‘To pimp a butterfly’ – what does it mean?

WORDS BY ANISH PETIT

 

Compton. An urban jungle with mixtures of different ethnicities, cultures and stories, all of which we have heard before from hip-hop pioneers (and arguably the most controversial group of MC’s in history), NWA. Compton is a city of opportunities and wonders, as much as it is a city renowned for its gang culture and violence.

Kendrick Lamar, K-Dot, Cornrow Kenny, King Kendrick.  Whatever you want to call him, one thing is clear; he allows us to peer inside the universe of thoughts and emotions that traverse across the mind of a young creative. Born and raised in Bompton, he succeeded through the very same system that  countless young, minority males are trying to escape.

With three official mixtapes, his ‘Hub City Threat’ mixtape (released when he was no older than 16) and 3 studio albums, Kendrick Lamar has a strong discography, to say the least. In the long run, I cannot see him ruining this run either. In my opinion, each release succeeds its predecessor. ‘Good Kid M.A.A.D City’, Kendrick’s major label debut, was met with critical success and fans praising it as if the lord had laid down this tape himself.

I don’t necessarily agree with this. Of course, ‘GKMC’ was an amazing album, no doubt about it, but it was Kendrick’s medium to make his sound appealing to your average hip-hop fan and to get his name in the conversations of “the best of the new school”. He found a sound that appealed to a wide audience. However, as stated by Kendrick, his latest album (“To Pimp A Butterfly”), was the truest insight into his mind. This was the album he’d wanted to make his whole career. I should also mention ‘Section.80’ too. Although is his weakest studio album in my opinion, it would still blow most rappers’ best albums out of the water with ease.  This isn’t about Kendrick Lamar in general however; this is about his latest album and its impact on the hip-hop community.

Streamed 9.6 million times in the first night and getting him 11 Grammy nominations (7 of which he won), ‘TPAB’ is a masterpiece. Forget numbers though, leave that to the die-hard Drake fans (woops, shots) and let’s talk about its importance in, not only Hip Hop culture, but its importance to music. The compilation spoke to people of different eras and even genres; David Bowie, in regards to the making of his final album, claimed he was influenced a large amount by ‘TPAB’. Whilst creating ‘Blackstar’, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ was on repeat in the studio. A blissful blend, of trap, old school hip-hop, jazz, funk, soul, spoken-word and poetry  fuels this project. This gives it enough energy to carry it around the world, to the ears of all different colours and creeds. Upon its arrival, this album was considered an instant classic that would go down in the history books.

The first thing I questioned when this album was released was, “Why ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ – what does this mean?” Upon research, I found there are several different explanations, all given by Kendrick, as to why the title is what it is. This is almost a foreshadowing for the rest of the album because, as well as the title, nearly every song on this album is riddled with double, maybe even triple-entendres. You have the freedom to interpret it any way you want, or you can see the multiple ways in which Kendrick explains naming the album. The best one I stumbled across was K-Dot telling us that, as a celebrity, he basically is the butterfly. He states the title signifies “using my celebrity for good” and “not being pimped by the industry through my celebrity”. After listening to the album, I understand that the caterpillar was Kendrick before he broke out of Compton and could express himself. Similarly, the cocoon represents the walls of his consciousness as he traps himself within his own thoughts. Not letting anything in or out. This close-minded behavior was then converted into becoming this metaphorical ‘butterfly’. The breaking out of the cocoon represents his rise to fame and even breaking past his own thoughts to see the beauty of the outside world. The ‘pimping’ is when all the money and glory that comes with the fame. Hence, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is born.

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The album artwork for Mr. Lamar’s latest studio album, To Pimp A Butterfly.

Before we indulge ourselves in the maze of ‘TPAB’s music, we have to first consider the album’s artwork. Everyone on the cover of the album is known by Kendrick, personally. The artwork is a powerful statement with a group of African-American men standing outside the White House. Kendrick explained why he did this in an interview; the basic message was ‘Wherever I go, Compton comes with me’. Lastly, we see a judge, dead (as marked by the X’s on his eyes) on the floor, with the group of men over/above him. The way I look at it: Kendrick is basically saying fuck the system, ya bish.

Let’s start with the feature list. Thundercat played a big part in the backing tracks for this album. Bilal glues together Kendrick’s verses on track 4 and 5 beautifully with soulful and bluesy vocals. Anna Wise also does an equally brilliant.  Snoop Dogg, James Fauntleroy, Ronald Isley and Rapsody all do their jobs with expert precision. It becomes apparent that each feature has been worked into/around the song they’re in, with musical finesse. However, I saved this feature until last: George f*cking Clinton. If you don’t know who this man is then go do your damn homework and have it in to me by Monday morning! No, but seriously, long story short – if George Clinton didn’t do things the way he has over his career, a lot of ‘TPAB’ wouldn’t even exist or sound anywhere near as sonically pleasing as it does. The man is simply a legend. It’s worth crediting that the production on this album is a 10/10 for me. I pay my respect to the production team in charge, because it isn’t often I hear an album cover-to-cover without going “WTF is this mixing?” at least once.

Let me say this now, I don’t think there are any key songs on this album. Each individual track is required and needed to paint the picture and tell the story. There is not too much, there is no too little, Kendrick tells the story exactly how it needed to be told. Let’s go…

Wesley’s Theory: This is the opening track. It sets the story off with topics linked to the next 3 songs (skipping ‘Institutionalized’, so ‘These Walls’ is included). This song talks about the uprising of Kendrick Lamar’s career and how a man who has lived in poverty his whole life handles becoming rich and famous. The song opens with a sample from Boris Gardiner’s song ‘Every N***** is a Star’ – a song with an interesting message, similar to the message Kendrick conveys on this album. Then, with a “Hit me!” the song breaks into an upbeat funky pre-chorus that will get mostly anyone dancing in their seat. What I have picked up from this song is that Kendrick is power–tripping with his new found wealth and fame, as well as trying to cope with all the new avenues he can explore with his money. He is almost making promises to himself and the people. He knows that he’s going to buy technically everything he possibly can. However, the second verse isn’t from Kendrick’s perspective; it is from Uncle Sam’s. Uncle Sam represents America and the government as they are telling Kendrick what they seemingly tell every black man that makes it to wealth from poverty: “Buy all you want, spend all your money, at the end of the day it benefits us and then when you financially slip up we’ll ‘Wesley Snipe you’ ”. Wesley Snipe was a famous African-American actor, then when he was caught for tax evasion the government took his money and put him in prison. This song focuses on the temptations that Kendrick went through on the come-up of going from nothing to having anything he wants.

Institutionalized: This track was a very powerful one to me. Kendrick talks about going to an award show and bringing one of his homies from the hood. It starts with Kendrick talking about how he feels trapped in the ghetto, as if he can’t escape where he’s come from and who he truly is. Then vocals from Anna Wise come in as she talks as if she’s in the same mindset that Kendrick was in on ‘Wesley’s Theory’. The interesting thing about his track is that Kendrick raps from his friend’s perspective in the second verse. His friend is telling him about his temptations as someone who lives in the hood to steal from these rich people around him. Not to mention Snoop D-O-Double-G is on the hook with vocals from Bilal too (speaking as Kendrick’s Grandmother).

U: This song has to be one of the greatest songs of last year. Understand the song and that’s not opinion. It’s fact. Okay, maybe sonically the song isn’t the most pleasing, but the passion in Kendrick’s voice, twinned with the production and message in his lyrics, make up for it all… in fact they make me forget that an easy listen existed. This is a hard song to listen to, not because it’s a bad song, but because of what is exactly being presented in the track. In the grand scheme of things, where this song is placed on the album’s running order takes you by surprise, but creates that effect for a reason: break-downs can happen at any point. And that’s something we can all relate to. In the first verse, Kendrick takes the place of his consciousness talking to himself. Maliciously targeting his own pride, Kendrick rips himself off his self-made pedestal and tells himself that he doesn’t deserve it. He tells himself that his talent is nothing special and he doesn’t use it in the way he should. He’s selfish and unaware of how he is affecting the people around him and that he abused his power in all the wrong ways. In the second and third verse, it hit home for me. Kendrick is drunk in a hotel room (room-service voices before the verse and bottles hitting against each other during the verse) and he has finally lost it completely. Stories about how he left his loved ones for fame have Kendrick on the floor contemplating whether he deserves his fame at all. In fact, the honesty and horror of these two verses sound as if he doubts his existence as a whole. He does talk about suicide at the end, and how he should have taken his own life a long time ago. This song precedes ‘Alright’ on the tracklist. By having ‘alright’ follow ‘U’, we see a chronological story of Kendrick recovering from this slump and coming back by empowering himself as a Black male. Furthermore, how many other modern songs will you hear getting chanted by a rally of student’s all together to stand up for black rights? There’s something satisfying about hearing hundreds, maybe thousands of people marching, chanting “WE GON’ BE ALRIGHT”.

Hood Politics: Now this is another, if you like, ‘section’ to the album. After Kendrick’s journeys and travels around the world he finally returns home, to Compton. In this song, we are reminded of the exact gang mentality that still sticks on his mind every day. However, he seems to speak from a younger Kendrick (which is only one interpretation I’ve picked up from listening) which is why his voice is slightly higher. This was Kendrick’s mentality back when gangs and Compton was all he knew. In the previous song ‘Momma’, it is the complete opposite of this track as he says he can’t remember what it’s like in the hood, but then he contrasts it by taking us all back. This song is a representation of what it’s like growing up in Compton.

How Much A Dollar Cost: That’s a good point. How much does a dollar cost? Well in this,  Kendrick drops a jewel on us; It costs a lot. The song is very religiously driven (but religion is the backbone of a lot of the album), telling of Kendrick’s experience when he meets a homeless man. The man asks Kenny for a dollar, “no less, no more” but he sees red. He cannot see himself funding the man’s drug addiction, although the man says that he has “defeated temptation”. The whole song is Kendrick in conflict about how he worked for his money and the man should do the same – every dollar is Kendrick’s to keep. It’s one of those songs on the album you gotta make sure you don’t skip until the very end. You’d be a fool to skip any song on this album anyway. But what this song truly taught me, is that I need to realise how lucky I am to live how I live, and that giving up what means so little to us can mean the world to another person.

The Blacker The Berry: The sweeter the juice. You’re just making me thirsty now. In fact, almost as thirsty as Kendrick is for answers on this song, as he focuses on the topic of black discrimination. In the first and second verses, he aims at the white man that is prejudicing him for being a black man from a poor area. These verses are very powerful, and Kendrick again changes his vocals to an aggressive, yet heart-felt, voice; set to rip right through the hearts of whoever this song is being observed by. On the other hand, the third verse takes a dramatic turn in who he’s aiming at, but this was inevitable considering the rest of the album. Kendrick does what he does best and analyses himself – he criticises himself. It becomes clear in this album just how self-aware Kendrick really is. The last verse he turns around on himself. When you listen to the song, you’ll hear all of his self-criticisms. The one that really blew me away was probably the best set of bars I’ve ever heard, and probably ever will hear, from Kendrick:

So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers
Or tell Georgia State “Marcus Garvey got all the answers”
Or try to celebrate February like it’s my B-Day
Or eat watermelon, chicken and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements
Or watch BET cause urban support is important
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging make me kill a n*gga blacker than me?
Hypocrite!”

… It doesn’t take much of an explanation to know why there was so much hype when this song released. And god damn did he perform it well at the 58th Grammy Awards (along with alright and an untitled song). It’s enough to bring the darkest skinned to lightest skinned beings to tears, and force them to question humanity.

Mortal Man: A mortal man, set to make himself immortal if he keeps going as he’s going now. This is the grand finale; the outro to the album in which he ties the project up in a 12 minute explosion of honesty, modesty, and glory with a fantastically emotional ending. The first verse is aimed directly at the people listening to this song. Most importantly, a lot of this song is aimed at his fans (which is probably anyone who listens to this album by this point) to ask them some reflective questions. The main question that he repeats so often in the hook is “When shit hits the fan, is you still a fan?” and my answer to that is: depends what you do wrong Kendrick. Just don’t do a Kid Cudi and bring out your own equivalent to ‘Speedin’ Bullet To Heaven’. My favourite lines in the first verse, to put myself back on track, are:

“Want you to love me like Nelson, want you to hug me like Nelson
I freed you from being a slave in your mind, you’re very welcome” 

The second verse is aimed at the people he holds close. This includes his girlfriend, his family, and even himself. Talking to himself and questioning himself as he does in ‘U’. Here, however, he seems to be in a more stable state of mind. One thing that reoccurs a lot in this track is Kendrick comparing himself to ‘Nelson’ (Nelson Mandela). He doesn’t say he is Nelson, but he says he wants to be Nelson, and wants everyone to treat each other similar to how Nelson Mandela would have treated them. I have to mention the beautiful instrumentation in this song and I have to pay my respect to those in charge of production again. They do a brilliant job from start to finish.

But this track astounds me, particularly for as follows:

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Kendrick is photographed here, beneath an image of his greatest musical inspiration; Tupac Shakur.

Throughout the whole album you are able to pick up, at the start and end of most songs, Kendrick reciting poetry. The poem below documents the album, and ties every subject matter on the album, into one poem. He reads the poem with some live instruments and naturally easy-on-the-ear sounds in the background, to make it even more powerful. Then, what happens next, is one of the single most genius things I have encountered in hip-hop.. ever. Who does King Kenny read the poem to? None other than Tupac Shakur. As a Kendrick fan, I know that his biggest influence was ‘Pac. Kendrick reads another poem to Tupac, apparently written by a friend of Kendrick’s. The poem is about the caterpillar and butterfly. Using the metaphor, it describes what Kendrick, or anyone who has done similar to him, has been through. It also pushes you in a direction to help you understand the title of this album. At the end of this poem, Kendrick asks what Tupac’s opinion is on the final poem and Pac does not reply. He suddenly disappears. My interpretation of this is that Kendrick is conveying that Tupac still lives within him and he feels like he is connected to Pac, even to the point where he feels he has talked to him (which he hasn’t). This also, may be a reference to the time ‘Pac, according to Kendrick, and I quote, “visited me in a vision”.

 

To conclude, I will not say anything except this: it may not be your cup of tea, but give it a try. It may change your outlook on life forever or, failing that, maybe help you understand Kendrick more as a celebrity and human being. But that is no real conclusion; I will simply leave you with the poem that runs through the album. Thank you for reading, Hiiipower to you:

“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
Until I came home
But that didn’t stop survivor’s guilt
Going back and forth trying to convince myself the stripes I earned
Or maybe how A-1 my foundation was
But while my loved ones was fighting the continuous war back in the city
I was entering a new one
A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination
Made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned
The word was respect
Just because you wore a different gang color than mines
Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man
Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets
If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us
But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man, maybe I’m just another n*gga”

 

Thanks for reading.

Hit me up on insta: @Nishpetit

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