, he brings up the late great Nelson Mandela who he hopes to be looked at in a similar light as when all is said and done.
In the next verse, he turns this to a more personal side by also questioning those closest to him. “Do you believe in me? How much you believe in her? You think she gon’ stick around if them 25 years occur? You think he can hold you down when you down behind bars, hurt? You think y’all on common ground if you promised to be the first? Can you be immortalized without your life being expired? Even though you share the same blood, is it worth the time? Like, who got your best interest? Like, how much are you dependent? How clutch are the people that say they love you? And who pretending?”
I felt the need to quote this because it very much takes circumstance into account during our personal lives to truly ask if those closest are on your side. It puts loyalty in spousal relationships, blood relationships and friendships to the test in a very powerful and real way. The line about being immortalized also resonates with me because very often, especially with artists, we don’t realize what we have until it’s too late and they’re gone but I will respond to this by saying yes, Kendrick you have been immortalized by this masterpiece. As the verse carries on, Kendrick continues to compare himself to the aforementioned Nelson Mandela by essentially saying that he will carry on Nelson’s quest for equality through his rapping.
On the final verse of this section of the song, we continue on this path with Kendrick saying he has to question everybody and everything. To close it out, however, he then asks if he himself is just another leader that will be abandoned. “How many leaders you said you needed then left ‘em for dead? Is it Moses? Is it Huey Newton or Detroit Red? Is it Martin Luther? JFK? Shooter- you assassin. Is it Jackie? Is it Jesse? Oh, I know it’s Michael Jackson-oh”.
This may raise the eyebrows of some who see Michael Jackson as guilty, (I’m not going to comment as I do not know enough about the situation) but what Kendrick is really getting at here is the fact that people will turn a complete 180 on somebody that they loved without even considering their side of the story. Life is not full of absolutes and Kendrick thinks that we should give more benefit of the doubt, which I very much agree with. I also think this is especially ahead of its time as cancel culture has risen to prominence in the last five or so years with a prime example being the recent Johnny Depp scandal.
The examples that Kendrick uses also provide us with context as to why he is so skeptical as many of these people were betrayed by some of those closest to them. Huey Newton was a co-founder of the Black Panthers who was murdered by ex-members and Malcolm X (Detroit Red) was murdered by members of the Nation of Islam which he was once the leader of.
From there, the chorus repeats and this section of the song wraps up nicely to lead into the restating of the poem. Production wise, this part is very lowkey and seemingly combines elements of the “institutionalized” beat along with the jazzy nature that is present on many other songs on the album. It’s a calm beat that juxtaposes nicely with the more intense questions that Kendrick is asking and then transitions smoothly into the poem.
At this point, we hadn’t heard the poem since the end of “Hood Politics” but Kendrick certainly didn’t forget about it as he concludes it to bring the message of the last five or so songs home. “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 mine’s. Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a fellow black man. Forgetting all the pain and hurt that 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 ni-”.
This brings back the themes of “Complexion”, “The Blacker The Berry”, “You Ain’t Gotta Lie”, “i”, and “Mortal Man” beautifully. Here, he says what he has learned along his journey to get to where he is now and flat out says the message that he’s hoping his community can use in their own lives. To state this message one more time, he is saying that his community itself cannot truly battle the system if they themselves are divided.
I could speak on the beauty of this poem endlessly but I would just be repeating myself, so I am going to move onto the next part of this song, which further cements the message in the words of the legendary Tupac. The jazz production here gets a little more jarring as Kendrick geniusly uses sound bites from an old Tupac interview to show that the problems of yesteryear are still right at the forefront.
The first soundbite serves as a bit of a warning saying that the black community will not continue to be held down and things will continue to get uglier with exhibit a being this year. From there, Kendrick seems to be trying to inspire (successfully for me at least) his community and others to reach for the stars by inserting a soundbite about Tupac discussing his rise to fame through dedication and mindfulness.
This carries over to the third soundbite as Tupac continues to say that if you stay true to yourself then things will come together for you eventually. It is on the final soundbites where we get the call to action from Kendrick through Tupac’s words. The call to action begins with Tupac talking about how he responds to resistance with resistance and then is further contextualized by saying how black men will often be held down for so long that they lose the fight in them. The next bite pairs nicely with the first one and basically says that their community can only be held down for so long before true destruction and reform begins to take place.
