Album Review: ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’

Phoebe Flynn ’18

Contributing Writer

“To Pimp a Butterfly” is not background music. The album is a trip through Kendrick Lamar’s inner psyche, through both his highest peaks of success and his darkest moments of despair.

On previous records, Lamar preached the universal experience of the young black male living in the ghetto. On “To Pimp a Butterfly,” he reaches his most vulnerable state, looking inward and revealing himself as a man of contradiction. Sometimes he is arrogant and resolute, calling himself “King Kunta” and referring to himself as the next leader in the legacy of the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. In other moments, he reveals himself to be painfully insecure and self-loathing. “Loving you is complicated,” Lamar wails to himself on “u” after beating himself up for not visiting his dying best friend in the hospital.

“To Pimp a Butterfly” also demonstrates the obligation and responsibility that comes with getting out of the ghetto. Part of Lamar wants to abandon the fear and violence of Compton and dismiss his old acquaintances as “booboo,” as disclosed in “Hood Politics.” Another side of him thinks he should “get up and wash [his] a**” and “run for mayor.”

In “Institutionalized,” he sings, “Master take the chains off me,” begging and making himself synonymous with the slave owner in terms of equal power over the black community. Lamar doesn’t know what to do with his power. He has worked his whole life for an obvious goal—success. Now that he has it, Lamar is unsure of how to revel in it, feeling guilty for leaving his community behind and finding it hard to be himself in a superficial celebrity culture.

“Wesley Snipes” references the famous African-American actor who was arrested for tax evasion. In an MTV News interview, Lamar explained that poor black males aren’t taught how to manage their success after they’ve achieved it.

“You can take your boy out the hood, but you can’t take the hood out the homie,” Snoop Dogg raps on “Institutionalized.”

Next to the lavish gold chains, girls and drugs that thematically permeate the hip-hop industry, Lamar stays local and real. His record is highly political—addressing race in the United States, while also remaining highly personal—discussing issues of self-worth and power. Kendrick Lamar knows he has the “whole world talkin’,” but his mainstream success from “good kid mA.A.d city” has not caused him to compromise his art. “To Pimp a Butterfly” is less accessible for the Top 40 but should undoubtedly become a hip-hop classic.

“To Pimp a Butterfly” is an anxiety attack followed by a reassuring cool-down. It sheds light on all sides of Lamar—as a man who could “still kill” in gang violence, the next MLK, a cocky “king” figure and an alcoholic in despair. The poem that ebbs and flows in snippets between songs is finally pieced together in its entirety on “Mortal Man.” Thematically, it ties together the whole album, addressing power, depression, fame and racial violence.

In “Mortal Man,” Lamar reveals himself to be addressing his issues to none other than Tupac Shakur. The record’s title, in fact, was originally planned to be a direct homage to Tupac: “Tu Pimp A Caterpillar,” spelling out the influential West Coast rapper’s name. Lamar creates poignant moments in “Mortal Man” by including interviews with Tupac, creating a dialogue between the two similarly raised hip-hop figures in an eerily convincing portrayal, much like the Coachella hologram incident of 2012.

The two speak about the future of race in America. Tupac gives a cautionary Marxist premonition, predicting that the poor will one day “eat the rich.” He concludes his speech by saying that the two artists “ain’t even rappin’” but rather are “just letting [their] dead homies tell stories for [them].” The listener knows that Tupac Shakur is deceased, but that makes the message only ring truer. Perhaps Lamar is wondering when it will be his turn to be the “dead homie” given a voice through other, living rappers.

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