Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” Review

TPAB

I loved this review of Kendrick Lamar’s newest album so much that I had to post it. I didn’t write this, for the record.

To Pimp A Butterfly [TPAB] is the story of where Kendrick was/is in his life post-good kid m.A.A.d. city [GKMC].

It’s best to view this more as an audiobook than album. You’ll appreciate it more. I’m not being pretentious, just being honest. I would really suggest to those who like the album and what Kendrick’s trying to accomplish here: do not short change this project by comparing it to other hip-hop albums! The beats are providing a backdrop — similiar to a movie score — and should not be your central focus. There’s a reason that there’s little-to-no ‘bars’ (i.e. memorable lines, etc.) on the album: it’s a story, not merely a collection of songs. I’m floored with this concept and him using ‘Pac circa ’94 as inspiration. ‘Pac was leading a movement of hood niggas. Just like Kendrick is on the album cover. He just had to become strong enough to handle the responsibility.

This isn’t just Section.80 2.0, it’s the mission he’s been on since then. Deep shit, man. A literary masterpiece…:

  • Wesley’s Theory : He doesn’t want to be another Wesley Snipes (i.e. snatched up by critical acclaim and fame at an early age). Young Wesley was featured in a Spike Lee film when he was still considered an avant garde director and in Michael fucking Jackson’s first post-Thriller video for Bad directed by Martin Scorsese…that’s pretty famous, pretty fast. Why? What’s the outcome? The government/America/the powers that be — the “Uncle Sam” the woman will get to “fuck you up” referenced later — will come bearing down on you. Just like they did Wesley…
  • King Kunta :  This track begins the thread of self-doubt masked in braggadocio contained throughout the entire album until he reaches self-actualization — “I love myself!” — at the end of the album when he becomes a Negus. Hence the introduction of the poem that tells his state of mind post-GKMC at the end of this song. This track is critical in understanding this album. He’s becoming to realize that he’s a slave to the powers that be and this is his response as a black man. “He’s mad…but he ain’t stressin!” He’s accepted his fate. And what happens when you accept your fate to the powers that be? You become…
  • For Free? :  …and guess who the woman talking is portraying during this piece? That’s right, she’s America/the powers that be. Everything she wants are the things that Kendrick doesn’t want to become. Kendrick’s response? “This dick ain’t free”. He doesn’t play by the machine’s rules. And the response from America/the powers that be is “nigga you ain’t no King!” Hence, the next track…
  • Institutionalized : This song is his justification for why he’s become “institutionalized” — i.e. giving into fame/the powers that be for the sake of his art — and reasons why he will never become institutionalized all the same. Hence Snoop giving the biographical recap of just who Kendrick is. This continues the poem’s (“I remember you were conflicted…”) story. This internal conflict leads to…
  • These Walls :  It’s Kendrick’s confession that he has in fact “made love” with the powers that be and the marriage is one of convenience. This leads to his breakdown. The “I can’t believe myself and who I’m becoming” state of mind that leads to…
  • u :  Kendrick’s self-doubt officially becomes self-loathing. He’s taking himself to the woodshed and doing some real self-reflection. This is probably the most straight-forward message on the album. But, he’s trying to overcome this state of depression and reminds himself that he’s gonna be…
  • Alright :  The beginning of the “pick himself off the mat” state of mind. But, before he can completely overcome his struggles with doubt, denial and depression, he’s faced with his biggest challenge yet…understanding he is in fact…
  • For Sale?   Lucy (or Lucifer)  is enticing Kendrick more than ever by directly letting him know what material possessions the powers that be can provide for him. There’s a reason that this is posed as a question in the title. Kendrick doesn’t know the answer. And to discover the answer, he needs to go home to…
  • Momma : Kendrick goes home to be reminded of what’s most important to him and to begin to gain his confidence back. Hence the constant reminder that “I know everything…” throughout the track. Once he realizes he has the answers, he’s ready to take on this burden of fame, etc.; however, while he’s home, he realizes that things in his hood still aren’t right. He’s made it, but his hood (Compton) is left behind to deal with the perils that come with poverty, being a black man, etc. His homies thinks he’s changed and start playing…
  • Hood Politics :  This song begins with what is one of Kendrick’s OGs making fun of what Kendrick has become and they barely recognize who he is now. And with that, Kendrick begins to “fight back” and his defense mechanism is to remind all of these guys who thinks he’s changed that they are “boo boo”. However, what if they are right? And if so, the question is…
  • How Much A Dollar Cost? : A deep question, and again, no answer is given. But what’s key is that Kendrick’s confidence is beginning to show flashes of its old self. Going back home has Kendrick asking himself the right questions and with the help of the OGs/family/his girl/the Lord, he has a renewed sense of purpose and pride (black pride, to be specific). It’s also important to contextualize the ’94 ‘Pac influence again. ’94 ‘Pac was arguably one of the most known “black” revolutionaries of his time — Farrakhan was still foremost — and it’s clear that Kendrick is beginning to sense the same responsibility to his community. And much like ‘Pac in ‘94, he has the vision and purpose, but no answer…
  • Complexion :  This is what I’d imagine is his ode to black pride and will go down as one of Kendrick’s definitive tracks whenever his career is complete. What is the most powerful moment of this track is the inclusion of a woman, which is fantastic as it reinforces the notion of black women being just as important to black community and culture as the homies that he’s trying to reach. And now, think about the single cover for the next track (a woman breast feeding)…
  • The Blacker The Berry :  This phrase is commonly referred to reinforce black pride in black women and their complexion (remember this song?). Again, an exploration of black pride, but also an acknowledgment and act of consciousness. He now knows that he’s a hypocrite as much of his views conflict with and even oppose one another. This is again another layer of his renewed responsibility to continue to ask tough questions without providing answers. He hopes to get the answer later (this is why the ending is sooooo important)…
  • You Ain’t Got To Lie (Momma Said) :  By going home  (hence the Momma Said in the title)  he discovers purpose, renewed confidence, pride in his community, pride in his race, etc. and now he’s nearly reached the stage of self-actualization: realizing exactly who he is, “you ain’t got to lie to kick my nigga” (i.e. be yourself) and most importantly…love yourself.
  • i :  This is his moment of self-actualization. He’s ready to carry the torch. But again, this comes with a burden. He’s shunning fame/the powers that be and doing things his way (there’s a reason that this was chosen as the initial single. It was this story carried out in real life…he shunned expectations when this single was released last year). However, with this power comes great responsibility. He’s ready to lead. And as with any man looking to lead his people, he has accepted his fate, and he accepts the fact that he is a…
  • Mortal Man :  Kendrick has accepted his responsibility, found his purpose and now (as anyone must do when they assume the mantle), he’s seeking guidance. He knows who he is. But he still doesn’t have the answers. And in seeking to get the answers, he presents ‘Pac with his backstory —the six-part poem — and hopes to get answers and wisdom…who was the ultimate mortal man in hip-hop? Tupac Shakur.

No answers are yet given, but this is the story of how they (America/the powers that be/your own self-doubt) tried to pimp (lose self-identity and self-worth for material gain) a butterfly (a beautiful and now powerful black man).”

— DGIsAWinner, comment section of Review: Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ Is a Dark Album for a Dark Time

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