The album artwork to Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore LP, To Pimp a Butterfly, features a brazen collage of young black men actin’ a fool, standing over the dead body of Ronald Reagan, toting stacks of cash and drinking forties, backdropped by the White House. But what does it all mean? Comparisons to Harper Lee’s seminal To Kill a Mockingbird are apt, but Kendrick’s own words offer a much more contemporary explanation.
At the tail end of the album, Kendrick describes a metaphor of the caterpillar and the butterfly. The caterpillar is a product of its environment, feeding off the negativity that surrounds it for sustenance. The butterfly represents the vulnerability and inner beauty that the caterpillar can’t come to terms with. As the caterpillar builds its cocoon, it inevitably feels trapped by its own doing. Confinement allows time for the caterpillar to think, breeding a new sense of reasoning. When it finally frees itself, emerging as a butterfly, it is reborn with the ability to change. The butterfly and the caterpillar are not mutually exclusive, they are one in the same. This is Kendrick Lamar’s analysis, this is his criticism; both his empowerment and his emancipation. Whatever you glean from it is open to interpretation, but it’s a resounding battlecry to take a long hard look at oppression, be it black America or not.
At just over an hour long, Kendrick packs a personalized message into all sixteen tracks. While it doesn’t follow the strictly story-telling narrative of its predecessor, the album is bound together by its titular concept. Tracks flow into one another, meticulously thought out, there is no filler. It follows the direction of the caterpillar and the butterfly, each song denoting a stage in the process.
Sonically, the music blends together elements of jazz, R&B, and funkadelia to create a soundscape that harkens back to 90s era West Coast, we’re talking DJ Quik or The Pharcyde. That’s not to say the album doesn’t sound current, production work from the likes of Pharrell, Taz Arnold, Boi-1da, Terrace Martin, Knxwledge and Flying Lotus give it modernity. Features from Parliament’s George Clinton, Thundercat, Bilal, Snoop Dogg, Robert Glasper, and founding Isley Brothers member Ronald Isley, underpin the distinct flavor of the instrumentals. Eclectic sampling spans everything from Sufjan Stevens to James Brown, resung Michael Jackson lyrics and appropriations of funk and soul tunes . It feels nostalgic and familiar, but absolutely different to anything around it.
Each track offers something unique to contribute, but there are definitive highlights.
Off the bat we’re greeted with a sample of Boris Gardiner’s Every Nigger is a Star, providing the foundation for his message of liberation and concurrent struggle.
Kendrick wastes no time picking targets, Wesley’s Theory immediately takes aim at the superficiality of being a black entertainer and the corrupting power of American capitalism. King Kunta sees Kendrick contrast his beginnings by playing the role of elevating Kunta Kinte to his esteemed status as King Kendrick. He takes the entire rap game to task, much like his mythic verse on Big Sean’s Control. Sixth track, u, stands out as an antithesis to lead single, i, by tackling self-loathing in the space of self-appreciation. The beat-switch into the third verse coupled with his struggling delivery is immense, throwing you straight into his pit of misery and despair.
How Much A Dollar Cost is a particularly dark evaluation on the true value of money that brings Kendrick face to face with his maker, ultimately questioning the purpose of his success if not to give back. Complexion (A Zulu Love) elicits Poetic Justice, a beautifully lush ballad featuring female emcee Rapsody in place of Drake, conjuring a sweet but sharp criticism on colorism.
The Blacker the Berry is perhaps the strongest standalone track on the album. Showcasing Kendrick’s ability to toy with lyrical arrangement, all three verses pound very heavily on stereotype, the only preclusion being “i’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015.” Flipping the notion of the song on it’s head with the last three lines, Kendrick makes a profound statement about racialized self-hatred. The contradiction paints a vivid picture of what Kendrick thinks is plaguing the black community at large.
The penultimate track, i, features a reworked live version in comparison to the single release. In the song, the rapping comes to a sudden halt after an argument breaks out. Kendrick begins playing Furious from Boyz n the Hood, preaching the need for self-love and positivity. He uses the word ‘Negus’ as a term of endearment, calling for his community to embrace their inner emperor. During his a cappella the crowd is silenced, naturally leading into the swan song Mortal Man.
Name-dropping everyone from Mandela to Moses, Kendrick wants his name sung in the same breath. Bringing things to a close, he demands loyalty and an appreciation of his message. As the final verse trails off, he begins a dialogue with none other than Tupac Shakur. They speak on his sentiments and beliefs, Kendrick questioning and Pac responding. They go back and forth in a truly tender exchange, touching on everything from spirituality and success; to ambition and frustration. However, after Kendrick finishes reciting the poem of the caterpillar and the butterfly, he asks Pac for perspective. What he receives in return is nothing.
After reeling through a turbulent roller coaster ride of an hour, we’re left with a decisive silence. For all of Kendrick’s trials and tribulations, his preaching and self-promotion, the state of the struggle is unresolved. It’s the inconclusiveness of the outro that gives the entirety of the album so much meaning. It shows the scope of just how vital his message is. If we don’t heed the call, then what can we really do to change.
It may come off as somber, but it’s ultimately a triumph. Kendrick essentially holds a mirror to the face of the situation, reflecting what is, but also what can be done. This is contemporary music’s great American novel and it’s a masterpiece. At one time a voice for all the beaten and downtrodden, also a stark glimmer of hope. It's the kind of music that can change a life or a perspective, whether you're a white male or a black child. The simple word is empowering. So when the shit hits the fan and Kendrick sounds the call to arms, is you still a fan?