For one reason or another, I woke up at 7 AM and was incapable of falling back asleep.
I decided to check out a song or two on the new Kendrick Lamar album. I really didn’t expect to listen to the entire thing. Then once more. And then one more time after that because there’s just SO. MUCH. THERE.
And while I’m definitely not going to be happy later today about running on four hours of sleep, listening through To Pimp A Butterfly again and again this morning has been one of the most emotionally and intellectually stimulating experiences of my life. So exhilarating that for hours this morning, I sat at my computer jotting down notes on the messages and themes he explores, and tried to unpack it here.
I actually haven’t read a single review of this album before listening to it and don’t plan to. In a world at a million crossroads that has taught us to grow jaded to the evil that plagues it, I’m confident that this will be the most important, relevant album of 2015, and I hope you'll listen through this masterpiece in its entirety at least once.
Here's a link to the album on Spotify:
Examining the masterpiece that is To Pimp a Butterfly
I don't want to call this an album review. Not because I'm not expressing an opinion about the quality of the music. I definitely am. But because to write about To Pimp a Butterfly in a context that would lend the album to comparisons to any other rap album produced in the last ten years would be a disservice to Kendrick Lamar. Categorizing this masterpiece even as a "rap album" carries the burden of associations of the genre's hollowness, malignance and superficiality. I barely know where to begin with this work of art.
Kendrick wrote this album as a treatise on inequality, corruption, culturalism vs structuralism, poisonous mainstream culture, and black-on-black violence.
If you attentively listen to all that is packed inside the poetry on this album, you will find that Kendrick is vigorously unapologetic about confronting:
- the ludicrousness of valuing certain skin colors over others
the hypocrisy of rappers that lavishly profit from glorification of the ghetto whilst cleanly abandoning and compromising their roots
the nature of institutions to not only make poor black people powerless, but also engender the illusion that they are responsible for their own plight
the shame and fear of failure that plagues his mind, and uncontrollable bouts of depression that follow
the temptation to sell himself for money in a culture that glorifies “flossing"
the hysteria he stomachs in his search for existential meaning as an artist and leader
the frivolousness of rap “beefs” and the deficit of meaning in the rap industry as a whole
the guilt he has because of the incongruity between his selfishness that earned him success and his deep desire to help those in need
how ghetto struggles matter, but must be taken as one of many physical manifestations of the evils that plague the greater world
the unavoidable struggle and frustration that African Americans must confront by simply wanting and deserving more than his people have
the systematic sabotaging of black communities by the CIA and government through introduction of drugs and gun culture
the guilt he feels by not having reached a height of positive influence that would have precluded the slaying of Trayvon Martin and countless others
the cancer that is society to tell us that worth is measured in our possessions and that our insecurities can be silenced by the brandishing of wealth
the consequences of glorifying the words “nigger” or “nigga”, two slurs that could not be more marred with the institutionalized suffering and subordination of Black Americans.
learning to love himself after enduring an upbringing clouded by spiritual turmoil and self-doubt
the guilt he shoulders regarding his often resentment-filled abuse of power exercised on his enemies
money's corruptive power to institutionalize disenfranchisement, fear, and disgusting opulence
the irony of learning increasingly more about the world of fame and fortune while inadvertently feeling more and more alienated by the place he grew up in
widespread police corruption, the hollowness of US Congress, and the atrocity that is American political gridlock
the nature of the violence in poor black neighborhoods -- a violence that represents the perpetual struggle for self-identity, self-love and self-respect in a society that leaves many with no other options
I've barely given myself time to digest all that entered my ears today. I felt goosebumps during almost the entirety of every listen. I cried midway through my first listen. Saying that the sound production is marvelous and inspiring (which it was) seems like a trivial detail, given the poignance and pertinence of the messages that Kendrick projects through his poetry.
To Pimp A Butterfly is one of the those once in a decade albums that is built like an album. Every song is a standalone masterpiece, but Kendrick crafted this album in the meticulous manner such that each subsequent track builds on the narratives spun by the previous ones. Interspersed through the album are also stanzas of a poem Kendrick wrote to the late Tupac Shakur, his idol. To Pimp A Butterfly is not only intellectually brilliant, but also simply a creative masterpiece.
I examine one part of this astonishing, gripping work of art – the final passage of the album-concluding song "Mortal Man". The song features an [imagined] interview between Kendrick and Tupac, and in the final minute he explains what "To Pimp A Butterfly" means:
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 noticed 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 his 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.
When trapped inside these walls certain ideas start to take roots, such as going home, and bringing back 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 internal struggle.
Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same.
Kendrick, proposes to Tupac that if every caterpillar (representing a marginalized individual) actively worked to use the system against itself, used the cocoon (representing education / strong communities) as catalysts for great ideas and creativity, then those caterpillars could raise their consciousnesses above the boundaries of their confinements.
Kendrick's dream is for the disenfranchised to develop mutual respect for each other, and use their energy and abilities to change the institutions, the laws, and culture that systematically suppress the growth of their people. He astutely pinpoints inequality as the source of the degeneracy that plagues the projects, the greed that fuels the economy, the injustice that never ceases.
Through this imagined interview with Tupac, we are meant to see that Tupac has bequeathed Kendrick with the insight on how to finally break the cycle. Tupac once said, “We might not be the ones, but let’s not be selfish just because we won’t change the world, we shouldn’t talk about how we should change it. I might not know how to change it, but if I keep talking about how dirty it is, somebody gonna clean it up.”
Thank you, Kendrick
I've seen Kendrick grow and flourish as a performer, a musician, and higher mind through 2012, 2013, and 2014. There's no doubt in my mind that 2015 will be his most meaningful yet. I'm glad to be able to witness history. I'm eager to see Kendrick change the world.
Thank you for channeling the courage of Martin Luther King, for spreading Nelson Mandela’s message, for following Kanye's lead in unapologetically manifesting the hard-to-digest truths the mainstream needs to accept.
Thank you for sticking to what you stand for. Thank you for allowing me to feel your melancholy, your optimism, your vulnerability, your joy, your darkness, your rawness, your realness. Thank you for being real. THANK YOU FOR BEING REAL.
Thank you for crafting one of the most emotionally and intellectually stimulating albums that have ever graced my ears.