Pimping Butterflies: A perspective on To Pimp a Butterfly
I have been an avid fan of Kendrick Lamar since his first album dropped in June of 2011. As I have grown and matured, his music has done the same. I might have a slightly biased opinion, but with each album he makes, he gets exponentially better. So at the moment my favorite album is his most recent masterpiece, so I will attempt to quantify why this album is not only one of the best of the era, but also the genius behind its message.
Let us start with the cover art. What would you expect to see on the cover of an album with the name To Pimp A Butterfly? A butterfly, a butterfly wearing a suit, or maybe a caterpillar? It is none of these, in fact, it is a black and white picture of a crowd of African American males in front of the white house. They range from infants to probably around 30 years old, they are holding money and bottles, and many are shirtless. Many of them are smiling, but for what reason? In the forefront of the picture is a white man with X’s over his eyes dressed in what appears to be a suit, but due to the fact he is holding a gavel he is probably wearing a judges’ robe. In an Interview with mass appeal he says that all the people on the cover are close friends and family that he grew up with. He took them all around the world to see other places to get them out of the environment that they grew up in. The dead judge could mean a few things. The first that comes to mind is that god is the only person that can judge you, and that if you are good in heart and spirit you will can never be poor. Later in the interview he said that all of the people on the cover are extremely good and caring individuals, but they are judged because of the environment they come from. The cover sets up many themes that run throughout the whole album, such as: the effect of an environment on how someone lives their life.
U begins with a pulsing beat and screams. The beat throughout the first half of the song is composed of an alto saxophone, guitar, bass and some other things that blend nicely. The beat is constant pulse, but it seems everything else over the top of the beat is moving at a faster than the beat. His vocals sound frustrated and in distress. It transitions to the second part of the song with a dialogue of a Mexican woman speaking Spanish. The beat in the second is much more prominent. The bass is much louder and much more irregular, and the saxophone is much slower. His vocals change from the first portion of the song (which were relatively normal). He sounds as if he has been crying, it sounds very whiny and in even more distress than in the first section. This is a very hard song to listen to, the content includes, struggles with depression, drugs, anxiety, and even suicide, which is enough to make a lot of people cringe. Generally, if a complete stranger to you started talking to you about this stuff, it would probably make you uncomfortable, and some people would find a way to leave. Kendrick confronts it and it is a very personal track to put on an album. I played this song for my parents and they told me to turn it off because it made them uncomfortable and they didn’t like his use of language. It is safe to say that the older generations view rap as repulsive, and I would venture to say a fair portion of them do not consider it music. Its interesting to me because if you were to explain to them the theme of Kendrick’s music they would want to listen to it. This is the same generation that witnessed civil rights and that is essentially what a lot of the music they listen to has to talk about. Rap as a genre has been dubbed by many in that older generation as a vulgar, demeaning genre. Don’t get me wrong there definitely is a lot of vulgar obscene aspects to rap, but just like people, there are good people that come out of inherently ‘bad’ areas.
Mortal man is the last song of the album, it has a more laid back beat, but the tone in Kendrick’s voice is the furthest thing from laid back. The beat and the overall sound is composed of a bass, which kind of has a droning beat to it throughout the whole song, a triangle sounding thing, some string instruments, and probably some low key saxophones. It really has a very somber and slow beat. One that you might expect to be the last song, sort of diffusing the tension that the album may have created, but instead Kendrick’s vocals and lyrics are very aggressive and thought provoking. He asks us throughout the song “When shit hits the fan is you still a fan?” and he also speaks about many influential black men that were tore down and killed because of their messages and prominence in society. For example, Mandela, King, Malcolm, and he stays on the topic of Michael Jackson for a while. He gets really hyped up about all of these men too. And of course at the end of the song he reads his poem “Another Nigga” and has his conversation with 2pac. This song is the bookend of the album, and it is also one of the most important songs because it leaves you with things to ponder about. He asks us if we could understand and finish his message if he was to die in the next verse. He is one of the more influential people in this generation, and he fears that his fate could end up similar to that of Martin Luther King Jr., Michael Jackson, and other people that speak out on society. Which is they end up being killed, or have their image torn by the media and rumors. He ultimately just wants us to truly reflect on what he is preaching and realize the importance of his message.
Alright starts Kendrick proclaiming “Alls my life I has to fight, nigga Alls my life I, Hard times like God, Bad trips like: “God!”, Nazareth, I’m fucked up Homie you fucked up But if God got us we then gon’ be alright” with a groovy saxophone jamming in the background. Then drums kick in and all the other things also come together, and thus starts the anthem of the album. Frequently throughout the song the beat will drop out for a few seconds and in that time Kendrick spews some hot bars. The absence of the beat really puts an emphasis on these lines, and these lines are some of the most important in the song. Not to mention it is a really cool effect and it really gives the song some groove, but it also acts as a transition to the next rhyme scheme that Kendrick goes into. The beat is very funky and the song is probably the most iconic of the whole album. This song has become an anthem of people of different creeds and colors everywhere. It largely overshadows the song U and its negative vibe, but without the song U there could be no alright. Kendrick deliberately put these two in sequence because knowing that he was going to be alright was a realization of those dark times in his life. The reaches of this song go all around the world, Kendrick said on his trip to Africa he heard children singing it. This song has sent a positive message throughout a whole generation, and has made profound impact throughout the world.
Looking back at the album, the tones of the album are generally positive, but there are some uncomfortable tones that underlie it. Ultimately the albums negative tones are overshadowed by the epiphany in alright, and from there on it is more of a positive tone that is presented. This album will have a lasting affect on my life and hopefully I have illuminated some of the subtleties of it. But overall, I believe the only way to truly form your own opinion of it is to listen to it yourself.