Five years ago, Kendrick Lamar released what would eventually become the most impactful creative work that I have ever experienced – To Pimp a Butterfly. To Pimp a Butterfly is an empowering project about race, fame, social economics, and as I have gone on to truly understand and empathize with most recently, reflection of self. The album’s sound is a combination of hip-hop, old school west-coast funk, and jazz, which was a departure from his modern-sounding previous work. I have casually listened to this album countless times since its release, but before yesterday, I hadn’t given it a really thoughtful, uninterrupted listen in at least three years. Here are a few of the moments that really stood out to me during this latest listen.
While Kendrick Lamar’s prior album, good kid, m.A.A.d city was a grounded narrative focused on a single character, To Pimp a Butterfly’s scope goes far beyond just one person, place, or time. Songs like “Complexion”, “The Blacker the Berry”, and “Alright”, and the outro of “I”, all touch upon the themes of being black in America, police brutality, and racial inequality, and are presented in a fashion that lets listeners know that these songs are about an entire culture and community, not just Kendrick himself. As a non-black ethnic minority, it is obviously impossible for me to ever fully understand the struggles associated with these songs, but I can say that I still find the lyrics and themes to be incredibly educational, hard-hitting and relatable. The song “Alright” in particular became a sort of anthem for people protesting police brutality back in 2015, and continues to remain relevant to this day.
These tracks serve as a reminder that such issues don’t just disappear, and we still witness, experience, and hear about them daily, which I think is something I didn’t fully grasp as a teenager. “The Blacker the Berry” (the most aggressive, racially-focused song on the album), is a good example of this. I immaturely thought it was solely a response to tensions at the time, but I now realize that it was manifested after hundreds of years of pain and struggle, and will probably continue to be relevant for years to come. Despite the fact that I knew how important these topics were, my disconnect from them and relative lack of knowledge prevented me from fully appreciating the way Kendrick Lamar captured his thoughts and emotions on these songs.
While I immediately registered the more in-your-face concepts and the historical context that contributed to the making of this album, the themes revolving around oneself have only begun to impact me more recently. As a fifteen-year-old, internal adversity was not something I struggled with day-to-day, so my ability to empathize with much of this album was pretty restricted. I’m glad to say that that has now changed. The sixth track on the album, “U”, is a deep-dive into Kendrick’s mind, and portrays his post-fame feelings of being a failure, hating himself, and his struggles with alcoholism and suicidal thoughts. To me, this is a really important moment in the album as the way he unashamedly discusses his weaknesses and dark thoughts is rare for a mainstream hip-hop act. I am a big advocate of people receiving proper mental health treatment and removing the stigma surrounding it, and I believe that artists and celebrities being honest with themselves and their fans can only help with that.
Other songs that highlight Kendrick’s critical self-reflection include “Momma” and “How Much a Dollar Cost”. The former is about Kendrick thinking too highly of himself and believing that he “knows everything”, until he closes the verse stating “Until I realized I didn’t know shit the day I came home”. The latter, “How Much a Dollar Cost”, is about Kendrick refusing to give a single dollar to a homeless stranger, and eventually losing his spot in heaven as a result of it. These types of lessons are littered throughout the entirety of the album, and as I have continued to grow as a person, have become more and more apparent to me each time I revisit the project. I appreciate the honest thoughts that these kinds of songs evoke, and I always try to maintain this same self-awareness as best as I can. It is also important to note that despite these notions appearing so frequently, the prevailing themes of the album are still about self-love, acceptance, and actualization. The penultimate track, “I”, for example, is essentially “U”’s polar opposite, and reflects exactly that.
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly remains my favourite hip-hop album to this day (alongside good kid, m.A.A.d city), and I’m excited to revisit it another five years from now and uncover even more messages that the me of today doesn’t fully understand.