The Use of Detailed Storytelling to Present Socially Conscious Themes in To Pimp A Butterfly
The realities represented in hip-hop have been used to highlight many social issues which has made the genre a strong outlet for social activism. This can be seen in the strong social influence of hip-hop in the past, in the cases of Nas, Public Enemy, N.W.A., and 2Pac. Following their legacies as the hip-hop activist for the current generation is Kendrick Lamar. Specifically, in his 2015 concept album, To Pimp A Butterfly, he presents the realities of the troubled lifestyle growing up in Compton and the dark side of success through storytelling methods, character role-playing, and historical references.
Storytelling heals others by helping the audience “find varying levels of insight, relief, support, empathy, and critique…for their personal and ideological wounds” (Hill 74). Kendrick Lamar uses it to teach, inspire, and support his audience that relate to his struggles in some way, and he does so in a very distinct manner by creating different characters in his music. He raps in the perspectives of these characters in order to present intricate realities and thoughtful messages for his audience. In the song “u,” Lamar presents the grim reality of depression by rapping from a perspective of someone having suicidal thoughts while under the influence of alcohol. Lamar alters his voice to match the identity and the impression he wants to portray to the audience, which is a technique he uses to materialize many of the characters in the album. He sets an ominous mood to the scene by starting “u” off with chilling screams. Then Lamar expresses feelings of frustration complemented by his yells and snarls by rapping in an angsty, hateful voice. His tone resonates well with the subject matter of regret and self-loathing in this first verse. In the second part of “u,” Lamar is heard wailing in agony through the verse, expressing his feelings of insecurity and misery. He is struggling to articulate his words, which can be attributed to both his sobbing and his severe intoxication. In between the closing verses, Lamar makes sniveling noises, which cement the image of this upset character that feels so defeated and hopeless. Much the same as the first verse, the tone in his voice in the closing verses resonates strongly with the suicidal, spiritless subject matter. Lamar also uses specific object sounds to create imagery for this reality, like the sound of liquids being chugged and a bottle clinking to a glass to paint an image of the character pouring alcohol and drinking uncontrollably, or the sound of knocks on a door to create the setting of the character contemplating his thoughts behind the door. All these extra sounds in the song have a purpose in augmenting the morose reality that Lamar was creating. Sharing this experience brings light to mental health issues, which are not often discussed in hip-hop. Rappers typically project glorified lifestyles that come with fame and confident personalities, so Lamar made a very daring move in opening up this vulnerable side of him that suffers from this gilded celebrity life.
Lamar draws parallels between various historical figures and his own character living in modern-day society to accentuate how many values in society have stayed the same and how little progress has really been achieved. In “King Kunta,” he does this by drawing comparisons with his character to Kunta Kinte, a slave in Alex Haley’s famous novel Roots, who gets his foot cut off for trying to run away. This became a metaphor for Lamar’s own struggles “running away” from the hood, while society seems to be set up to prevent that, which is also due to racism. His potential to succeed is essentially “cut off,” by being a black man and by being from Compton, a city that tends to trap its community with the violence and gang influences. Lamar makes a more intricate historical comparison in the song “Wesley’s Theory,” where the narrative revolves around a reference to 21st century-actor Wesley Snipes — specifically, the three-year prison sentence he faced due to tax evasion. Lamar channels Snipes’ incident by rapping as a younger form of himself wanting to spend all his newly earned money quickly, putting himself in danger of Snipes’ fate. The first verse is riddled with desire and ignorance, like when he says “when I get signed, homie, I’mma act a fool” and how he will buy “platinum on everything.” His character plans to enjoy success by living a lavish lifestyle, which is an expression of the initial reactions that many young people would have when they find success. In Philosophy and Hip-Hop, Julius Bailey says the lifestyle is “an oft-repeated theme of commercial rap, and it’s one of the points through which conscious hip-hop artists have engaged with their community, holding up for ridicule those rappers who imagine that fat bankrolls somehow mean that they have ‘made it’” (61). In other words, defining success by money is wrong because the obsession over fortune can lead people to be reckless. The purpose of this verse and its relation to Snipes is revealed in the last line of the verse, in which Lamar acknowledges that he is “uneducated,” but disregards this because he has a “million-dollar check.” This demonstrates the mentality that leads to a successful person’s downfall. Lamar’s character is blinded by the money and suffers from the ignorance of not knowing how to manage it, relating to Snipes’ troubles with taxes.
Kendrick Lamar takes the Wesley Snipes comparison further in the second verse to elaborate on the flaws of financial education. This time he raps as Uncle Sam, a metaphorical character for the American government who are essentially the ones to blame for these societal flaws. Uncle Sam encourages the heavy spending that the young Lamar from the first verse is doing in a provocative, devilish manner when he tells him, “Pay me later, wear those gators/…Get it all, you deserve it Kendrick.” He finishes by saying, “I’ll Wesley Snipe your a — before thirty-five,” directly using Wesley Snipes as a metaphor and playing on the word “snipe” as ‘shooting’ or targeting someone with Snipes’ fate.
To settle with his regret Lamar uses his influence for good and helps the world learn through these other realities that are left untold. Lamar speaks of other realities, like the ones in his own town, which is riddled with crime. In the song “i,” he creates a scene in which a fight breaks out in the middle of one of his performances. This fight can be interpreted as the internal crime within poor communities that ultimately “wastes time” in progressing to a better, more stable community. The true reality is that the conflicts within the poor communities restrain the individuals’ potentials and jeopardize their lives just as much as the outside broader social conflicts do.
Rather than preaching to an audience, he presents compelling perspectives to show why he feels the way he does on the issues of mental health, poor education, internal community conflicts, and struggles of the less fortunate. Lamar shows audiences how his own seemingly, glamorous reality carries its own burdens stemming from all these underrepresented issues.
Bailey, Julius. Philosophy and Hip-Hop: Ruminations on Postmodern Cultural Form. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Print.
Hill, Marc Lamont. Beats, Rhymes, and Classroom Life: Hip-Hop Pedagogy and the Politics of Identity. New York: Teachers College Press, 2009. Print.