Answers From Within Op-Ed offers Thoughts on Kendrick Lamar new album To Pimp a Butterfly

kendrick lamar and children album imagery

The title of Kendrick Lamar’s third album, To Pimp a Butterfly, seems to play off of Harper Lee’s famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The book centers around Tom Robinson, an upstanding black man, being prosecuted for rape in 1930’s racially segregated Jim Crow-era Alabama. His lawyer, Atticus Finch, tells his children to not shoot at mockingbirds. Finch’s neighbor, Maudie Atkinson, explains why:

Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.“

Mockingbirds become the book’s symbol for the innocent and the beautiful. Butterflies can be categorized with the same level of harmless innocence but Lamar’s titular butterfly isn’t killed… rather, it is being pimped. Musician and writer Deemetry Treto breaks down the nuisances he discovers in Lamar’s musical choices for his third album.

Turmoil. Conflict. Dissonance.

These are words that summarize To Pimp A Butterfly well. I could write for pages and pages about the albums meanings, song for song, heck, even verse for verse, and it wouldn’t be an act of futility. That is why, if you haven’t already, I urge you to give this album a well-deserved listen from its first second to its last. Then, translate it for yourself. It isn’t done justice in fragments; it has some hard to digest notions, and it requires your full attention at first to enjoy it, but it all pays off in dividends the more you sit with it.

To Pimp a Butterfly is undeniably conflicted between a few elements, which define it to be conflict embodied in sound. One is the push and silk of funk and its close cousins; African culture, and thus, brown culture, embodied the same way it is on oldies stations. The hood is encapsulated in a style of sound. For those of you who don’t know, it is funk, soul, jazz, and disco that parents in L.A., and I’m sure in most of America’s more impoverished environments, bump.

Oldies. Easy living music for those who don’t live easy. It’s what many dance to at family gettogethers: weddings, birthdays, reunions, and post funeral celebrations of life. These very records birthed gangster rap. They blared out beater cars with shiny metal trim while chumps like me were being conceived. They even blared when those beater cars were still under 50k on the odometer conceiving our parents. Hip Hop is known to find power and meaning in referencing, sampling and recycling itself; To Pimp A Butterfly chooses to not only reference Hip Hop, but also the music that served as its foundation.

You have the king of funk himself, George Clinton, right there in the opening track. The second song, an interlude titled, For Free? sounds very similar to Gil Scott Heron’s iconic rap prototype The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. King Kunta and These Walls are literally funk/disco songs with rap over them. I don’t think it’s coincidental that gangster rap was very much the same thing; Gangster rap just used samples instead of live instrumentation to make it happen. Additionally, we have these beautiful vignettes performed by the likes of Snoop Dogg, Ronald Isley, Bilal, and Dr. Dre, all classic faces of the 90’s through early 2k Hip-Hop era.

Black culture is being transmitted at all times. It is being taught and contrasted against, indirectly, through sound.

So, take this, and now listen to the darkness infused with it. I’m not just talking about lyrics, which we’ll get to; I’m talking about the dissonance in the music itself. The production has these switches into this very tortured frame. It goes from smooth, serene, and sultry, to scarred, stark and stinted.

album cover kendrick lamar

Cover art for To Pimp a Butterfly

It’s outright distressing. It rings in the ear. The words are veiled by sweet vibes, and show their true visage under the hard light of the album’s darker zones. U is the pinnacle of these dark tangents in the album, creating a portrait of a man imprisoned in his own debilitating depression, broken promises and self-doubt. You can smell the alcohol in the air; you can see the tears reflected in the hotel mirror.

It isn’t just Kendrick’s inflection, but the broken stereo effects, the saturated reverb, the bottle clangs and choked background vocals that serve as colors on the palette. Choices like these are made throughout the album, giving it a meaning that pierces past its sonic face values. When you have a song about the devil (For Sale?) that sounds as sweet, pleasant, and smooth as the temptations Kendrick perceives to be receiving from the devil, something more is going on than just a beat behind vocals.

On this note, let’s get to the most obvious contributor to the civil war within this album; the confusion portrayed by the lyrics. When The Blacker the Berry dropped, it threw a lot of people for a loop. Much like Kendrick’s supposed “drinking anthem”, Swimming Pools from Good Kidd, M.A.D.D. City, The Blacker the Berry masks its true meaning to the casual listener very well. It stirred reaction and sentiment about police brutality, systematic oppression, social engineering, and other key topics in black culture since much of the song lists these issues.

