Songs by Theme
About Kendrick Lamar
Liner Notes: Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
by Brandon Terry
“To Pimp a Butterfly, another classic CD/Ghetto lullaby for every one-day emcee” – Kendrick Lamar, “Alright (Video Version)”
Instant classic. That paradoxical, tangled appellation is perhaps the signal excess of an overheated culture of instant commentary. One can imagine it weaving its way through the anonymous byways of social media in a scramble for distinction among a vast sea of potential tastemakers. In such a world, exaggeration and hyperbole seep so readily into our language of criticism, that we forget just how unsettled such a pronouncement should make us. The juxtaposition is jarring; its two terms sit uncomfortably next to one another, upending the normal relations of time, art, and judgment.
The label is a daunting standard, and thus we should not be surprised that in hip-hop, it is rarely ventured. On occasion, however, the genuine article does emerge. Nas’ 1994 debut album, Illmatic, is perhaps the category’s reigning exemplar, but one could just as easily make the case for Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (1992), The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die (1994), Jay-Z’s The Blueprint (2001), or, today, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (2015).
“I heard the barbershops be in great debates all the time/Bout who’s the best MC? Kendrick, Jigga and Nas/Eminem, Andre 3000, the rest of ya’ll/New niggas just new niggas, don’t get involved” – Kendrick Lamar, “Control”
Lamar was born Kendrick Lamar Ducksworth, just a few months before the release of Straight Outta Compton would transform the city into a globally recognized symbol of America’s urban crisis. That year, 1987, Los Angeles County tallied 1,398 murders, with violence most heavily concentrated within poor African American neighborhoods and towns. By 1991, Compton had a per capita murder rate more than three times that of the city of Los Angeles proper. As Los Angeles Times homicide reporter Jill Leovy, who has written movingly of the homicide epidemic in Southside Los Angeles, reminds us, the trauma of this carnage reverberates through entire communities: “There's no way to fit it in any kind of understanding of the natural order of things. It's always going to feel colossally wrong. It's going to feel like something's been taken from you arbitrarily by another human being. The way people respond to homicide deaths of loved ones - it's the worst pain that I've seen a human being experience that isn't physical.”
Indeed, the California state legislature officially declared “a state of crisis which has been caused by violent street gangs whose members threaten, terrorize, and commit a multitude of crimes against the peaceful citizens of their neighborhoods.” In response, the legislature passed the Street Terrorism Enforcement (“STEP”) Act of 1988, making it a crime to “actively participate” in a street gang, and added severe penalties for “gang-related” crimes. Given enormous latitude to suppress gang violence, the Los Angeles Police Department implemented “Operation Hammer,” a series of massive, counterinsurgency style “show-of-force” police raids that same year. In the initial weekend of sweeps, over one thousand officers concentrated in South Central Los Angeles arrested more than 1,400 people. When the dust settled, roughly 1,350 of those arrested were released without charges, and crime continued largely unabated as the city’s racial distrust and militaristic police culture grew further entrenched.
Like many overburdened, but loving parents, Lamar’s mother and father tried mightily to help their son navigate this world of pervasive danger and limited opportunity. Their efforts, which frame the profound coming-of-age and conversion narrative masterpiece good kid, M.A.A.D. City (2012), aimed at protecting Lamar from the surface allure and subterranean horror of the street. In that album, a series of temptations – lust, revenge, hypermasculinity, peer pressure – all lead Kendrick’s eponymous narrator to the edge of death and the unforgiving spiral of a gang culture whose N.W.A. and Death Row-applied sheen has lost its luster. It is the increasingly frantic appeal by his parents – to love, experience, family loyalty, and subtly, the ethics and humility of Christianity – that pull Kendrick’s eponymous narrator back from the brink.
To Pimp a Butterfly is Lamar’s third album, following good kid, M.A.A.D. city and his uneven independent debut, Section.80 (2011). It has been met with near universal critical acclaim, garnering nine Grammy nominations over two ceremonies, winning “Best Rap Album” and “Best Rap/Sung Collaboration” (“These Walls”), while earning both “Best Rap Performance” and “Best Rap Song” twice (“i” and “Alright”).
Lamar’s hometown Los Angeles Times described it as “a complete artistic statement from the most striking voice to come out of a Los Angeles in a generation.” Rolling Stone named it album of the year, calling the record “Musically, lyrically and emotionally…a one-of-a-kind masterpiece—a sprawling epic.” The independent music hub, Pitchfork, went even further, describing To Pimp a Butterfly as “not just the album of the year,” but, “the voice of a moment in time,” and Lamar as “the greatest rapper of his generation.” Spin, with an unapologetic gesture to the record’s novelistic ambition, declared it, simply, “The Great American Rap Album.”
The listener would do well to dwell upon the references that accompany these accolades. These gestures –to the album’s singular resonance with the political and cultural crises of our time, to Lamar’s Compton, California upbringing, and to its epic and literary aspirations– are indispensable clues to untangling the record’s sprawling tapestry of intertextual reference, cultural signification, and painstaking reflection.
“Six in the mornin’/fire in the street/Burn, baby burn/that’s all I wanna see.” – Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry”
Released in March 2015, To Pimp a Butterfly came toward the end of an all-too-brief lull in between two successive, and highly politicized waves of police and vigilante slayings of unarmed African Americans across the country, from Chicago to Cleveland, from Staten Island to Charleston. These ignoble surges of tragically dispatched life crested most spectacularly with the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland – moments notoriously linked by the surge of protest and riot that followed in their wake. As the desiccated protest traditions of black politics surged back to life under the sign of “Black Lives Matter,” Lamar met the moment with an album whose “overwhelming blackness” – as Jezebel critic Clover Hope put it – presents “all the unfathomable complexity of a 500 – page book.”
It is, without doubt, a demanding album – aesthetically, ethically, and politically. Its sonic capaciousness ranges widely across jazz, hip-hop, soul, and funk. Its dense lyricism requires unique patience and careful listening. This is, however, a work of art that repays this commitment in spades. To Pimp a Butterfly is an ambitious and extraordinary epic of magical realist and Afro-futurist poetry committed to the relentless, courageous exploration of its core philosophical problem. Layered over a luscious soundscape drawn from fifty years of avant-garde black music, the album is an intimate and introspective interrogation of the possibility of transcending the crises of faith, value, and identity that ominously cloud the horizons of black striving in a world as indelibly shaped by Barack Obama and Beyoncé, as it is by Freddie Gray and Malissa Williams. In contrast to good kid, M.A.A.D. city, which punctures 90’s gangsta rap’s claims to authority with more realism, To Pimp a Butterfly stages these questions around a series of marvelous and uncanny events. The record unfolds alongside Lamar’s conversations and quarrels with fantastical beings, living metaphors, and ghosts – which cumulatively serve to dramatically and unsettlingly pose the gravity of ethical and existential problems at hand.
The album opener, “Wesley’s Theory,” begins with a misty sample of Boris Gardner’s “Every Nigger is a Star,” a slyly ironic gesture toward precisely the tension between the symbolic currency of blackness as a signifier of political subversion and moral redemption, and its material allure for the entertainment industry. Josef Leimberg, channeling the spirit of funk maestro, California hip-hop ur-text, and Parliament founder George Clinton (who also appears on “Wesley’s Theory”) introduces the album’s extended metaphor, the “butterfly” – that rare, beautiful talent –besieged on all sides by the rapacious forces of exploitation, evil, and anxiety.
We also meet here, for the first time, “Uncle Sam.” The resonance with American national identity remains implicit, but Lamar’s Uncle Sam is a trickster figure whose interest in “butterflies” comes principally from their profit potential. “I can see the borrow in you, I can see the dollar in you,” Sam proclaims to the newly minted rap star. Kendrick’s narrator, with limited education and judgment, is susceptible to the extravagant promises proposed by Sam in part because poverty and racial invisibility have nurtured strong affective desires for conspicuous wealth and fame.
This is compounded by a fragile sense of masculinity, which a siren-esque chorus of Uncle Sam’s “nieces” on “For Free?,” the interlude which follows “Wesley’s Theory,” exploits with sinister intent. Berating Kendrick for falling short of “a baller-ass, boss-ass nigga” standard, he responds to the sirens in a spoken-word style delivery over a Robert Glasper’s freewheeling piano, and Terrace Martin’s jazzy composition, invoking a fairer accounting of America’s enduring debt to its black citizens – “I need forty acres and a mule/Not a forty ounce and a pit bull.” The appeal to reparations here, however, is just the prelude to financial negotiation: “This dick ain’t free/Matter fact it need interest, matter fact it’s nine inches/Matter fact see our friendship based on business…Oh America, you bad bitch/I picked cotton that made you rich/Now my dick ain’t free.” But while Jay-Z stopped here, demanding that the industry “pay us like you owe us for all the years that you hoe’d us/We can talk, but money talk, so talk mo’ bucks” (“Izzo,” 2001), Kendrick layers an crucial irony within the word “free.” Lamar’s suspicion, further fleshed out over the course of the album, is that trying to discover value, or repair injustice through money alone is an illusory quest, conducted on terms so dominated by established wealth that the idea of “freedom” here rings empty and hollow.
Further meditating on this notion of “freedom,” Lamar’s “King Kunta” references Kunta Kinte, the famous protagonist of Alex Haley’s epic and miniseries, Roots. In Haley’s story, Kinte heroically resists enslavement, refusing to give up his indigenous African name, taking flight from the plantation multiple times until finally being subjected to the amputation of his right foot. In an interview with NME, Lamar describes the song as “the story of struggle…of standing up for what you believe in, no matter how many barriers you’ve got to break down, or how many escape routes you gotta run to tell the truth.”
The next suite of tracks, “Institutionalized,” “These Walls,” and “u” undertake a descent into the psychic barriers that trouble a more triumphant, heroic fantasy of transcendence or flight. “Institutionalized” posits that the “institutional” racism of the post-industrial ghetto does not just constrain economic or social opportunity, but also imagination. The song captures both sides of a tense confrontation between the newly successful Kendrick and a neighborhood friend who accompanies him to the Black Entertainment Television Awards. While Kendrick yearns to maintain his relationships and affiliations in Compton, his friend – surrounded by the extravagance and absurdity of entertainment wealth – cannot shake the desire to prey on the weak and unsuspecting, as he would in Compton: “Now I can watch his watch on the TV and be okay/But see I’m on the clock once that watch landin’ in LA/Remember steal from the rich and givin’ it back to the poor?/Well that’s me at these awards.”
To Kendrick’s credit, however, the ambivalence and tragedy in the friendship is palpable. While the spirit of his deceased grandmother, voiced through the singer Bilal, admonishes him to distance himself from his friends (“Shit don’t change, until you get up and wash yo’ ass, nigga”), the pretensions of elites are rendered appropriately absurd next to the pressing needs of the ghetto. This is perhaps most clearly rendered in a brief interlude where the specter of President Obama and his limited ability to solve the material and mundane deprivations of the truly disadvantaged come to the fore: “If I was the president/I’d pay my mama’s rent/Free my homies and them/Bulletproof my Chevy doors/Lay in the White House and get high, Lord/Who ever thought…/Master’d take the chains off me?!”
