Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly

To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar is currently the most publicly controversial rap artist that challenges both his listeners and the common people. He puts stereotypes to shame in his song ‘Blacker The Berry,’ and analyzes the black mans struggles of maintaining wealth in today’s world on the opening track, ‘Wesley’s Theory.’ The trend of mainstream radio rap consists of consumerist attitudes towards self-improvement, branding, wealth and overall reputation of character. This branding is everywhere, but turns artist’s songs into commercials or advertisements of big products. Kendrick does not do this, rendering him an authentic and genuine artist of this generation. Not to say that branding is what transforms a writer to an inauthentic being, but limiting advertising and flashy hooks leaves rooms for more positive influence.

Rapper Bobby Shmurda is known for being a New York gangbanger with history of violent crimes and drug offenses, a few short weeks after his hit single ‘Hott Nigga’ dropped, Shmurda was charged with felony amounts of drugs and speculation of murder. T.I. was arrested for gun charges, 50 Cent is known for being shot in the face nine times, Biggie’s death, and Tupac’s death; it all looms on the minds of Hip-Hop rappers, and listeners alike. These are just small samples of how negative some rappers images and lifestyles are in the media. Kendrick is a rapper that has recently shed light onto the dark subject of the negative rapper image.

Rapper image is largely African American, with the same to be said of its clientele. This has created a cyclical groove of gangbangin’ and story telling, a tale that is often told by up-jumped thug-poets. But this does not just reach to listeners of rap, Wesley Snipe’s issue of tax evasion is cited in the album To Pimp a Butterfly as an example of the black cultures failure for improvement as a culture. Kendrick calls out his own race, and he calls out the individual, illustrating to listeners what Kendrick has done with his success and how to maintain it and spread your knowledge and stories of failure and misfortune from a little west coast city called Compton, California. Kendrick’s self-example is his portrayal of hope for the ‘black and brown people’ of the future.

Kendrick mocks himself as “Compton’s human sacrifice,” the embodiment of struggle and survival from the streets of Compton. Kendrick’s narrative did not start with this most recent album though. His 2012 album Good Kid M.A.A.D City is what created Kendrick’s platform of respect. Spaced out between Kendrick’s songs on GKMC are voicemails from his mother. The voicemails are juxtaposed to a chronological 12-song, day in the life of Compton’s K-Dot.

GKMC starts with Kendrick borrowing his mom’s van and ends with one of his closest friends getting murdered. Home invasion, hood rats and gun toters are all K-Dots problems growing up as a young black kid in Compton, but it is this voicemail from his mom that leads to his transformation into Kendrick Lamar:

I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes, and come back a man. Tell your story to these black and brown kids from Compton. Let ‘em know you was just like them, but you rose from this dark place, becoming a positive person; and when you do make it, give back.

It is this message from his mom that lays the foundation for Kendrick’s positive movement. Most rappers rap about the game of drug dealing, street life and murder, here Kendrick uses those stories as example, to learn from, to grow from, and to teach other younger kids in this world. He is a positive influence and strays from the path of most others. He is a leader.

To Pimp a Butterfly is Kendrick’s most recent studio album (2014) that uses live instruments as the basis of the album, as opposed to most Hip-Hop artists computer recorded beats. The beats alone can be amazingly powerful for displaying attitude, tone and message, but Lamar’s use of true instruments adds more life. Barthes’s Mythologies comment on the unearthly plastics and rubbers do not have as much value to a toy like wood does. It has a natural element that takes care and resonates a lively aura; this example can be directly used as an analogy of live instrument versus computer beats.
The personal imagery added to Kendrick’s character is a pace changer and is what creates his authentic sound. Kendrick fluctuates his voice in a dramatic way to display different emotions and people in his stories. The song ‘u’ is about Kendrick’s pivotal moment of self-reflection in a hotel room where he contemplates suicide. It is noted on that the lines in this song are a response to Kendrick’s inability to control the people closest to him while he is touring and performing. His friend dies, sister gets pregnant years too early, and Kendrick’s alcoholism does not help solve his depression. This song paints Kendrick’s ongoing poem throughout To Pimp a Butterfly.

"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 the hotel room
I didn’t wanna self-destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers…”

Much like Kendrick’s first album, where he contrasted all of his stories with a voicemail from his mother, he now ended every song on To Pimp a Butterfly with one line from this poem. The poem keeps going but the corresponding song that follows carefully characterizes each line of the poem. This method is unmatched in the music industry; Kendrick uses these devices throughout his albums to relay his message to the audience. This way of creation creates layers to his music, giving his Hip-Hop flow more depth and meaning to a demographic of listeners who are constantly troubled with music that barely scratches the surface of reality.

But the poem mentioned above is not the only poem Kendrick recites in this album. Most importantly, Kendrick recites his poem To Pimp a Butterfly to a pre-recorded conversation with the late Tupac. At the very end of track 16 ‘Mortal Man,’ Kendrick recites his poem:

“The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it its only job is to eat or consume everything around it, in order to protect itself from this mad city. While consuming its environment the caterpillar begins to notice ways to survive. One thing it noticed is how much the world shuns him, but praises the butterfly. The Butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar. But having a harsh outlook on life the caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak and figures out a way to pimp it to his own benefits. Already surrounded by this mad city the caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon, which institutionalizes him. He can no longer see past his own thoughts; He’s trapped. When trapped inside these walls certain ideas take roots, such as going home, and bringing back new concepts to this mad city. The Result? Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant. Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations that the caterpillar never considered, ending the internal struggle. Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same.”

Kendrick ends this poem asking Tupac what his perspective is on this poem, but Pac doesn’t answer. Pac doesn’t answer because he is dead, it is up to the listeners, up to Kendrick, and up to black culture to decide what the poem means. The interpretation is up in the air, are you the butterfly or the caterpillar? Either way, you are all the same and it is up to you to harness change.

This deep level of intellectual being is something that cannot be produced or ‘ghost written’ by other people. Kendrick is his own entity and writes with his own emotions and his own stories. He is the self-proclaimed king of rap and the title sticks. King Kendrick received The West Coast Torch from rap legends Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. Kendrick also dissed the rap industry on a verse in Big Sean’s song ‘Control,’ saying “I got love for you all but I’m trying to murder y’all niggas… trying to raise the bar high.” Kendrick proclaims himself king on the track ‘King Kunta,’ saying “now I run the game, got the whole world talking, King Kunta.”

Kendrick’s understanding of his elite status and realness is what sets him apart from all other artists of this generation. His Authenticity is proved through his ability to relay his stories into life lessons, using his tragedies of Compton life to steer the “black and brown kids” away from a life that is so negative. Kendrick utilizing his talents to educate listeners and preach his philosophies is what elevates his status to a more kingly influence. This rapid grasp of influence and the rap game itself is what turns an artists work into legendary pieces of artwork. But throughout To Pimp a Butterfly Kendrick doesn’t only educate, he also tells of his woes throughout success. Inability to maintain relationships back at home, the inability to stop individual acts of terror in his neighborhood still eats at him. It is Kendrick’s constant struggle that humanizes him into something relatable and respected. Kendrick is currently unrivaled in the game and as long as he puts out music he will continue to be one of the most authentic and respected images in the Hip-Hop industry.

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