Yet, in the last verse, Kendrick reveals something he has hinted to throughout the song: he is a hypocrite. His rational is that while all these issues may be present, the other side of the coin is that he, trying to represent black culture at large, isn’t helping the situation. He is making it worse.

artwork to pimp a butterfly

With this, the hook is then given a very different meaning. Blacks are compared to berries and the blacker they are, the more their “juice” sates a thirst. Some thought this was to say something to the effect of black is beautiful (which is partially the thought). It also seemed this thirst represents hatred and oppression from the system, but now we see it also can function as sating a thirst for revenge. Kendrick is asking how he and the black community can possibly say they’re entirely progressive when gangbanging is such a present issue in the community.

In today’s world of powerful social media, various groups are more than ever given a global stage to effect change and gather supporters. With all the good to be done, at times, zeal behind these movements can viciously reject and destroy those with even logical dissenting opinions. So with this in mind, Kendrick isn’t making a light statement. Maybe that is why many critics felt so confused, and defaulted to only one side of the discussion.

To Pimp a Butterfly isn’t a one-sided story. There is no easy answer for the culture’s problems. The album is both a celebration of and insult to black, hip hop, and youth culture today. It is simultaneously an homage and an ugly behind the scenes of the culture’s history.

It’s a child in blackface with a panther fist up. It’s a mother thankful for much needed welfare with a fat fuckin middle finger to the world. It’s a corner store robbery with a peace sign on the grip of the .38.

It’s the voice of hypocrisy speaking of hypocrisy.

I feel that Kendrick wants us to acknowledge this, and be wary of it. If the culture won’t acknowledge where it is wrong, how can it expect to grow past its inner issues, such as black on black crime and racism.

Right before “Institutionalized”, we are introduced to this poem that is continuously built upon throughout the album. Each time it is revisited, its meaning is made clearer by the tracks that follow it, ending in the final minutes of the album to serve the function of something of a letter. (To whom you ask? You’ll have to listen to the album for yourself to find out; this writer won’t spoil the effect.)

The poem’s most direct meaning is to discuss what it is to go from rags to riches, to be a man from the ghetto and make it into a position of wealth and influence. That entails details on the rise itself, the temptations and abuses of power, the disconnection from one’s roots, the constant fluctuations of ego, the sense that the limelight is limited (and what will come after it’s end), questions of spirituality/faith and the inner turmoil that all this creates.

After this first poem is finally revealed in its finished form, another, more succinct poem emerges. It tells the story of a caterpillar imprisoned by the streets surrounding it. It decides to take advantage of the butterfly’s image by cocooning and becoming a butterfly itself, but strictly with selfish intentions. It is a poem of not only evolution, it touches on the dangers of not evolving.

Are you really who they idolize? To Pimp a Butterfly.”

This line is sung by George Clinton in the opening track, Wesley’s Theory.” It serves as an omen for a key overarching point.

In the same way it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, it is a sin to pimp a butterfly. It is an act of selfishness and destruction. It is allowing the culture to take another blow for materialism and petty desires.

In Kendrick’s poem, at the end of its transformation, the butterfly sees the world in a way the caterpillar couldn’t. It sees that there is more to the world than one’s self. It desires to share this knowledge with its fellow brethren and ease the chaos rampant both outside and within.

It is from within that the caterpillar grew to become the butterfly. It is from within that we can hope to do the same.

To Pimp a Butterfly is not just a masterpiece, it is an album that will undoubtedly be seen as a key point in Hip-Hop. This is the type of work that demonstrates where a genre can be taken. More importantly, it is the type of album that could only have been created as a result of the genre’s innate history and reflection of black culture.

DEEMETRY TRETO, also known as Grei, is a music producer, writer, and creative lead. His music marriages unique sample based material and emotive composition, with an emphasis on stand alone instrumental work, and a foundation in Hip Hop. His writing touches often on the creative process, as well as “in-to-outrospective” thoughts gleaned from media exposure and day to day life. When he isn’t traveling around the city, Deemetry spends his time in a bedroom studio in southside Los Angeles raising his cat, Zoei, while eating comical amounts of cereal and having headphones sewn to his ears. You can find his music at soundcloud.com/greirecords.

kendrick lamar money booklet

Kendrick Lamar poses with a 40 ounce and floor covered in money for album artwork of To Pimp a Butterfly.