In the end, Lamar recoils from the corruption of soul engendered by his choices here, only further underscoring his distance. Especially wrenching is Lamar’s descent into depression as he reflects on taking advantage of a young mother:
“I remember you was conflicted/Misusing your influence/Sometimes I did the same/Abusing my power, full of resentment…/Resentment that turned into a deep depression/Found myself screaming in a hotel room”
The guttural screams coming from Kendrick’s hotel room are the opening notes of “u” and the culmination of his guilt and crisis of faith. The refrain, “Loving you is complicated,” is a self-flagellating response to survivor’s guilt, delivered in an increasingly intoxicated soliloquy. Lamenting his sister’s teenage pregnancy, failing to visit a friend on his deathbed, and his general inability to adequately transform and be a part of the lives of his friends and family, “u” is a crucial turning point towards Kendrick’s growing conviction that “money can’t stop a suicidal weakness.” Other sources of value, purpose, and meaning must inform and inspire our affirmation that life is worth living despite these forms of despair.
From these depths, the album turns markedly with the Pharrell Williams and Sounwave produced “Alright.” Having stared into the abyss of meaninglessness in “u,” “Alright” sets up this question of life’s affirmation and meaning as a contest between faith in God, and a crisis of faith engendered by injustice and temptation. It might seem odd to treat the worldly question of justice as relevant for such existential and metaphysical speculations, but this is a misguided separation. When Lamar proclaims, “Wouldn’t you know/We been hurt, been down before…/nigga, when our pride was low/Lookin’ at the world like, ‘Where do we go?’” this is a question well within the realm of theodicy, namely: is the world hospitable to black folks’ strivings for flourishing and right?
While the joyous and life-affirming hook has become a staple of Black Lives Matter protests, the verses themselves detail the complicated struggle to reach this point. They explore Kendrick’s anxiety about his vices, and introduce yet another “magical” character, Lucy – the female personification of the devil. In both “Alright” and “For Sale? (Interlude),” Lucy tempts Kendrick with more pernicious promises, leading him back toward the lament about misusing influence and abusing power that ended “These Walls.” The difference here, however, is the addition of a moment of life-affirmation: “I didn’t wanna self destruct/The evils of Lucy was all around me/So I went runnin’ for answers/Until I came home.”
Given the problems with Kendrick’s initial return to Compton in the narrative, however, we should suspect that this gesture toward “home” refers not simply to his hometown, but to something more primordial. “Momma,” which subtly references the Pan-Africanist notion of “Motherland,” suggests that this space is none other than Africa. While on Kanye West’s Yeezus tour, Lamar traveled to South Africa and in almost every in-depth discussion about the album, Kendrick returns to this trip as a major influence on not only his music on his entire worldview.
Like the comedian Richard Pryor, the black nationalist icons Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, and the poet Maya Angelou, Lamar experiences Africa as a space of cultural readjustment, restorative values, and moral insight. In the third verse of “Momma,” he has a conversation with another spectral figure, a young boy who bears a striking resemblance to Kendrick himself, and offers wisdom that belies his years. Suggesting a deep ancestral connection, the boy exclaims, “Kendrick you do know my language/You just forgot because of what public schools had painted.” Continuing, the boy suggests that not just language and lineage were lost somewhere between Africa and Compton, but an appropriate sense of significance, of what would genuinely count as human progress:
“Oh I forgot, ‘Don’t Kill My Vibe,’ that’s right you’re famous/I used to watch on Channel 5, TV was taken/But never mind you’re here right now don’t you mistake it/It’s just a new trip, take a glimpse at your family’s ancestor/Make a new list, of everything you thought was progress/And that was bullshit, I mean your life is full of turmoil/Spoiled by fantasies of who you are, I feel bad for you/I can attempt to enlighten you, without frightening you.”
These, along with the issues of color discrimination within black communities that Lamar tackles in the Pete Rock-assisted “Complexion (Zulu Love)” are familiar themes in Afrocentric and black nationalist literature. Molefi Asante, a leading Afrocentrist intellectual, writes that it is a “false assertion that Africans in the Americas are not Africans connected to their spatial origin…African American culture and history represent developments in African culture and history, inseparable from place and time.” Writing in response to the problem of nihilism, or the loss of value, argues that “[i]f we have lost anything, it is our cultural centeredness; that is, we have been moved off our own platforms.” Or, in the last remarks of the preternatural child, “Tell your homies especially to come back home.” That this theme, of the relation between an African “home” and a Compton “home,” looms largely over To Pimp a Butterfly was further evidenced when Lamar, in a controversial, arresting, and astonishing performance at the 58th Grammy Awards, ended with a giant image of the African continent with the word “Compton” emblazoned across it.
