To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar | A Retrospective Look
The following article was originally published on my now-defunct Wix website in 2018.
3 years ago today, Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album To Pimp a Butterfly dropped eight days ahead of its March 23rd release date. An error caused by Interscope Records made the album available in its entirety on Itunes and Spotify. Whether or not TPAB came out ahead of its set date or not, I still wasn’t prepared for what I was about to witness. This is an album that to this day, I consider to be the best rap album I’ve heard in the past 8 years and Kendrick Lamar’s best album in his discography. Be warned this is a long post, so proceed with caution.
During this time, I was about a third of the way through my senior year in high school. Up until this point, I was very familiar with Kendrick’s work, I can say that he was the only rapper other than Eminem and Kanye who I legitimately “stanned” over. I spent the first 3 or so years of high school bumping his past projects like Section.80 and Good Kid m.A.A.d. City nearly every single day, to the point where I’ve pretty much memorized the voice mail Kendrick’s mom leaves for him at the end of “Real”, one of the closing tracks to GKMC. What got me so enveloped in the Compton MC’s music was his lyricism, Kendrick has a knack to tell a story with each song. Whether it’s about the relationship between peer pressure and alcoholism that he expresses through “Swimming Pools”. Or a trip down memory lane with “m.A.A.d city”, Kendrick never fails to make each track a worthwhile listen. So to say that I was excited about Kendrick’s next album would be an understatement, I was beyond hyped, and when TPAB unexpectedly appeared on iTunes you can be damn sure I downloaded it in a heartbeat.
The first time I played TPAB, it threw me for a loop. Elements of old school funk, jazz, and spoken word are littered everywhere on TPAB. Working alongside producers such as Flying Lotus and Thundercat only enhances this sound even further. Now, I could go on and on about how different TPAB sounds in comparison to Kendrick’s other projects, but by now mostly everyone’s heard it, and mostly everybody is aware of the jazziness. What I’d like to talk about for the rest of this post, however, is the album’s concept. Something that I consider to be one of the shining aspects of TPAB, and something that has stuck with me profoundly.
This is not a day in the life of a young Compton boy who found ways to survive on the streets as we heard on GKMC. This is a story far less straight forward, it was something more cerebral and conscious. If GKMC’s story is told like a movie, then TPAB’s structure is similar to that of a novel. Instead of telling you what is literally happening in a song, Kendrick speaks in metaphors that allude to each song’s situation. TPAB is an album that deals with materialism, racism, oppression, and above all else, self-love. The album’s title To Pimp a Butterfly, while a clever nod to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is also a metaphor for the literal pimping of something as beautiful/free as a butterfly. I and many other hip hop heads have interpreted this as the pimping or exploitation of black people/culture by the hands of the United States. The topics and themes that TPAB dealt with were definitely a lot to take in when I first listened to it as a seventeen-year-old, but as I’ve gotten older and re-listened to the album multiple times, the story becomes clearer and clearer.
While I would love to go into a full track by track analysis of TPAB’s story, for the interest of time I feel it’d be best to give a slight Tl:DR version. For clarification, here is a poem Kendrick delivers on the final track “Mortal Man”, which essentially sums up the album.
“The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it. Its only job is to eat or consume everything around it in order to protect itself from this mad city. While consuming its environment, the caterpillar begins to notice ways to survive. One thing it notices is how much the world shuns him but praises the butterfly. The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar. But having a harsh outlook on life, the caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak and figures out a way to pimp it to its own benefits. Already surrounded by this mad city, the caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon which institutionalizes him. He can no longer see past his own thoughts; he’s trapped. While trapped inside these walls, certain ideas take root, such as going home and bringing new concepts to this mad city. The result? Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant. Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations that the caterpillar never considered, ending the eternal struggle. Although the caterpillar and the butterfly are completely different, they are one in the same.”
This is how I’ve interpreted the poem in the countless times I’ve listened to TPAB and how it tells the full story. Kendrick speaks very metaphorically in this excerpt, but here are three things to consider: the caterpillar, the butterfly, and the cocoon. The caterpillar is the Kendrick Lamar who is a prisoner to the streets of Compton, consuming what his environment feeds him. The butterfly is the hidden talent within the caterpillar, who has raised himself above the trappings of the caterpillar’s environment. In this case, the Kendrick Lamar we know of today. The cocoon is a metaphor for the various elements that keep the caterpillar trapped in its environment, fooling it into thinking that it can be satisfied when in reality it stops the caterpillar from transforming into a butterfly. These can be things such as materialism, racism, imprisonment, etc.
The first three tracks (“Wesley’s Theory”, “For Free?”, and “King Kunta”) detail how the caterpillar becomes enticed by the riches and wealth offered by capitalist America and “Lucy” or Lucifer. The caterpillar indulges in everything it has to offer, but the harsh reality is that it is merely becoming another cog in the system for America to pimp. While Kendrick may feel like he is on top of the world as he professes on “King Kunta”, he is still a slave to the environment as he sacrifices his own liberty for all the money and fame. What happens now is that the caterpillar starts building its own cocoon.
The next five songs (“Institutionalized”, “These Walls”, “U”, “Alright” and “For Sale?”) describe how the caterpillar becomes stuck inside this cocoon. On “Institutionalized”, Kendrick begins to enter this cocoon as he raps: (“I’m trapped inside the ghetto, and I ain’t too proud to admit it”.). “These Walls”, the walls of the cocoon begin closing in on Kendrick. From my understanding, these walls act as a metaphor for the following subjects: lust (verse 1), politics (verse 2), and vengeance (verse 3). These walls blind the caterpillar from seeing its true potential and thus they throw him into a downward spiral that drives him into a deep depression on “U”. Being trapped inside the cocoon has made the caterpillar doubtful about the successes he’s achieved, while he was busy reaping the benefits, the people around the caterpillar suffer (family, friends, etc.) as Kendrick drunkenly weeps that his “trials and tribulations are a burden on everyone else”. Things take a brighter turn on “Alright” however, with a fresh perspective the caterpillar finds a way to escape his troubles. Being trapped inside the cocoon has bred new ideas in the caterpillar, such as putting his faith in God and fighting the temptations of “Lucy” on the next track “For Sale?”.
With “Momma” and “Hood Politics”, Kendrick returns home with this new mindset to tell the stories of his own personal growth while being trapped inside the cocoon. Putting himself in the shoes of his newly found perspective on life, and his past outlook on the two songs respectively. While on this journey, Kendrick stumbles upon a homeless man begging for a dollar on “How Much a Dollar Really Cost”. Kendrick refuses to give the man any money, thinking he is a crack addict who will use it to fuel his habit. However, Kendrick’s own selfishness costs him a spot in heaven, as it is revealed that the man was actually God, who was testing Kendrick’s faith. Asking for forgiveness, Kendrick realizes his lack of humility, accepts his wrongs, and begins his true path to redemption, becoming the butterfly.
On “Complexion” alongside Rapsody, Kendrick begins “breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant” by first attacking the issue of colorism within the black community. Slowly we start to see the caterpillar’s wings grow as he begins to break out of the cocoon. Next on “The Blacker the Berry”, Kendrick criticizes the racialized self-hatred brought on by America/Lucy that pimped him, and perhaps many other caterpillars before him. He calls these other caterpillars hypocrites as we hear him say on the track’s final verse: (“why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street when gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?”). The environment creates the mindset of gang banging and killing each other within the community, yet they weep and protest at the sight of white on black violence. Kendrick (now more consciously aware) aims to break this tradition created by their environment. The full transformation from caterpillar to butterfly takes place in the next track “You Ain’t Gotta Lie”. He tells the listeners that they don’t have to lie to themselves to earn respect. The caterpillar doesn’t need to lie about money and power being the only ways to succeed. The caterpillar has broken out of the cocoon, he has finally become the butterfly.
Now seeing the world around him in a new light, the butterfly wants to spread his message of self-love. Kendrick rightfully does so on “I”, free from the environment he once endured as a caterpillar, the butterfly preaches to his community to love one’s self for who they truly are, regardless of how others think of them. Half way through the song, a fight interrupts forcing Kendrick to remind his audience that they must unite together. He breaks into an acapella freestyle about the definition of the term Negus as a means to remind his brothers and sisters of the phrase’s true meaning. TPAB ends with the aforementioned “Mortal Man”. Here, Kendrick has a one on one conversation with the legendary Tupac Shakur, telling him of his journey from caterpillar, cocoon, to butterfly. Tupac reminds Kendrick about the responsibility he has towards the young people of today, to inspire them to change the world, so they too can be as free as a butterfly, just like him.
This is why I absolutely love To Pimp a Butterfly. The album’s message is an important, socially relevant one. This message not only applies to just the black community, but to everyone around the world regardless of race, religion, or colour. Even though we may become institutionalized, and trapped by our environments or countries or by the hands of evil. We can break free from it, free ourselves from the cocoon that tries to stop us from growing intellectually. Once free, we can learn to teach and respect others and learn to love ourselves for who we really are.
Find more analyses like this on the official Modern Music Analysis website: