On 15th March 2015, the most culturally important album of this generation was released and it was one which propelled Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar to levels that are beyond that of rap music, beyond the realm of Spotify streams and album sales. 2015’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ was a project that moved people and raised his profile and standing to Mandela level, this era’s Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson or Maya Angelou of the black community, a true prophet of his times. But what made this album so unequivocally stunning? So groundbreaking and culture defying? Well there’s a million and one reasons for this album to be admired and this is my take on what I see from a near flawless body of work from hip-hop’s prodigal son.
Kendrick went fairly quiet after the success of his modern classic album ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ in October of 2012, he had said his piece on the rough streets of Compton, California and felt his voice had been heard adequately enough. With that being said, a shocking Grammy’s defeat to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis for ‘Rap Album of the Year’ proved that Kendrick had to go beyond regular greatness to prove himself to the higher powers. With GKMC being a more understated and personal album, it was obvious what was required from K-Dot for him to be a true legend of the game; he needed to produce an album of the highest order. Outlandish production, raw and memorable to the last detail. In a 2014 interview with Billboard, he seemed to be on his way:
“Just putting the word ‘pimp’ next to ‘butterfly’… It’s a trip. That’s something that will be a phrase forever. It’ll be taught in college courses—I truly believe that.”
So we had a title. It was to be called ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’. But why? Well it was originally scheduled to be called ‘To Pimp A Caterpillar’ as it abbreviated to Tu-P-A-C, Kendrick’s idol and role model. But the Caterpillar became ‘Butterfly’ because, as Kendrick himself states in an MTV interview:
“Me changing it to Butterfly, I just really wanted to show the brightness of life and the word ‘pimp’ has so much aggression and that represents several things. For me, it represents using my celebrity for good. Another reason is, not being pimped by the industry through my celebrity.”
The album finally arrived at our doors on the 15th March 2015 and from the very first moment, we all knew we were in for something special. With elements varying from conscious rap to jazz to the avant-garde, it was evident to us all that the album was all we could have hoped for an much more. Politically charged, ambitious and unapologetic from the first track to the very last.
The album starts with “Wesley’s Theory” featuring George Clinton and it is the first of a bulk of appearances from masterful producers Flying Lotus and Thundercat. It begins with a brilliant piece of sampling in which we hear the words of Jamaican singer Boris Gardiner as he sings “every n***a is a star” before an explosive mix of Kendrick, Clinton and Thundercat creates a swaying finger snapper of a beat. Kendrick is electric on it and, as you will see later too, does a great job with the variety he can add to his voice and the characters this can create. Mentions of Uncle Sam show the underlying racism in America, with Sam himself being a man who condones outrageous spending of taxpayers’ money. The “I know your kind” line seems to be said from the perspective of Uncle Sam as he looks down on the African-American community, something Kendrick tries to fight here.
We then slide into “For Free? (Interlude)” which has a simply brilliant piece of production by Terrace Martin, as he gives us a taste of jazz and funk from the 70s in a modern hip-hop style. This song is quite simply genius once you dive into it. On the surface it seems like a satirical piece of rap music and a cheeky little interlude to set us up for the next track. In actual fact it is a deep and meaningful view on the way many people, particularly women, view black rappers. The intro part of the song is based on a girl telling Kendrick that he will never make it as big as he wants to in regards to being a successful black man, with the likes of Kobe Bryant being the benchmark in the eyes of this girl. She describes herself as a “good girl” when in actual fact she is just trying to twist words and make Kendrick give in to her manipulative ways. What she doesn’t realise is that Kendrick isn’t just a normal man, his response is simply golden as he tells her “this dick ain’t free”, referring to the previous track and telling us that he refuses to conform to middle America’s demands of the black community. His flow on this track makes it all the more special to as he seems like he will never stop with his reasoning to this girl as to why he is the king, it’s just majestic.
“King Kunta” was the album’s third single and was released just over a week after the album’s release and it is plain to see why this track had such a buzz around it. It was named as one of the best songs of the year by numerous publications, including the likes of Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. The track itself is based on the rebellious slave Kunta Kinte from Alex Haley’s novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” and the story Kendrick tells places Kunta Kinte as somewhat of a king to the black community given his empowering tale and his strong beliefs. It does also spin back to Kendrick’s own personal upbringing from the hood to the biggest name in hip-hop. The hook gives us one of the best oxymorons in the history of music in that Kendrick feels oppressed like a slave but dominant like a king in the sense that he is a black man in America who became successful. It is a wonderfully catchy track with a deep-lying tone of arrogance and frustration, the sampling of Ahmad’s “We want the funk” just makes this song even better too thanks to the groovy vibes it brings. This is also the first track on the album in which the infamous poem begins, simply stating: “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence” leaving us so intrigued as to what he might have up his sleeve.
“Institutionalized” calls upon the help of Bilal, Anna Wise and legendary California rapper Snoop Dogg, perhaps the most high profile feature on the whole album. In the track, Kendrick covers the topic of wealth and all the corruptive power it can bring, mainly focusing on the negative connotations of his new found fame. He ridicules the idea of modern society’s obsession with being rich, perhaps even implying that we as a society have been brainwashed by it. The term itself in which the song is named after creates a whole new wave of insinuation as we are then made to look at the idea of violence and race, as well as the possibility of insanity and obsession. Anna Wise and Bilal do a fantastic job on the interlude section of this track as they give us Kendrick’s perception of his current situation and what he would do if he were the US President. “Master, take the chains off me” is a line which has so many underlying meanings, from slavery to religion to political dictatorship, in this sense it would appear that Kendrick is looking to God for guidance and to help deliver him from the temptations of evil (more on that later). Up steps one of the greatest beat changes I have ever heard and we are then introduced to Kendrick who once more flows his way through the track impeccably before a damning verdict in the hook, courtesy of Bilal once again. Portrayed through the voice of Kendrick’s grandmother, the warning is placed upon Kendrick that nothing will ever change for the better unless he cleans up his act of street violence (GKMC days). Snoop pays great homage to California on this song with his bridge and gives a new flavour to this layered masterpiece.
“These Walls” was the fifth track on the album as well as the fifth single to be released from it. Thanks to the help once again of Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat this song becomes a smooth soulful jam forever more. The “walls” that Kendrick is talking about can be taken in the literal sense of perhaps a hotel wall and what can be heard while Kendrick is with a girl, or maybe seen as the walls of his conscience. This has purposely been left open for interpretation but the song mainly follows the route of Kendrick having sex with a girl who’s man is in jail for killing one of Kendrick’s friends, therefore gaining revenge for the murder. The walls of his mind come into play as he ponders the legitimacy and morals of using his fame to seduce a woman simply for the purpose of revenge. As a whole it would appear that the “walls” are in fact representative of life, you’ll never escape the walls of existence and freedom and there will always be something holding you back. The third verse directly addresses the man who murdered his friend, following on from the theme of his previous album ‘good kid, m.A.A.d. city’. The bitterness in Kendrick’s voice tells us all we need to know about how he truly feels about this man and how he has no remorse in his action or any shred of sympathy and sorrow for the man in question. The poem continues and is then starting to unravel and make more sense, becoming a key element in the album’s subject matter.
“u” is a complete and utter stark contrast to the album’s lead single “i” thanks to the desolate and slow production. This song shows Kendrick looking towards his negative thoughts that have tarnished his mind for years, attempting to challenge them and crush any possible doubt from his conscience. In the breakdown of the track he did with MTV, Kendrick stated that it was “one of the hardest songs I had to write. There’s some very dark moments in there.” He then went on to say that “anybody reading or listening who may be asking these questions of themselves, just remember from ‘u’, you will eventually reach ‘i‘”. You can feel the true emotion that goes into this track, not least from the alcoholic character Kendrick creates in the second verse, seemingly hitting rock bottom and slurring his words to show his levels of intoxication. As opposed to what we usually see from Kendrick, it is a more sombre and depressing tone as he battles his sadness and guilt rather than the aggressive and powerful tones he would usually lean towards. The gulps and glass clinging brings you into his world and it is a world he has discussed before with hits such as ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’ where he opens up about the traumas of alcoholism. A stroke of absolute mastery here and it really is the touch of an artist.
“Alright” is the multi-Grammy winning single from this album which features legendary producer Pharrell Williams on the hook and beat. Following “u” with this gives you the idea of light at the end of the tunnel, hope when it never seemed possible. The track acknowledges just how difficult it will be to reach that high but it also tells the world that it is always a possibility. It is somewhat of an escape plan from his previous troubles as he maps out what he will do to be rid of his demons and prosper in his life the way he has always dreamed of doing. The track soon became an anthem of solidarity amongst the black community, with many ‘Black Lives Matter’ activists chanting the hook on their marches as they mourned the losses of lives through unjust police brutality. The acceptance of his troubles and the knowledge that not only things would get better, but also that things were meant to be and happened for a reason, is a major staple of this song as a whole and something Kendrick rides with at the end of the track. It isn’t difficult to see why there was so much buzz around this song and ultimately why it won Best Rap Song as well as Best Rap Performance at the Grammy Awards.
“For Sale? (Interlude)” is this album’s introduction to the character of ‘Lucy’ who is representing the devil, Lucifer. Initially, you can be fooled into believing that Lucy is in fact a girl that Kendrick is telling us about in a spiritual and anecdotal way, when in actual fact we recognise who Lucy actually is as the song progresses through it’s phases. With this as the second interlude and having it titled the way it is shows such a smart piece of wordplay and structure from Kendrick as both interludes relate to his demons and how he feels he is valued as an artist. This artist value soon develops into his value as simply a human being and whether or not he is doing what he feels is best for himself. In “For Free?” he laughs off and criticises the idea of rappers being flashy with money and the fact that it is almost a requirement of a modern day artist, whereas on this track he juxtaposes this idea and brags about his financial wealth, linking it to the money he has received from signing a record deal. Lucy is selling him all of these ideas and temptations much like the devil did with Jesus in the bible, but much like Christ, he is aware of the illegitimacy of Lucy and the lies the devil tells.
On the next track, “Momma”, producer Knxledge demonstrates an absolute masterclass in beat making as he gives Kendrick such a slick, funky jam to vibe with and flow over. The track itself is about his resistance to temptation in the previous track and the internal struggle that was given to him by ‘Lucy’. His constant theme of returning home can mean a number of things, including the literal sense of going back to Compton to see his “momma” and tell his story, or it could mean that he goes back to his motherland of Africa. Both are increasingly likely and it is fairly plausible that he means both as it has been documented that his 2014 journey to South Africa inspired much of this album, in verse 3 he mentions meeting a young boy who shared some of his features and “hand me down sneakers” so it could perhaps be the motherland journey he is on about here. This is definitely one of the smoothest and coolest tracks on the album and it is one I never fail to enjoy.
“Hood Politics” is the next in the series of the blissful Kendrick/Thundercat combination and this is one of the best of them all. Within the poem which has been ongoing we now reach the part where Kendrick was talking about “survivor’s guilt” and this is exactly what this song is about. A trip back to his days as a young teen/adolescent and the fact that he wasn’t as wise as he is now, and how he wishes he could have been as it would’ve kept him out of a lot of trouble. The vocal delivery on this song seems a bit more childish and higher pitched to perhaps flash back to his younger days and how they have shaped who he is. This song also has a tendency to be politically-fuelled, particularly in the second verse where he name drops Congress in the same breath as Compton, suggesting that they aren’t too dissimilar. I also adore the Killer Mike mention as he argues the case of hip-hop fans and critics who claim to miss the older times of hip-hop when rappers were hardcore rap, before Kendrick shuts them down and reminds them that a certain Killer Mike exists and goes under every radar possible. Glorious.
“How Much A Dollar Cost” was the track which confirmed in my head the genius of this album and Kendrick Lamar. A quite jaw-dropping anecdote about a confrontation with a homeless man in South Africa who reminds him of his greed, the song challenges just about every initial perception you would have of a homeless man. The revelation of this homeless man actually being God and telling Kendrick that his greed will cost him a spot in heaven is reminiscent of the parable of “The Sheep and the Goat” from Matthew 25 of the Bible. James Fauntleroy’s hook is beautiful and comes from the perspective of God, as you can tell from the holy rise in the production as it comes about; he claims that water, sun, love and air is all you need for nourishment. Kendrick then goes on to accept his flaws and beg for forgiveness as you see a truly defining chapter in Kendrick’s life unravel right before your eyes. Barack Obama named this his favourite song of 2015 so if that isn’t reason for you to love it then I don’t know what is.
We are treated to more Thundercat greatness on the next track, titled “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” as his sexy attitude filled beat is met with soulful horns and the tapping toes of every single person listening to it. The song is fairly self-explanatory at surface level, as the hook would describe the song tells us that skin colour makes no difference to a human being and colorism shouldn’t be a thing. Kendrick has hailed this up mainly because the black community are those that suffer most from this form of prejudice and discrimination, mainly coming from the roots of slavery across the globe. It is a really feel-good track all about this feeling of one love for all, no matter how you look. The feature of female rapper Rapsody adds a brilliant dimension to the end of this track and it is so good that XXL named it as one of the 15 best rap verses of 2015.
“The Blacker The Berry” is one of the biggest statements possible for a black artist aiming to grab the attention of those ignoring the racism around them, it starts with a bang and only gets more violent the further it goes. The introduction monologue states that due to how middle America is, the black community aren’t allowed to stand for what they believe in, suggesting that they are instead having their decisions made for them. He acknowledges how people will feel about this song in the bridge by stating that “they may say I suffer from schizophrenia or somethin'” before telling us that he’s the “biggest hypocrite of 2015” in his verses. He uses a lot of stereotypes surrounding black people such as “my nose is round” or “eat watermelon, chicken and Kool-Aid on weekdays” and that brings you into his world in a certain way, as we start to see things from his perspective and truly understand how much these words can affect the black community. The hook is very clever indeed as he appears to show the backwards steps society has taken towards dealing with race and how other people act. He implies that even in this day and age the Afro-American community are being put down and treated as inferiors which is in itself an outdated belief. He could also be suggesting that no matter how hard he tries, no matter what society we live in, there will never be true equality across the globe, there will always be another way to discriminate upon others. The ending is poetic to the core and shows Kendrick’s true emotions to haters who make false claims about his belief system. Ending the song with the stand alone word of “hypocrite” is so powerful in it’s own right too. The type of song only a mastermind could conjure up.
“You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” is song 14 on the tracklist and is arguably one of the most important ones given what it follows. The direction Kendrick would go after a song like “The Blacker The Berry” was literally anyone’s guess, he had a serious task on his hands to make the album flow with relevant symmetry after that as well as keeping the quality levels consistently high. That is exactly what K-Dot did here. He sends us all a powerful message of purgatory with this track and warns us all that even if our heroes appear knowledgeable because of how often and how loud they speak, it never tends to be the case; often it is the one who doesn’t feel the need to tell the world that knows best, and this is something that Kendrick tries to push throughout this song. The general premise of the song is telling people that they don’t need to lie in order to gain respect, just being the best person you can be often goes further than over-compensating and trying to impress people. He of course has to battle his demons with tracks like this but that positive concept of the track comes from Kendrick’s rational thinking side, showing perhaps his true signs of wisdom after cleansing himself of certain demons, including the likes of ‘Lucy’.
“i” is the penultimate track on the album, and although the studio single version won two Grammy awards for it’s brilliance, Kendrick elected for a quite personal and special live performance of the track to feature on the album. Kendrick also described “i” as the best song he has ever written, mainly because of his surprise at being able to write a positive song given his tough Compton upbringing. This song seems to be somewhat of an anomaly from the rest of the album as it focuses on Kendrick’s happiness and confidence within himself and his own ability, the message is simple in it’s delivery; the world is scary and dark at times, but if you have love for yourself first and foremost, you can learn to love everything else around you. The album version then features a fight within the crowd and Kendrick stops the music to question the lack of unity amongst the black community at such an important time. It is a really powerful moment and I for one am happy that he involved it in the album.
“Mortal Man” is the final track on the album and one which stands out to many for so many reasons. Firstly, the song itself looks back at what he has said and the legacy he will be leaving behind if anything were to happen to him. As he said in his interview with Billboard, the song isn’t about Kendrick telling everyone that he is their hero and saviour, it is instead questioning: “Do you really believe in me to do this?” He relates himself to the likes of Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr and that in itself shows how aware Kendrick is of his influence and the greatness he is currently pioneering. Quite remarkably, the song isn’t remembered for the song itself, it is instead remembered for the interview with the late Tupac, Kendrick’s hero as they both discuss fame, image and black culture. The soundbites he uses show that Kendrick is aware that he has a limited time to say what he truly wants to say, and place himself on the level of those he namedropped in the song. We were also treated to the full poem which he tells before the Tupac segment, it wraps up brilliantly and gives us the emotional thoughts Kendrick dealt with when composing this album. It is a truly magical listen and above all it is awe-inspiring to hear Kendrick and Pac side by side in the only possible way today.
So that is “To Pimp A Butterfly”. It has a Platinum certification in America and won Kendrick FIVE Grammy Awards, including Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song. It got five star reviews across the board and is often described as one of, if not the best album of the 21st century. It is a true celebration of black excellence, a demonstration of a genius at work; and proof that greatness can arise from the most difficult of times. Kendrick Lamar is well and truly a bona fide superstar, a modern prophet and a wordsmith that we should feel eternally grateful for existing alongside. This album is something that must be richly celebrated as one of the great art forms of our time, and I don’t see that as even the slightest bit of exaggeration.