The Day He Came: A relatively late review of Kendrick Lamar’s new album To Pimp A Butterfly

Hey, it’s been awhile. I have been busy with college. Kendrick Lamar did something incredible a couple of weeks ago. And it was killing me not having the time to write about it. So it’s funny now that I have the time I’m struggling to find an appropriate place to start. To Pimp a Butterfly has two sides to it. Before I even go into the music I just want to talk about the title. As everyone has said it is a play on words and an ode to the book To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The modern classic that is To Kill a Mockingbird is something we have all read. Atticus Finch is our hero. Scout is all of our novice views rolled into one character. She is innocence. She is all of us. As that book progresses and race is explored in more depth, as a young adult the racism behind some of the words isn’t even conceivable to me. Black people think white people don’t understand. White people think that black people don’t understand. The truth is we all don’t understand. We need an Atticus to help and guide us. In Kendrick’s album he shows himself as Scout. Trapped in the never ending cycle of racism with out any one to guide him on his journey. He was alone. He was confused. To Pimp a Butterfly is his story. It’s showing us his transformation through a Maya Angelou like spoken word and 1970’s funk. His journey from a contained, biased, trapped young black man growing up in the m.A.A.d city. To who he is now: the voice of our generation, creating solely to speak to those that don’t want to listen. To get through to the people that were like him as a kid. Yet he still needs his Atticus. The most impactful section of the album which occurs at the end shows him coming “face to face” with his role model: Tupac Shakur, the West coast rap god, who supposedly died back in 1996. They talk and and Kendrick brings up questions and concerns. He receives guidance from Pac and at the end you see despite Kendrick knowing his role as the mockingbird, he needs reassurance. He need’s Tupac to answer and when he doesn’t. . .  Well we’ll get to that.

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‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy…that’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird’

“Every n*gga is a star . . . “

“Wesley’s Theory” kick starts the album like some type of deranged intro to a movie. It’s backwards and blunt. The sample by Boris Gardiner cooing away these five words over and over again instantly makes me uncomfortable. I shouldn’t be listening to this? Kendrick isn’t speaking to me. The situations young black men are put in is something I will never experience but learning bout it and helping to share the message is important. Kendrick goes in on his verse in this which kicks off his theme of the caterpillar being trapped in the cocoon. Emerging as a butterfly only after a transformation that changes everything. Dr. Dre makes a cameo explaining the primary struggle of the successful black man.

“Yo what’s up? It’s Dre
Remember the first time you came out to the house?
You said you wanted a spot like mine
But remember, anybody can get it
The hard part is keeping it, motherfucker”

Sonically the song kicks off the funk influence that is going to be shown throughout the rest of the album. Kendrick doesn’t give a fuck about what kind of music you expected him to drop. He said it himself, “You really can’t categorize my music, it’s human music.” To Pimp a Butterfly is a modern funk album and it is seeping with 70’s R&B. It’s unlike anything any one of my generation has heard in a modern album before. The name of the song, in the end, shows what the true meaning is. The “Wesley” in “Wesley’s Theory” acts in acknowledgement to actor Wesley Snipes, no stranger to tax evasion. Kdot throws down the claim that you can’t avoid him (not only as the fiercest rapper in the game, but as a social figure preaching away to those who are there to listen), but more importantly you can’t avoid the fate that the government imposes on you . . . and the “you” he is talking to is young African Americans.

I love the beginning of the next song. “For Free?-Interlude” starts out with an awesome saxophone leading into a chorus of singers. The beat is complete Jazz and it is wonderful. Kendrick comes in hard on a short verse that acts as an interlude for the album. The continued theme that was started in “Wesley’s Theory” is continued but Kendrick’s remarkable, renowned flow is highly prevalent in this song. It’s almost like a strike of lightning it comes and goes so fast . . .

The next track, “King Kunta,” is more than just a throwback to the 70s. Kendrick really expresses himself as the King of Rap in this song. The opening track he declares himself back in the game and how he is upset with not only the way the world is treating black men, but how people thought there was someone higher than him on the rap chain. The chorus vigorously repeats the name of the song “King Kunta.” This name is based off an 18th century slave named Kunta Kinte. He uses it as an oxymoron to show how he is both a slave to society (by his race), but also a King, thanks to his transcendent talent as a rapper. He is shoving the fact that he is shackled as a highly successful African American in the face of his listeners . . . And I love it.

“From a peasant to a prince to a motherfuckin’ king”

Kendrick also spits this line to show his transition from caterpillar to butterfly, and how he is now so important in this world that it is up to him to become the next Atticus Finch. Of course, the last line of the song hints at a sort of self realization that Kendrick explores later in the album.

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“Institutionalized” is a bit of a classic Kendrick track. His most star studded song, it features west coast rap mogul Snoop Dogg, and a pair of singers: Anna Wise and Bilal. This song instantly brought me thoughts of the movie Shawshank Redemption. Only instead of having spent so long in jail that he didn’t know any other life, Kendrick is preaching he has been “trapped” as a young African American for so long when he is thrusted to the status not usually associated with boys from the m.A.A.d city, he doesn’t know how to handle it. The interlude sets the tone:

“If I was the president
I’d pay my mama’s rent
Free my homies and them
Bulletproof my Chevy doors
Lay in the White House and get high, Lord
Who ever thought, massa take the chains off me!?

These thoughts of what he would do as someone as successful a person as the President of the United States show the immaturity ignorance of people (this goes past race in my opinion) who are underprivileged. They don’t think about the larger worries like war with other countries, and the tax deficit. Instead, they prioritize with what they know… Survival.

Kendrick sounds like a softer, smoother version of himself. Although he raps about real shit, his flow stays in tact, and he nonchalantly widdles lifes woes at his intended listener. This track is smoooooth. Snoop comes in with classic Snoop swagger. He is the perfect guest appearance on an album with almost no features. He showers a small intro about Mr. Lamar’s authenticity of growing up in West Side Compton. And then Kendrick comes back in again, constantly speaking his mind on how he is suppose to handle his fame when he was never really taught how.

“You can take your boy out the hood but you can’t take the hood out the homie”

Again a central theme that Kendrick is constantly struggling with appears as Snoop closes out one of my personal favorite songs on the album. It’s funny, sometimes I think about what I would do if I was President . . .

And really that would be horrible; I’m way too indecisive and lazy to be President. Let’s forget I mentioned that.

Next, another funk track gets laid out in “These Walls.”

“If these walls could talk, what would they say?”

This song explores the duality of humans and how what people may say at one point may be different than what they say at another. Kendrick may seem to be talking about a love interest, but really he is explicating a personal experience through sexual double entendres that entrench the mind with a vision that is totally different once you actually read the words of the song.

Perhaps the peak of the album, the point where Kendrick comes face to face with himself, and falls off the cliff a bit is in the song “u.” “u” is the anti “i.” It is everything “i” isn’t. Where is “i” is about loving yourself, “u” is about pointing out every flaw that is in your being. It is about the mistakes you made and not about overcoming them but letting them take over your every thought until there is nothing left. This is Kendrick’s most personal song that he has ever created. It is literally a mirror that reflects every imperfection that lies within Kendrick’s character. In the song he is talking to himself, recanting his mistakes. He starts off strong with a quick verse, but tension builds through it and you can tell something is coming . . . you just don’t know what yet. His voice is straining, he seems close to tears, he continues to nail in his own coffin, weighing his soul down with every insecurity that he knows about himself. The hook explains it all:

“Loving you is complicated”

The song switches up around halfway through and it is almost like Kendrick drinks away his sorrows as if to forget his previous statements. He essentially blacks out and that is what the shake up in the middle of the song feels like. When he becomes conscious his voice is raspy and hoarse. He has trouble talking. Yet he continues with the self insults. Still hammering himself harder and harder.

This song is perhaps the most straightforward song on the album. Kendrick shows us all his issues. He talks about contemplating suicide. Where is he now? What does he do now? Does he even really matter?

Pharrell joins in for the next song which is appropriately named “Alright.” Kdot is back to his old self and comes out swinging with lines that pronounce that moment of insight we just witnessed was a one time thing. He brings back the vibe and with the help of Pharrell’s magnificent producing and voice for the hook, “Alright” is a straight jam.

Moving right along, “For Sale (Interlude)” is the second half of the interlude mentioned before. Phonetically this song is awesome. It has a dream like beat with a classic Kendrick-like chorus. This song could have come directly from his previous album good kid, m.A A.d city. 

Man this next song is smoooothe with four o’s. “Momma” continues Kendrick’s story of growing up. This soul ballad employs a number of Kendrick’s techniques and mantras into one song.

“Thank God for rap, I would say it got me a plaque
But what’s better than that?
The fact it brought me back home”

He thanks rap… and with the double meaning of allowing him to escape Compton and make it back home while also implying rap allowed him to visit his homeland of Africa… Which has been told was the biggest influence on him creating To Pimp A Butterfly. The second verse is one of my favorites on the whole album. Kdot explains a bunch of ideals and things he does know about… but he didn’t know about his roots.

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As a hood kid from Compton the experience of going over to Africa meant a lot to Kendrick. He can’t preach to his the people without first knowing about where he came from. And not just him specifically . . .

“Hood Politics” is an eery old school rap song with Kendrick rapping in a higher pitched voice to represent his younger self. The sound of the song has a deep base with a riveting undertone. The lyrics are a bit immature compared to most of his other songs on this album but this song is suppose to be a contrast to the previous track “Momma.”

“I don’t give a fuck about no politics in rap”

My favorite track on the album is next. “How Much a Dollar Cost” starts out with a relaxed mature beat with a strong voiced Kendrick. He tells a story through the track. Much like a lot of songs off J. Cole’s new album 2014 Forest Hills DriveKendrick goes into a personal story of him running into a homeless man who was begging him for money. This song is chill and calm, and Fauntleroy floats over the hook, lamenting the trappings of fame. There is always a bigger a picture, a deeper message. “How Much a Dollar Cost,” like the rest of TPIB, is just point blank deeper than rap.

At the end of each verse Kendrick poses the question:

“Tell me how much a dollar cost?”

He thinks about the value of a dollar, not just the value of it on the outside but what it may take to attain wealth. Do you need to sacrifice morals? Values? Love? To Kendrick a dollar is nothing. He is successful and rich and despite his immense earnings he is reluctant to give up a dollar to the homeless man despite a dollar meaning everything to him. As the song winds down the homeless man reveals himself as God. Kendrick was being tested and as a result of not giving away his dollar he lost his spot in heaven. This message to share his wealth can be seen through out this album. His wealth however is not something that can help the people. It’s his knowledge, his ideas, his grasp on the true reality of the world around us. He does share his dollar by creating music, and to me and to most his music is way more valuable than any money amount he could give away.

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“Complexion (Zulu Love)” is a very straightforward groovy song. Kendrick continues on his path to teach America. The shade of ones skin should not be something to judge someone by. A simple concept that somehow bypasses way too many America citizens. Rapsody comes in on a verse, and the song becomes an intro for the most riveting track on the whole album.

I talked a bit about “Blacker the Berry” in my last post. Kendrick released this song as a single, and really it isn’t any less shocking when you hear it on the album. Kendrick comes out firing. The angriest and most violent we may have ever heard him rap. There is no turning back in this song. No apologies. He spits flames and destroys everything and everyone in his way. The hook coming off and paying homage to the 2Pac song “Keep Ya Head Up.” A terrifying line of:

“The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice
The blacker the berry, the bigger I shoot”

Will be echoing in your head for hours after listening. The funk is gone, the style of the album is flipped on it’s head and Kendrick shows no mercy anywhere. Kendrick recants how he is the biggest hypocrite of 2015, and although I touched on this before, now that we see the grand scheme of Kdot’s album we can tell how much of a serious problem this really was for him. We have now read way more pages of the book. We know much more, and with that the uneasiness of the final twist of the song resonates and penetrates much deeper. The fact that Kendrick feels perplexed on how what to feel when he hears about black death, because he had a hand in killing black people in his younger years, is very much real and shows why he may need to ask a certain someone for answers. Kendrick reveals innocence in his most explicitly guilty song. He doesn’t know what to do… Why should we listen to a hypocrite?

To bring us down from the powerful “Blacker the Berry” Kendrick throws at us a song that has him almost singing in it. An enjoyable track, “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” gives us a recess from the intense undertones of the album. It has Kendrick rapping but his flow is a bit different than any other song and honestly it’s a lot of fun to listen to. With a catchy hook this song only gets better the more times you listen to it. Completely fluid, like running water Kendrick’s voice is like silk as he ties one word into the next. For sure one of the more underrated tracks on the album.

Not gonna talk much about “i,” because really if you haven’t heard it yet you must be living underneath a rock. The Grammy winning track gets shaken up a bit by being released as a live performance recording for To Pimp A Butterfly. This album version has us hear the crowd and is in my opinion a much better version. It’s real, takes away the radio hit part that turned many off of it. As an argument breaks out among the live crowd in the middle of the song you can see right away the message Kendrick is trying to portray. The lack of unity among the black community is one of the major problems Kendrick is trying to show in his album. He fuses the most uplifting song he has ever created with this negative undertone to reinforce this message that if things are going to get better people have to love and not fight each other. As Kendrick begins to preach to the crowd they eventually quiet and calm down and when he goes into an acapella verse of spoken word rap… Just powerful. People become speechless. The unification that comes with Kendrick’s final verse show the power his messages can have when they are actually listened too.

“Or say no more. Black stars can come and get me
Take it from Oprah Winfrey, tell her she right on time
Kendrick Lamar, by far, realest Negus alive”

And finally we are here. The 12 minute grand finale. The song I mentioned so many words before. “Mortal Man” explores everything. It is the culmination of Kendrick’s album and inhibits every meaning and theme he was trying to say in his music. Kendrick knows the key to fixing the world is the next generation. Just like how he was once a young kid growing up in Compton he knows there are millions of people just like him… Without anyone to listen and look up to. He needs to talk to them like how Pac talked to him. “Mortal Man” explores all this. It brings Kendrick face to face with Tupac. Kendrick asks questions and the ghost of Pac himself answers. There is so much to learn. Kendrick recounts the final meaning he takes from Tupac in a poem of spoken word.

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Just like the central theme in To Kill A Mockingbird a black man, is destroyed by a system that is inherently built against him. This is just like how it is in America today. However, Kendrick doesn’t just state it is entirely the systems fault. It is also the African Americans, who destroy themselves for buying into the self-destructive narrative sold to them by society. The perpetual cycle and struggle for self-identity, self-love and self-respect is a cycle much like that of the caterpillar creating a cocoon and becoming a butterfly. This metaphor of the butterfly, caterpillar, and cocoon represent not just the black race, but the path Kendrick has gone through. He shows himself as the example, the “offspring” of what Tupac had been spouting since the 90s. Once everyone turns into a butterfly and escapes the turmoil of the cocoon, wouldn’t that stop the pain and suffering that is taking place in the world? Kendrick thinks this. He knows this. Yet, he needs continued reassurance. In the last lines of the whole album he desperately cries out for his mentor to reassure him. But with Pac gone, Kendrick is all that’s left. In the end, you realize Kendrick answers his own question. Kdot is the answer. However, this album shows that words only go so far — it’s the actions of people that truly change everything.

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