Before TPAB, Kendrick Lamar was the new kid on the block. Everybody had heard of him and almost everybody knew he had the potential to do something big. But he wasn’t a star yet. His previous album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was a critical darling and quite a big hit considering his humble beginnings, but it just wasn’t enough to get him into the mainstream rap scene. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great album and even made Kendrick famous. Heck, it was the fame he earned from his first two albums, that lead to him creating TPAB. Having trouble to deal with this newfound fame, money and cultural identity, Kendrick went to South Africa looking for inspiration. The influence of his trip on the direction of the album can be easily felt.
It’s been only five years since Kendrick released To Pimp a Butterfly (15 April, 2015), but it’s already considered to be a classic by many. And rightfully so, TPAB is one of those albums that cements your name among the legends forever. Kendrick was no more the new upcoming talent in the hip hop scene, he was one of the masters of the genre. A commercial and critical success upon it’s release, It went on to earn Lamar 11 grammy nominations, and a grammy for best rap album of the year (It lost Album of the year to Taylor Swift’s 1989 funnily). A lot of magazines called it the best album of 2015 and The Independent named it the “Album of the decade”. In short, it was huge.
Kendrick explores a lot of themes on TPAB, all of which I can’t even comprehend. It talks about subjects ranging from black history to celebrity worship. If we were to discuss all of those themes, all the literary references and musical innovations , we’ll be stuck here all day. Instead I’m gonna talk about each track individually, discuss about what I think they’re about and what they mean to me and at the end I give you my final thoughts. Sounds cool? Aight.
“No one teaches poor black males how to manage money or celebrity, so if they do achieve success, the powers that be can take it from right under them”. Kendrick Lamar has given pretty clear explanation about what’s this song is about. He makes a direct reference in the song about Wesley Snipe’s arrest at the age of 35, on the charges of tax evasion.
“But remember, you ain’t pass economics in school
And everything you buy, taxes will deny
I’ll Wesley Snipe your ass before thirty-five”
This is one of my favorite tracks in the album. Right from the opening you know you are in for a treat. The instrumentation is beautiful and the sampling by Kendrick is exceptional. I also love the features on this track. From George Clinton to Steven Ellison, all bring their A-game.
I also like to read this song as reference to Chaos Theory o The Butterfly Effect considering the things Kendrick talks about later in the album. It states that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world can cause a cyclone in the other end. Kendrick compares himself to the butterfly a lot, and his little songs that can have huge meaning or effect on people at the completely other end of the globe.
“But remember, anybody can get it
The hard part is keepin’ it, motherfucker”
2. For Free? (Interlude)
When I first heard heard this song I couldn’t stop laughing. I couldn’t decide if was genius or a disaster. But once I listened to it for the second time I knew it was genius. I mean the jazz instrumentation is itself sensational but combined with Kendrick’s fast flowing sarcastic lyrics – it is a masterpiece.
“This dick ain’t free
You lookin’ at me like it ain’t a receipt like I never made ends meet
Eating your leftovers and raw meat
This dick ain’t free”
Kendrick takes a dig here at the materialistic nature of modern rappers, how they always go around flexing girls and cars. He also talks about the struggles he had to face suddenly once he became rich and famous, and how suddenly girls wanted to sleep with him now. Kendrick makes a statement about this dirty side of fame and most modern musicians seem to have accepted. The song also talks about all the dirty things money makes people do and how it affects family values and nature in Ameica.
“Oh America, you bad bitch, I picked cotton and made you rich
Now my dick ain’t free.”
3. King Kunta
“The yam is the power that be (that be, that be, that be, that be, that be)
You can smell it when I’m walkin’ down the street”
Let’s start this one with some background information. Kunta Kinte is a fictional character from the novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Kinte got his right foot cut off because of his attempts to escape his plantation. The way Kendrick uses yams to represent power and discrimination with the song is genius.
If we take a look at the song, you can see that Kendrick is using an easy rhyme scheme to bring the message across in a very simplistic way so everyone can understand it. He calls out the people that weren’t interested in him before he got famous and he also raps about how everyone wants a piece of his leg (reference to Kunta), that means everyone wants a piece of his money, fame or success.
“I was gonna kill a couple rappers, but they did it to themselves
Everybody’s suicidal, they ain’t even need my help
This shit is elementary, I’ll probably go to jail”
“What money got to do with it
When I don’t know the full definition of a rap image?”
Kendrick’s past is still a part of him even though he made it out of the hood. He talks about everyone being Institutionalized and put into stereotypes. The Intro talks about What Kendrick understood of a rap image – money, hoes, clothes, and celebrity – was just part of what it means to be successful. What he didn’t understand is that one can obtain these things, but it doesn’t mean you’re entirely free from your past or societal limitations put on a person of color. You can be famous but still poor of spirit or mind. Verse 2 shows how money influences people’s actions and behavior towards other people by an example of one of Kendrick’s friends.
Institutionalized is also a metaphor foe how the music industry changed Kendrick as a person and what he thinks of it.
“And once upon a time in a city so divine
Called West Side Compton, there stood a little nigga
He was five foot something, God bless the kid
Took his homie to the show and this is what they said”
5. These Walls
“I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence
Sometimes, I did the same”
The title has 3 different meanings. The walls of a woman, the walls of his mind and the walls of a prison cell. The song narrates Kendrick having sex with a married woman whose husband is in prison for killing one of Kendrick’s friends. Lamar views this as an act of revenge for his dead friend but he also has a bad conscience about using his power to seduce someone like mention in the song “For Free?”.
“If these walls could talk
I can feel your reign when it cries
Gold lives inside of you”
“Mood swings is frequent, nigga
I know depression is restin’ on your heart for two reasons, nigga
I know you and a couple block boys ain’t been speakin’, nigga”
So this is a very dark and personal song for Kendrick Lamar. He faces internal battles such as insecurities, self-hatred, selfishness and let-downs. He talks to himself and blames himself for things he has done or not done in the past. He also questions himself and questions who he really is.
Kendrick deals with depression and suicidal thoughts during the song, especially towards the end of it. The lyrics here are extremely beautiful and heartbreaking. You may not have faced the same situations as him but you feel Kendrick’s pain through this track.
“I cry myself to sleep
Bitch, everything is your fault
Faults breakin’ to pieces, earthquakes on every weekend
Because you shook as soon as you knew confinement was needed”
“Alls my life I has to fight, nigga
Alls my life I
Hard times like, yah!”
Alright is the most successful single of TPAB. It probably even has one of the most catchiest hooks of the album (Nigga we gonna be alright). But that’s doesn’t mean the song isn’t deep. The first line itself is a direct reference from the famous 1982 novel “The color purple” which tells the tale of Celie, a young black girl born into poverty and segregation.
‘Alright’ is like a response to ‘u’. He tells himself that he’ll be alright and he’ll get through it with God’s help. The song has an optimistic message and verse 2 introduces Lucy (Lucifer)
“And we hate po-po
Wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, nigga
I’m at the preacher’s door”
8. For Sale (Interlude)
“The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went runnin’ for answers
Until I came home”
The 2nd Interlude of this album is about Kendrick dealing with Lucy’s temptations. She sells him all these ideas that she will fulfill all of his dreams and promises, but he knows that it is all a lie.
He also decides to spread his message through his songs instead of selling out like many other artists, which boy he does. But Kendrick doesn’t only share his ideas he makes sure the music supporting those ideas is great.
“met a little boy that resembled my features
Nappy afro, gap in his smile
Hand me down sneakers bounced through the crowd”
Momma refers to Africa, because that’s where he comes from, that’s where his roots are. He also went on a trip to South Africa in 2014. Lamar talks about growing as a person and fighting off Lucy’s temptations. The trip to Africa changed his view and perspective on a lot of things and he realized that he didn’t know as much as he thought he did.
“The mind of a literate writer but I did it in fact
You admitted it once I submitted it wrapped in plastic
Remember scribblin’ scratchin’ dilligent sentences backwards”
10. Hood Politics
“I don’t give a fuck about no politics in rap, my nigga (my nigga)
My lil’ homie Stunna Deuce ain’t never comin’ back, my nigga (my nigga)”
Kendrick’s voice is at a higher pitch on this track to signify his younger self when the hood was all he knew. He tells himself just to spit lyrics for his homies and not to worry about politics at the start of the first verse. Kendrick celebrates the hood life in this song and at the same time criticises it’s shortcomings. He analyses he’s transtion to the man that he is today, and you can even sense a longing for the hood life in him.
“But that didn’t stop survivors guilt
Going back and forth, trying to convince myself the stripes I earned
Or maybe how A-1 my foundation was
But while my loved ones was fighting a continuous war back in the city
I was entering a new one.”
11. How much does a dollar cost?
“How much a dollar really cost?
The question is detrimental, paralyzin’ my thoughts
Parasites in my stomach keep me with a gut feeling, y’all”
In this track Kendrick runs into a homeless man at a gas station in South Africa who asks him for a dollar. Kendrick thinks that he wants the money to buy some crack as he looks like a crack addict. He starts to feel guilty about his selfishness. Later on, the homeless man claims to be God and a dollar has cost Kendrick his place in heaven.He curses Kendrick on his lack of generosity. Kendrick asks for forgiveness and is now free of Lucy and Uncle Sam.
Here Kendrick expresses his visual confusion about what to do with all the money he has earned He doesn’t want to give it away to the poor, because once he was one of them, and if he can make it even they can. Money will make them lazy and they won’t work. We wants to help them with the money he’s earned but not give it to them.
“He looked at me and said, “Your potential is bittersweet”
I looked at him and said, “Every nickel is mines to keep”
12 Complexion (A Zulu love)
”Dark as the midnight hour or bright as the mornin’ sun
Give a fuck about your complexion, I know what the Germans done”
Through this song, Kendrick talks about discrimination based on color. And not just discrimination among black and white, but within the people of color. Complexion is about educating society on Color-ism and telling everyone that every color is beautiful to him and that dark skin and light skin is equal.
“Call your brothers magnificent, call all the sisters queens
We all on the same team, blues and pirus, no colors ain’t a thing”
13. The blacker the berry
“Everything black, I don’t want black (they want us to bow)
I want everything black, I ain’t need black (down to our knees)”
This track borrows it’s name from The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life, a novel by American author Wallace Thurman, associated with the Harlem Renaissance. The novel tells the story of Emma Lou Morgan, a young black woman with dark skin.
This song deals with racialized self-hatred and racism in general. It also deals with internal problems the black community faces. Kendrick raps with an aggressive voice throughout the song and is angry about the destruction of black lives.
“You hate my people, I can tell ’cause it’s threats when I see you
I can tell ’cause your ways deceitful
Know I can tell because you’re in love with that Desert Eagle
Thinkin’ maliciously, he get a chain then you gone bleed him”
14.You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)
“And the world don’t respect you and the culture don’t accept you
But you think it’s all love
And the girls gon’ neglect you once your parody is done”
This track might be a reference to 2Pacs ‘Lie To Kick It’, I’m not sure about it. The intro introduces Kendricks mother as the initial voice. The song is about being yourself and not lying to fit in somewhere and it’s also about stereotyping people.
“Tell me before we off ya, put you deep in the coffin
Been allergic to talkin’, been a virgin to bullshit
And sell a dream in the auction, tell me just who your boss is”
“I done been through a whole lot
Trial, tribulation, but I know God
Satan wanna put me in a bow tie”
‘i’ is the complete turnaround to ‘u’. Though TPAB revolves around negative temptations and self-doubt, this song offers redemption. He found himself and is able to love himself now. This is also contrast to ‘u’ where he hated himself and couldn’t imagine loving himself. Kendrick also explains how the media wants to keep everyone down by spreading negativity. He is proud to be black and shows this by the word ‘Negus’ which means royalty in Ethiopian.
“And I love myself
(The world is a ghetto with big guns and picket signs)
I love myself
(But it can do what it want whenever it want, I don’t mind)
I love myself
(He said I gotta get up, life is more than suicide)
I love myself
(One day at a time, sun gon’ shine)”
16. Mortal Man
‘Mortal Man’ is probably the most ambitious track in hip hop history. The track can be divided into three sections. The first half of it he name-checks different leaders such as Nelson Mandela or Malcolm X. This part was clearly inspired from his trip to South Africa, where he visited Nelson Mandela’s prison cell.
He describes his early self (and many others like him) as a caterpillar forced consume anything and everything in order to survive. He then realised the only way he can make it out of the streets (the cocoon) was to pimp his music, talent and beauty out to the record labels and privileged society. This metaphor was used throughout the whole album and is also the title of the album. It’s also interesting that the former name of the album was Tu Pimp A Caterpillar (2Pac).
Kendrick got the audio recordings of 2Pac’s interview in Germany when he was doing an interview himself. Kendrick was fascinated because the answers that 2Pac was giving were still relevant for today. I gotta tell you as soon as I heard Pac’s voice I got emotional. Here I was listening to one of my favorite artist talk to his idol, a legend who’s now a dead man. So let’s get to the interview with Pac. They discuss the black culture, racism, fame and image. Kendrick feels like 2Pacs spirit lives through him and the poem that continues throughout the whole album at the end of songs comes to an end as Kendrick reads out the poem to Tupac perfectly circling out the whole album. At the end when Kendrick calls out “Pac.. Pac… Pac…”, not gonna lie, I totally cried.
“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
When trapped inside these walls certain ideas take root, such as
Going home, and bringing back new concepts to this mad city
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”
I think this poem perfectly sums up the theme of To pimp a butterfly. Kendrick fully transforms into the butterfly at the end. He might have a longing towards his humble early life, but what he has is much more valuable. Sure the artist life is full of problems and mental insecurities. But as an artist he can now do things he never could earlier. He can speak to people around the globe, he can shed light on issues no one else would, he has the power to uplift the conditions of those like him and he the opportunity influence a whole new generation with his rap. But the fact that he’s a big man now, a butterfly, doesn’t mean he’s forgotten his roots or where he came from – The caterpillar still lives somewhere inside the butterfly.