The difficulty of reconciling the reigning ethos of Compton with an imagined Afro-futurist cultural redemption, however, is immediately thrust into relief with “Hood Politics.” A phone call from Compton brings Lamar hurtling back to wrestle again with survivor’s guilt, excising his tensions on the rap industry as if he was still “in the hood, 14 with the deuce-deuce.” Wrapping himself in the mantle of Compton, he revisits the antagonistic approach he most famously unleashed on the unofficially released Big Sean song, “Control,” where he challenged a host of leading rappers by name and provocatively declared himself the “King of New York.” The intensity of the response to his “Control” verse, and the inanity of both rap politics and American politics come in for withering scorn. Proclaiming, “Ya’ll priorities fucked up/put energy in wrong shit,” Lamar draws attention instead to a world where more serious problems, like mass incarceration and gang violence, are unfolding in “a continuous war back in the city.” “Hood politics” are, in this register, a distraction – often motivated by the self-serving attempt to prove “the stripes [you’ve] earned/Or maybe how A-1 [your] foundation was.” A similar concern animates the LoveDragon (Terrace Martin and Josef Leimberg) produced “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” where Lamar critiques overwrought performances of wealth and toughness, particularly among rappers, as pathetic attempts to fit in or impress their peers.
But is it possible to transcend these more narcissistic, or self-aggrandizing responses? To answer this, Lamar turns again back to Africa, and the enchantments of magical realism. On “How Much a Dollar Cost,” Lamar tells the story of pumping gas, when a homeless man approaches to ask him for ten rand for food. A rap superstar, standing alongside a luxury car, Lamar nonetheless refuses, assuming the man to be a crack addict. In the last two verses, remarkable for their rich phenomenological description, Lamar describes being held in place by the homeless man’s look of disbelief and disappointment. The audacity of his gaze sends Lamar, not to a place of mutual recognition, but toward anger and resentment, buoyed by a flood of associations between homelessness, substance abuse, and lack of desert. Lamar lets loose an abusive tirade toward the beggar, to which the latter responds by revealing himself to be Jesus Christ in disguise. Set to a richly melancholic LoveDragon score, with guest vocals by the singer and songwriter James Fauntleroy and the iconic Ronald Isley, “How Much a Dollar Cost” renders literal the Christian principle of all human beings as “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) and suggest its potential force against the stereotypes, prejudices, and rationalizations that sustain selfishness and injustice.
It is in this spirit, then, that we should understand the paeans to racial equality and justice manifest in “Complexion (Zulu Love)” and, the incredible standout track, “The Blacker the Berry.” The latter, which is set to a trunk-rattling Boi-1da and Koz instrumental, is arguably the most unadulterated and powerful artistic statement that “Black Lives Matter” since the movement first emerged. Gesturing toward his earlier Afro-futurist and Pan-Africanist sentiments, Lamar revels in a deeply embodied and inherited notion of blackness, declaring: “I’m African-American, I’m African/I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village/Pardon my residence/Came from the bottom of mankind/My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide.” These statements, far from the ranting of a racial chauvinist, are arrayed against the deep stigma and systemic disadvantages that confront African Americans. Thus, Lamar invokes the subordinate place of impoverished African Americans in the social order of the U.S. -- “I mean, it’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society/That’s what you’re telling me, penitentiary would only hire me.”
What separates Lamar’s trenchant critique from other protest music, however, is that – in the spirit of James Baldwin – he burrows under the notion of “hate” and “rage” to interrogate the frailties of human beings across the color line. When he proclaims, “I know you hate me just as much as you hate yourself,” to the racial resentment engendered by black success, he suggests the possibility of self-interrogation and self-criticism in his non-black audience. When he asks himself “so why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street/when gangbanging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?” he suggests that the moral strictures of “Black Lives Matter” cannot be contorted such that it does not apply to the plague of violence between African Americans.
The intractability of this violence, and our inability to summon a courageous moral response to it, troubles Lamar to the core. His suspicion that this failure involves an internalized sense of a lack of self-worth and dignity among African Americans receives its fullest exposition, and most sustained therapeutic intervention with the album’s first single, “i”: “Everybody lack confidence/Everybody lack confidence/How many times my potential was anonymous?/How many times the city making me promises?/So I promise this, nigga – I love myself!”
The symmetry with “u” is immediately striking, and it should register immediately that it is, in some sense, a response to the depths of dread and despair on display there. The heard-earned optimism and humble joy exhibited on the record is palpable, suggesting that, in a revitalized Christian faith, Pan-African identity, and virtuous humility, Lamar has discovered a mix of life-affirming ideals that respond adequately, for him, for now, to the challenge of nihilism. The challenge, however, is not simply to secure his own salvation, which would simply reinstate the problem of survivor’s guilt. Instead, Lamar must somehow become a leader in a project of broad cultural transformation and the establishment of new values.
In the album’s closing song, “Mortal Man,” Lamar ends by reflecting on this problem – communing with “the ghost of [Nelson] Mandela.” Lamar visited Robbins Island in South Africa where Mandela was imprisoned, learning of the enduring faith and dedication that the world-renowned anti-apartheid leader inspired in his followers. This kind of standing and influence, particularly in the scandal-obsessed culture that consumed Michael Jackson and others, is incredibly fragile. It demands an extraordinary level of constancy in character and commitment, and even those virtues are no guarantee of one’s impact. In response, Kendrick begs for us to “make room for mistakes and depression” as he “lead[s] this army” to a refounding of meaningful ideals and a more affirmative, hopeful orientation toward life amidst the decadence of the age.
As “Mortal Man” winds down, and Lamar reads the full version of the poem that has been building throughout the album in between tracks, we hear him turn immediately to a conversation with the deceased Tupac Shakur, as if the entire album or at least its closing poem, has been a performance principally for one man. Taking the audio from a little-known 1994 interview with a Swedish radio show, Lamar asks Shakur a series of questions that speak to the same questions that have guided the album throughout – social injustice, survivor’s guilt, religious faith, and black identity and resistance. Most fascinating, however, is that Lamar presses one subtle objection to Shakur, whose words, originally uttered in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, but hauntingly resonant post-Baltimore and Ferguson in 2016, portend the evolution of rioting and looting into “bloodshed for real…like Nat Turner, 1831.” Against this, Lamar suggests that the “only hope that we kinda have left is music and vibrations.” Describing his creative process, Lamar says that “Sometimes I…get behind a mic and I don’t know what type of energy I’mma push out, or where it comes from.” Shakur’s voice, as if in genuine conversation, adds that this is because “we ain’t even really rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us.” This quote, seemingly uttered by a dead man himself in perhaps the album’s most surreal moment, suggests that Lamar is an annointed conduit for these stories, perhaps even Shakur’s story, and the inheritor of the struggle to shape culture.
Lamar ends To Pimp a Butterfly by reading a short exposition of its central metaphor to Shakur. In it, the butterfly represents “the talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar.” He talks of how, when trapped inside the cocoon – the “institutionalized” mind and body meant to subordinate the potential butterfly to the caterpillar’s aims – the caterpillar actually can undertake severe introspection. “When trapped inside these walls,” Lamar continues, “certain ideas take roots, such as going home, and bringing back new concepts to this mad city.” These new ideas are the emergent wings of the butterfly, and that which allows it to “shed light on situations that the caterpillar never considered,” and show it the “talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty” within itself. When Lamar finishes, however, he asks Shakur for his perspective and no answer is forthcoming. The silence suggests that the magic has dissipated, and Lamar is again alone, in the M.A.A.D. city, with work to do and souls to save.