By Connor Bevan
To the world of entertainment, Kendrick Lamar’s name comes to mind foremost as a rapper and songwriter. Rather, the label “urban poet” is more evocative of his career, as his albums are more works of art than they are acts of music.
The intricacies, parables, allusions and motifs – all more refined than on previous albums “Section.80” and “good kid, M.A.A.D. city” – go beyond cementing Kendrick into the petty title of “Best Rapper Alive.”
Kendrick’s albums follow a linear course, telling the story of his life. “Section.80” was a description of the Compton he grew up in; “good kid, M.A.A.D. city” followed his adolescence through gang violence and drugs. “To Pimp a Butterfly” unfolds as a stream of consciousness, sometimes biblical, sometimes distinctly African-American. Fears, goals, memories and loyalties spill out into the turbulent 16-track album, one aptly characterized by its cover.
Raw emotion and internal conflict are feature heavily in the lyrics throughout “To Pimp a Butterfly,” while the majority of the beats and production eschew conventional hip-hop styles for a more jazzy, “G-funk” approach. The album unfolds as an exposé of Kendrick’s conscience: a tell-all that pits his charitable, homegrown superego against an id hungry to lose itself in the wealths of success.
“Wesley’s Theory” starts with a funky bassline and a deep voice-over to introduce the main subject line of the album – “Are you really who they idolize?” Kendrick’s opening verse launches into his notions of fame and money as a young, aspiring artist, rapping about the “blue-eyed devil” profiteering off his talent, and his commitment to share his success with his community. His next lines take him in the opposite direction – they show a Kendrick inking a record deal and subsequently becoming addicted to material things. The chorus ominously chants, “We should never gave [him] money.”
Easily the grooviest track off the album, “King Kunta” portrays the good: the persona that Lamar aspires to be, the ideal that initially inspired him to rap. Kunta was a rebellious antebellum slave, a status Kendrick equates with the status of African-Americans in contemporary society. By slapping “King” onto the front, Kendrick begins a quasi-Mandela motif – the nobility and righteousness of leading the people of “the ground” from “bondage.”
“These Walls” begins with the opening lines of Kendrick’s poem/manifesto, a speech that pops up again and again, growing in length and appearing side by side with the album as a whole.
“I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same.”
The song launches into a ballad of shallowness and pain, depression and motivation, rotating around Kendrick’s sexuality and how his fame has essentially trapped him in a world where his peers are his dependents, not his friends. Sex, once a source of youth, energy, passion and exploration, has been corrupted by money and fame – devolving into a mess of confusion, resentment and vulnerability.
“u” is an astutely bitter and self-loathing rant. Set in a hotel room as disarrayed as his conscience, Kendrick picks apart his identity, his lost loyalty to the people that made him, his failure to provide for anyone but himself. “u” illuminates every blame and regret – driving his family apart, missing funerals for childhood friends, etc. He later delves into his own experiences with depression, and as doubt and self-hated poison his mind, he tells himself, “money can’t stop a suicidal weakness.”
“Momma,” a true antithesis to “u,” shows a success story coming home, hoping to make a change. Kendrick has managed to shrug off vice for the time being, and is well-received and praised for his work. He declares “I know everything,” and is willing to offer his city the knowledge and change it’s longed for. That is, until a young boy, reminiscent of a young Lamar, approaches him, presenting him the concept that he should ask himself “What if my life’s work has been leading me astray? What if everything I know to be true is false?” This sends Kendrick into a dilemma, a searching for the “something” that his life is missing.
As the subject changes, the music does too; the rhythm picks up, Kendrick’s voice becomes frantic and exasperated. He thinks back to his adolescence his experiences with gang violence, and the fulfillment he felt when approached with sin.
“Hood Politics” opens with an old friend’s voicemail, hinting at the fact that Kendrick has become more detached with the people he’s sworn to serve.
Kendrick then comes out swinging. Calling out “the enemies: ” “Democrips and Rebloodicans”, gangs, the media, police and rap critics, Kendrick begins fighting the “new war” he’s entered. Realizing he wasn’t fulfilled after coming home to Compton, Kendrick observes the new environment his fame has catapulted him into. Every “beef” affiliated with his past life is “boo boo,” in other words, not worth his time. He has a responsibility to squabble with the establishment, and continue his climb and his capacity for change.
Combining his fear of alienation and his fear of his own greed, “How Much a Dollar Cost” is more parable than rap. Lamar describes his shunning a homeless man asking for a mere dollar, citing his own success as reason to ignore the man. The man presents himself as the “messiah,” asserting greed has cost Kendrick a spot in heaven.
The conflict extends itself to the affairs Kendrick is embroiled in. Earlier on the album, when Kendrick focused on aiding Compton, he wouldn’t have shunned the man. Now, he’s caught between another set of worlds: his hometown and the national spotlight. As much as his success, fame, and power grow, and regardless of what he does with it, he feels lost without the locality and warmth of his peers.
Sure, the tale is humbling and significant, but the relevancy to the album is in the man Kendrick has become. In reveling in his fame, he’s inadvertently turned to Lucy, as perhaps his success is his form of fulfillment.
“The Blacker the Berry” takes a brief step back from Lamar’s personal story to take a page out of Marcus Garvey’s book. With closing lines that have garnered criticism from the New York Times to Iggy Azalea, Kendrick proclaims himself a “hypocrite” for “weeping while Trayvon Martin was in the street when gangbanging makes me kill a brother blacker than me.” He likens police killings to gang violence, mutually blaming them on an epidemic of “generational hatred.”
The narrative is resumed, and almost completed on “You Ain’t Gotta Lie.” Kendrick gets through his first two verses then pauses, representing an epiphany. He thinks back to upbringing and his mother’s unique understanding and realizes that materialism only serves a phony egotistical purpose. He comes to a final conclusion, setting his sights on the path of righteousness, overcoming the antagonistic forces of temptation.
“Mortal Man,” the album’s final track, is characterized not by the Mandela/Kendrick-comparison-laden song, but by its final seven minutes. Kendrick reads a “poem” to what appears to be the ghost of late and revered rapper Tupac Shakur. With some clever editing cropping a 1994 interview, the two have a conversation of sorts, discussing race, revolution, and the overarching concept behind the title “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Kendrick, having undergone a transformation from ignorance and confinement to enlightenment and beauty, represents both the caterpillar and the butterfly who he calls, “completely different, but one and the same.”
As great and timeless as the music may be, the story extends far beyond rap. It transcends music, pop culture and art. By putting himself on the same plane as Shakur in “Mortal Man,” Kendrick Lamar proves his readiness and eagerness to become a voice of the African-American community. Much in the same way that Tupac was a mainstream representative for the inner-city, Kendrick understands the necessity of having a socially conscious, accessible and moral voice to fill ‘Pac’s large shoes.