To close the interview, Kendrick brings up the role of music in general in making a change in the world, which furthers this call to action because it seems to be him subtly saying his hopes for his music. Tupac then responds to this with the words, “Because it’s spirits, we ain’t even really rapping. We just letting our dead homies tell stories for us”. This pairs very nicely with the main message on “Hood Politics” from earlier on the album but also shows how the pain of loss has brought Kendrick to his role as an activist for his community.
Honestly, this interview is incredible and one of my favorite musical moments of all time. Tupac’s words are inspiring on so many levels and in so many walks of life that you can see why Kendrick idolizes this man so much. The soundbites used are from over 20 years ago but all of it is still so relevant and fits perfectly with the album’s theme of unity and activism. From this interview, Kendrick begins to explain to Tupac the meaning behind the name To Pimp a Butterfly.
This explanation is a perfect summary of how far Kendrick has come through the darkness and pain on every turn of this album. He uses the transition that a caterpillar undergoes to become a butterfly as a metaphor for the community that he grew up in and the growth he’s undergone.
“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”.
Here, he is describing how the caterpillars (young black people) end up getting trapped in the gang life in order to get some kind of semblance of safety from their fellow members of their gang. Once they get trapped in this life, they notice how the world will give so much credit to the black men that find success (specifically black artists) but never really understand what it took to rise above their situation.
Kendrick continues this story with the words, “But having a harsh outlook on life the caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak and finds a way to pimp it to its own benefits. Always surrounded by this mad city the caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon which institutionalizes him. He can’t see past his own thoughts. He’s trapped.”
Continuing this struggle to rise above, Kendrick describes how the people he knew from the hood will often try to drag him back to his old way of life. This theme of rising above is huge on his previous album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, which really puts this story at the forefront. Despite having made it out of the hood and finding success for himself, he still finds his roots trying to pull him back so he has a realization.
“When trapped inside these walls certain ideas begin to 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 internal struggle. Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same.”
As we see here, Kendrick realizes that the only way he can truly make it out of the hood is to make change for not just himself but everybody there. His potential is no longer bittersweet, he is using his influence to make the world a better place. In the process, he defeats the evils of Lucy/ internal corruption he’s faced by showing that all black people are butterflies and they simply may not know it yet.
This is the thesis of this album and Kendrick lays it all out for us to be able to clearly understand his message. What I think is special about this message is that this butterfly, caterpillar comparison can apply to life itself. Just because you may be farther on your journey, then somebody else doesn’t mean you’re better than them; we are all a work in progress and that’s what’s special about us.
The album then ends with him asking Tupac his thoughts on all of this, but it is too late. Tupac is gone, leaving Kendrick to find his own answers for himself. What I think Kendrick is getting at here along with the mentions of Nelson Mandela earlier, is that our heroes can’t be there for us forever. If we want to advance, we need to pick up where they left off and combine their thoughts with ours to bring the world to a brighter place. So to all of my heroes, this one’s for you.
As a society, we can learn so much from what Kendrick is saying here. While it’s fair to shun a system that shuns you, it only perpetuates the cycle of hatred. Regardless of whatever differences you may have, we need to work together to make the world a better place. Conversation is key and if you have a problem with a belief of somebody’s, discuss it with them and try to understand their perspective.
Most of the time, although you may not agree, I think you can find a common humanity in the other person that will make both sides realize that we are all humans who have been through different experiences that have shaped us in different ways. In a time of so much division, I think this is the only real hope we have as a society and I challenge anybody that reads this to consider what I’m saying.
To close out this review, this album is one of the greatest albums of all time and I really believe that it is something that everybody can relate to. I have been coming back and will continue to come back to this album for a long time because the inner turmoil is so beautifully portrayed. There will be days where I feel like a boss, days where I feel conflicted, days where I’m at my lowest, days where I feel like I have all the answers and days where my anger is at a boiling point. Those days only help you grow towards days where you truly love yourself and then all of those other days are cancelled out because self-love is the realest of all of those emotions and the one most worth keeping around.
Cristian Valentin can be contacted at: