by Anne Chor and Lea Thompson
To Pimp a Butterfly is Kendrick Lamar’s third album, released on March 15th, 2015. It was produced by over 70 people, including icons like Dr. Dre and Pharrell Williams. There are 16 tracks on the album, with five standing as singles, all of which entered the Billboard Top 200; these were “i,” “The Blacker The Berry,” “King Kunta,” “Alright,” and “These Walls.” Several won individual awards; such as “i” receiving best rap song and “Alright” winning best rap performance. The album itself won the Grammy for “Best Rap Album.” Repeated themes in To Pimp a Butterfly include the struggle with maintaining success after quickly rising from humble roots and Lamar’s own emotions regarding his struggles and problems facing our society. An extremely relevant song is “The Blacker The Berry,” which focuses on the murder of Trayvon Martin. Lamar’ approaches To Pimp a Butterfly with a lot of emotion, and Raquel Willis described the album as “baring visceral angst, discontent, and a call for deeper consideration.” Political messages are not a new addition to rap music, but Lamar’s authenticity makes this album special. Among all the critical praise and awards for his work, many have pointed out the messages of hyper-masculinity and lyrics that demean women ever-present in rap music are still prevalent in this album; and the negative effects of those words cannot be ignored simply because Lamar also included positive messages about race.
Historical and Cultural Context:
Rap music has a complex history as a genre, but it has traditionally been a way for African-Americans to find a voice in a society where their ideas are suppressed. However, now the authenticity of the genre is under question. One of the main factors in this transition is the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed a few companies to monopolize radio nationwide. This lead to the corporatization of rap music, which contributed to a skewing of the audience to white suburban males (Johnson). The culture of rap music now seems to allow white people to appropriate the struggles of black people to gain authority while simultaneously negatively stereotyping African Americans for those same actions (Johnson). Another key aspect of rap music is the connection to location, often referenced as “hoods.” For example, east coast and west coast cultures are distinct in their rap music styles (Forman). Highly specific locations, such as Compton, became the focal points of songs and bred enough rappers to give credibility to the location itself.
Kendrick Lamar is actually from Compton, which is an important part of his identity as an artist. The streets were rough, a common topic of his music, especially early in his career. Experiences as a child, such as seeing his first murder at the age of five, eventually led to an almost objective view of violence; Lamar explained “you just get numb to it” (Eells). It was not just violence in Lamar’s childhood that defined his future, he claimed the moment he knew he wanted to be a rapper was when he saw Dr. Dre and 2Pac filming a music video in Compton (Eells). This led to an early start of writing music and rapping. m.A.A.d City, Lamar’s first mixtape, gave extremely detailed accounts of his rough early life, down to the type of soda they consumed (Lamar). The authenticity and quality of his original work were noticed by Dr. Dre, who helped him build his brand and success. His drastic and quick transition from circulating mixtapes as a sixteen-year-old in Compton to being a part of Dr. Dre’s label is the source of his repeated motif regarding the perils of quickly gaining success (“Kendrick Lamar”).
One last piece of vital context for this album is the story of Trayvon Martin. He made national news while Lamar was writing, and Lamar explains Martin was his inspiration for “The Blacker the Berry.” The details of this event are unclear, but a non-black man, George Zimmerman, fatally shot the unarmed teen that night. To make matters worse, Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder. This event exposed racial tensions in America and highlighted the hypocrisy of the judicial system. Regardless of the details of the event, Lamar said: “It just put a whole new anger inside me.” His strong emotions undoubtedly influenced the tone of this song and the album overall. Also relevant to Lamar’s reaction is the history of gang activities in Compton. In light of all of that violence, some of which he was involved in, Lamar also included a verse, “Why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street/When gangbanging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?/Hypocrite.” His background greatly changed the nature of his reaction to and commentary on Martin’s death.
Themes and Stylistic features:
In making the album ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, Kendrick Lamar had the leeway to venture into numerous mediums to effectively retell his story and the story of his people. He takes advantage of the creative control and blends lyrics, instrumentals, and visuals into a captivating story, illustrating the major themes of the album: race, culture, leadership, depression, and discrimination. Songs like ‘i’, have embraced past history of African American music, from the incorporation of other popular genres in the community such as jazz, soul and funk and the utilization of spoken word. This transports listeners back to those eras. Their accompanying videos, thematically relevant to those times, show how these problems, such as police brutality, he addresses in this album have been existing in the community. Through his visuals, Lamar is able to fit the realities of life for some individuals into three to six-minute videos, where elements such as color schemes and costume deliver his critique of society.
In an interview with MTV, Lamar acknowledged he knew what he wanted the album to portray before he began working on it (Markman; Duckworth). In the interconnection between the songs, the similar themes, and ideas running through the videos, it is evident that the album was premeditated even if intricacies, such as the apparent inharmonious transition between songs, make it seem otherwise. According to Lamar, present-day America has not changed much as past issues are still being addressed, and the racial injustice heard through his lyrics about Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown is still ever-present. He also condemns institutions like the education system and argues they contribute to the imminent downfall of the black man.
The album focuses primarily on leadership in multiple contexts in the form of survivor’s guilt and the role Lamar has inadvertently been thrust into as an influential rapper. He explores the tendency of the black community to search for leaders among their own collective instead of placing their trust in the government, which has been known to rig the downfall of any black individual even after they have achieved ‘success’. Throughout the album, Lamar expresses his reluctance in embracing newfound fame and role as an icon He highlights reasons why he is not the ideal person to look up to by lyricizing his belief that he is susceptible to failure and his concern of falling victim to “Uncle Sam’s” traps. These obstacles come in the form of material commodities and are addressed in the song Wesley Snipes: “But remember, you ain’t pass economics in school, And everything you buy, taxes will deny”. He then goes on to convince the audience that he is not a viable candidate to lead them, describing himself as a hypocrite for weeping for Trayvon Martin when gang activities have made him kill one of his own people.
Essentially, Lamar uses language to his advantage, juxtaposing his usual humble and innocent nature against the harsh realities of America. Introducing characters such as Lucy and Uncle Sam in reference to his own personal battles and those of the African-American community as a whole aid in establishing this album as a symbol for social justice. Additionally, he uses his metaphorical and lyrical superiority to turn the camera on various subjects of interest, including himself and society, serving as a reflective element of the album and the psychological tolls of institutionalized failures. In his critique of himself in songs such as ‘u’ and ‘The Blacker the Berry’, Lamar objectifies and criticizes himself using lines such as “Would you judge me a drug-head or see me as K. Lamar/Or question my character and degrade me on every blog”. Almost in the same way, the media strip black people of their humanity and demonizes them in an effort to justify unfair killings of black individuals, exposing and emphasizing the bias against black people in America and the extents in which systems go to continue the ensuing oppression of these individuals.
‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ has been critically acclaimed, numerous media sources have praised Lamar for his unconventional compilation of songs. The Verge refers to Lamar as “Black America’s poet laureate” (Singleton) and Robert Christgau of Cuepoint celebrates Lamar as a passionate and understanding man who offered “a strong, brave effective bid to reinstate hip-hop as black America’s CNN” (Christgau). He filled in as the voice of the oppressed where the media failed. Lamar’s release of this album stood out and was far from the usual violent, materialistic, and bling infused music that had flooded the rap scene for decades. In the political climate of its release, the album emerged when civil advocates began appearing in different mediums to deliver their message. As such, it is no surprise that To Pimp a Butterfly has been universally hailed, with Gigwise writer Will Butler acclaiming it as an “instant classic” in its influence and “pantheon for racial empowerment”(Butler). Its influence has been so impactful that the lyrics of the song ‘Alright’ has been adopted as a unifying chant in the Black Lives Matter Movement (Scruggs). This album showed the dimensions of Lamar not just as an artist but also as a political advocate, almost in the form of a messiah with the mission to lead his people to the promised land of a better society.
On the contrary, critics like Jon Caramancia of the New York Times and Alexis Petridis of the Guardian found fault in the erratic and cluttered nature of the album. In separate instances, they claim this album is “suffocating” (Caramancia) and lament “moments of self- indulgence” (Petridis). In general, they were unimpressed by the nuances of the album. Other critics have also expressed concern over the acclamations for the album being attributed to more of its poetic nature and its propaganda efforts rather than the music quality. Carl Wilson of Slate expresses this concern where he states “For illumination I’ve found myself holding it up less to music, at least initially, than to poetry. I’m normally sour on such moves, the give-Dylan-a-Nobel routine: Lyrics for performance and verse for the page are different species.” (Wilson) Likewise, Justice Charity describes the motivations for the album as “difficult to grasp” and goes on further to say that “In its entirety, To Pimp a Butterfly isn’t a conventionally enjoyable record; it is, essentially, the screams of an agonized man performing open-heart surgery on himself”, (Charity)basing his critique on music and artistry and not the overall message and impact it had.
Despite the criticism, there is still unwavering support and acclaim for Lamar’s album in the black community and beyond. This makes it evident that for these people, music and the significance of its message are not evaluated independently. Individuals instead choose to judge the quality and success of the album by the depth of the message it conveys. This brings in the issue of the intended audience, but it cannot be ignored that this is an album of black activism seeking revolution for a community beaten down by society. In Rachel E. Sullivan’s research, she reports that majority of African American youth listen to rap music because of the relatability of the lyrics and essentially the message. In essence, this provides an explanation for why Lamar’s album was mostly praised for its delivery and message, not the quality of the music itself.
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Keywords: Kendrick Lamar, Rap music, Trayvon Martin, Compton, To Pimp a Butterfly, Social justice in Music, Conscious Rap, Black Lives Matter Movement, Black empowerment, Socially Reflective Music