As 2020 comes to a close with one of the most divisive elections in quite some time, a virus still looming largely over our heads and racial conflict at a boiling point, I think it’s important to look back at the wise words of a genius: Kendrick Lamar on his masterpiece album To Pimp A Butterfly.
Kendrick Lamar is one of hip hop’s biggest names due to his incredible lyricism, honesty and story-telling ability. He had released a few mixtapes early in his career but Kendrick really began to burst on the scene with his first studio album Section.80. It was with his next release, good kid, m.A.A.d city however, where he really became one of rap music’s biggest stars.
This album was critically acclaimed for Kendrick’s incredible narrative about his time as a young man in Compton. All four singles released from the album proceeded to make it up to the top 32 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the album was certified triple platinum in June 2018. This is relevant to To Pimp A Butterfly because this album follows good kid, m.A.A.d city and is very much a response to his newfound fame in the music industry. Other themes on the album include division in the black community, gang violence and systemic racism among other things.
To Pimp A Butterfly opens with “Wesley’s Theory”, a song that definitely sets the stage for many of the themes of the album. The first theme is evident from the beginning of the song with the Boris Gardiner sample. This sample is from a 1970s song trying to encourage black pride, which certainly goes with many of the themes on the album, specifically those present in “Complexion”, “i” and “Mortal Man”.
“Wesley’s Theory” then proceeds to move all over the place with pitch shifted vocals from Josef Leinberg, a fun braggadocious verse from Kendrick talking about his come up in the industry, incredible singing from Thundercat and George Clinton and a memorable Dr. Dre cameo that talks about the difficulty of sustained success. From here we go straight into the meat of the song, Kendrick’s more serious second verse. This features Kendrick rapping from the perspective of America trying to convince successful black men to waste their money on pointless material gain until they are eventually robbed of everything they have including their identity.
This idea is the so-called “pimping of the butterfly,” with successful black men being pimped to the benefit of America. Normally when artists name drop their albums, it doesn’t mean much, but here is an example of Kendrick very much establishing a big theme that he will further explore on songs such as “Institutionalized”, “u” and “How Much a Dollar Cost?”.
This is then carried onto the next song “For Free?” where a seemingly silly intro by Darlene Tibbs serves as an allegory for how America will move on to try to corrupt the next successful black man if Kendrick does not give in to this materialism. He then proceeds to rap an excellent, speedy verse in the style of black poets where he uses another somewhat silly phrase with “this d**k ain’t free” to stick up for himself and not give in to the corrupting words of Darlene Tibbs.
At first I thought this was a peculiar track, but the way that Kendrick gradually speeds up his verse with it containing less gratuities and more social commentary is genuinely genius. The jarring jazz production also can cause some to overlook the story of the song but it’s a very simple concept brought to life in a maximalist way that I think few artists could do as well.
From this song, we move on to “King Kunta”, the first real banger on the album. This song is all about Kendrick taking his place at the top of rap music with him calling out other rappers’ ghost writing, talking about not needing to drop music to be at the top and all sorts of other braggadocious lines about his role in the industry.
“King Kunta” is one of the singles from this album and it certainly sounds like one with an incredibly catchy chorus and funky production. Kendrick sounds purely like he’s having fun on this song and I think it parallels well to “Backseat Freestyle” from the aforementioned, good kid, m.A.A.d city.
To me, this song very much represents the almost high that you get when you make it to the next level of success in any area of life. You feel on top of the world in a very similar way to what Kendrick is describing but naturally, you begin to see the realities of your new situation. This realization is represented clearly by the beginning of the poem that spans all across the album. The shift is marked with the words, “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence.”
Cristian Valentin can be contacted at: