The Most Important Album of the 21st Century: Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp A Butterfly"

Looky here, America

What you done done—

Let things drift

Until the riots come.

            -Langston Hughes, Beaumont to Detroit 1943

The poet Langston Hughes penned this poem after a series of race riots swept the nation during the spring and summer of 1943, at the height of U.S. involvement in World War II. That year, there were race riots in Los Angeles, which had a burgeoning military industry, and in Mobile, Alabama. Two of the most notable riots took place in Beaumont, TX and Detroit, MI.

The Detroit race riot broke out in June and lasted for three days before thousands of federal troops were called in to establish control. At the time, commissions made up of whites revealed their bias, attributing the riot to black hoodlums. The NAACP identified as causes longstanding problems in city housing and job discrimination, lack of minority representation in the police, and police brutality (Capeci & Wilkerson, 1990). 

According to the Detroit News: Future Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, then with the NAACP, assailed the city’s handling of the riot. He charged that police unfairly targeted blacks while turning their backs on white atrocities. He said that 85 percent of those arrested were black while whites overturned and burned cars in front of the Roxy Theater with impunity as police watched. “This weak-kneed policy of the police commissioner coupled with the anti-Negro attitude of many members of the force helped to make the riot inevitable.” 

When Hughes’s poem is read it its entirety, it forces America to confront the events of the summer of 1943; and to consider the role of blacks in a supposed democracy. He concludes the poem by asking, “how long I got to fight both Hitler and Jim Crow?” Riots defined by “race” have taken place between ethnic groups in the United States as early as the pre-Revolution era of the 18th century to beyond the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement’s Period.

Today, the wounds of America’s past are far from being healed. If anything, a callus has grown in the form of decrepit school systems, indecent housing, and mass incarceration. As legal scholar Michelle Alexander argues in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, "that we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely reassigned it."

The events of the past couple of years regarding police misconduct and brutality are nothing new. African American’s have been speaking out against this type of behavior since the days of Jim Crow. The topic has been discussed in scholarly articles and books, poetry, and music. It even appears in both comedic and dramatic film and television. Now with social media and the speed at which news travels, the truth has been put on America’s doorstep and Americans are now forced to deal with it.

Hip Hop was birthed from the voices of the impoverished, oppressed, and unheard. Over the past thirty years, it’s pushed the envelope of what music can and should be. From the first scratches done over beat breaks in the Bronx, the rise of gangster rap in Southern California, the eclectic and jazz-influenced sounds of the Native Tongues, and the funk infused rhythms of the Dirty South, hip hop has been reporting live from the streets of America for over thirty years now. Even with its infusion into the mainstream, it is one of the most undervalued and under appreciated cultures. At its best, it has the ability to bring about change and thought provoking ideas.

Kendrick Lamar has emerged as one of the most influential, creative, and lyrically gifted rappers in hip-hop. In 2012, Kendrick released the critically acclaimed album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. The concept album follows the story of Lamar’s teenage experience in the drug-infested streets and gang lifestyle of his hometown Compton, California. One could argue that it is one of the best debut rap albums since Nas’s Illmatic in 1994.

In March of 2015, about 9 months after the civil unrest in Ferguson, MO, Lamar released his second studio album, To Pimp A Butterfly. While Good Kid, M.A.A.D City tells the story of a young generation who needs to be heard, TPAB provides us with the affects of ignoring the call to action. It’s a topical masterpiece that stands out from the cookie cutter formula of contemporary rap music. The timeliness of the album only adds to its importance.

The album cover, which shows the aftermath of a black revolution on the White House lawn, forces you to gaze upon those we tend to look down upon. While the cover could be seen as controversial and explicit, we must ask ourselves why this cover has so much meaning to begin with. A certain level of fearlessness is needed to make an album like TPAB, and Kendrick is courageous in his execution. 

This album is a soundtrack to the new struggle faced by people of color. The events of the last few years have served as a wake up call to black Americans that we still have a long way to go. It’s the product of a system that has failed. A broken system that has resulted in limited justice for the families of Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, to cite the names of a few slain black Americans.

To Pimp A Butterfly is unapologetically steeped in the tradition of black music. The album incorporates elements of spoken word, funk, rock, and free jazz. The lyrics, as Lamar described, are “honest, fearful, and unapologetic.” 

There are a handful of characters Kendrick uses to tell his story. Lamar seamlessly switches personas throughout each record into old friends, a little boy, a homeless man, and Lucy (Lucifer). He also personifies, America and its government as Uncle Sam. The album ends with Kendrick Lamar interviewing the late Tupac Shakur. The excerpts of 2Pac’s conversation with Kendrick were taken from a 1994 interview with the Swedish radio show P3 Soul, hosted by Mats Nileskär. The two West Coast MC’s discuss black culture, racism, fame, and image.

To Pimp A Butterfly uses elements of both lyric and narrative poetry to present the concept of the album. There are two poems Kendrick centers the album around. The poem from which the album gets its name, tells the story of a caterpillar becoming a prisoner to his environment. The caterpillar resents the butterfly, which represents all the beauty and potential within itself. The butterfly also represents change and transformation. As the caterpillar is trapped within the institutionalized walls of the cocoon, he begins to learn from his environment and breaks free of the eternal struggle. Now free, the butterfly sheds light on situations the caterpillar never considered.

The other poem, which is revealed in pieces throughout the album, tells us about Kendrick’s personal struggle with fame and influence, depression, and the spiritual warfare he’s dealing with. 

There are three important themes that To Pimp A Butterfly touches on: black culture, black pain: depression and identity, and spirituality. All of these themes are represented throughout the album and tend to overlap each other at different points. The sequencing on this album is executed flawlessly, as each song flows into the next.

Black Culture ("Wesley’s Theory", "Institutionalized", "Alright", "Hood Politics", "The Blacker The Berry")

The album opens with an excerpt of Jamaican singer Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger is a Star,” the title track to the soundtrack of a film bearing the same name. Intended to change the perception of the word “nigger” in Jamaica during the 1970s and encourage black pride. It’s a fitting start to an album that dissects and calls attention to the role of black culture in America.

 “But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright” – "Alright"

 Kendrick Lamar’s influence on black culture is undeniable. In the same way that James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”, addressed the need for empowerment and the prejudices blacks faced in America in the 60s, Lamar’s song “Alright”, has encouraged a new generation of blacks to continue the fight. The songs chorus has been heard chanted by Black Lives Matter protestors.

 On “Hood Politics”, Lamar discusses issues such as American politics and the rap industry in general. He rhymes, “Streets don't fail me now, they tell me it's a new gang in town. From Compton to Congress, set trippin’ all around. Ain’t nothing new but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans. Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’?”

"The Blacker The Berry", one of the most powerful records on the album, is an in-your-face display of unabashed black pride. “I’m African American, I’m African. I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village, pardon my residence,” Lamar raps over heavy hitting drums and haunting keys. He calls out America on the perceptions and stereotypes often assigned to black culture. He begins every verse with the line “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” without specifying why. By the end of the final verse, his thoughts return to his hometown of Compton, as he addresses the prevalent gang culture and violence he grew up with. He asks, “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!”

Black Pain: Depression & Identity ("U", "I", "Complexion", "You Ain’t Gotta Lie")

“At first, art imitates life. Then life will imitate art. Then life will find its very existence from the arts.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Other issues Kendrick Lamar brings attention to on the album are black identity and depression. On the song "Complexion", with the assistance of one of the best female MC’s in the game, Rapsody, they detail the importance of loving all people no matter how light or dark.

Kendrick Lamar is as honest and vulnerable as you can expect an artist to be on the song “U”. He finds himself alone in a hotel room, as he repeats, “loving you is complicated.” Lamar raps about the difficulties of being able to influence and reach thousands of people, but his message not reaching his little sister. Despite his success, he still feels like a failure. Later in the song, an intoxicated Kendrick battles inner thoughts of suicide. “U” can be a difficult listen, but his ability to be vulnerable and in his music resonates with his audience.

Avoiding painful emotions has become a cultural habit. “The numbers today tell us that at least 7 percent of Black men will experience severe depression during their lifetime. More black men abuse alcohol than white men, white women, or black women. To make matters worse, the Black men who live the reality of these statistics have adopted a “who cares” vibe to guard against the disappointment of dashed hopes and lack of chances of being someone in a culture that at every turn says the color of your skin means you are inferior, not worth, or just nothing” (Williams, 2008, p. 77).

“I done been through a whole lot. Trial, tribulation, but I know God”. – “i"

When we reach the end of the album, we have witnessed Kendrick Lamar overcome everything the world has thrown at him. He now repeats, “I love myself.” While “Alright” is about the fight and struggle to survive, “I’ is the risen sun after the storm and a smile after shed tears. He’s said goodbye to material things and now “wears his heart on his sleeve”.

“I” is a testament to the love we can have for ourselves because we are made in the image of our Creator. Once you are lead to that truth, peace is found and understanding of our purpose in life is granted. This song is a triumphant finish to a purifying journey to find oneself in a world that can seem to be against you.

Spirituality ("How Much A Dollar Cost", "For Sale? (Interlude)", "Mortal Man")

“But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?”  - 1 John 3:17

Kendrick Lamar has never been one to shy away from his faith. Spirituality has always played an important aspect in all of his albums. On “For Sale? (Interlude)”, Kendrick has an encounter with Lucy (a character representing Lucifer). The melodic production by Taz Arnold, Terrance Martin, & Sounwave place the listener in a trance as Lucy attempts to deceive and tempt Kendrick with worldly affection. "For Sale (Interlude)", similar to C.S. Lewis’s classic narrative Screwtape Letters, examines spiritual warfare and the dynamics of temptation.

Kendrick showcases his storytelling ability on “How Much A Dollar Cost”, a song in which he interacts with a homeless man who in the end reveals himself to be God. The song ends as Ronald Isley sings a prayer of repentance, asking God for forgiveness. It’s at this point that Kendrick breaks free of Lucy & Uncle Sam.

The album concludes with “Mortal Man”, which was inspired in part by a 2014 trip Lamar took to South Africa. On the song he references leaders' from Nelson Mandela, to Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Moses. Lamar realizes being a new voice in a long line of leaders, comes with both responsibility and criticism.  

The Christian worldview holds that man is made in the image of God, and is fallen in his nature. Jesus didn't come to save us because of what we do, but because of who we are. It can be hard to love or empathize with a person if you don't know them. Kendrick has laid all of his flaws before us in his music. His life experiences are an essential component to becoming the leader he is meant to be. He requests that as we follow him we also "make room for mistakes and depression," and that when he does stumble, we also make room for grace and forgiveness in our hearts.

America should consider the amount of grace that it has been afforded and extend the same to minorities and the poor. It needs to recognize that the caterpillar and the butterfly are one in the same. We must recognize the potential in each individual. Philosopher and social activist, Dr. Cornel West said, “You can't lead the people if you don't love the people. You can't save the people if you don't serve the people”.

Earlier this week, Kendrick Lamar won the Grammy award for Rap Album of the Year. He did not take away the award for Album of the Year, but left his mark on the show with a powerful and memorable performance. Regardless, To Pimp A Butterfly is an album that will stand the test of time because its importance is bigger than the music itself. Since its release it has been dissected, discussed, and studied as much, if not more, than any other album before it. 

To Pimp A Butterfly is an artistic work that deserves to be examined because it forces our nation to take an introspective look at its past, present, and future. It does not provide the answers but adds to the discourse that we should continue to have about race in America.

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Referenced

Williams, T.M. (2008) Black pain: It just looks like we’re not hurting: Real talk for when there's nowhere to go but up. New York: Scribner Book Company.

Dominic J. Capeci, Jr., and Martha Wilkerson, "The Detroit Rioters of 1943: A Reinterpretation", Michigan Historical Review, Jan 1990, Vol. 16 Issue 1, pp. 49-72.

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