To Pimp A Butterfly - Kendrick Lamar Analysis
Please note that the following is a collection of my notes that I found most relevant from Spotify’s Dissect podcast. The research and analysis has been thoroughly completed by Cole Cuchna. I just want to spread his messaging in a sort of loose transcript.
If you do have time to listen to this podcast, I highly recommend it.
This album is a masterpiece and so incredibly complex.
To Pimp A Butterfly figuratively depicts Kendrick’s journey from caterpillar to butterfly, from prostitute to pimp. It's a story of self reflection and empowerment.
A little backstory:
Kendrick was raised in Compton, California, and grew immune to the violence in his everyday life. He learned to express himself through poetry in school and eventually through rap, inspired by an early encounter with Dr. Dre and Tupac.
Kendrick got involved with the wrong crowd in Compton, but music was his escape from the tragic destiny he was heading towards.
Early in his rap career, he got the attention of Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre and signed to Dre’s label, a branch of Interscope Records. He had the platform and the resources to make any kind of album he wanted. He could have easily chosen the commercialized route.
Instead, Kendrick chose a path of artistry and storytelling.
He wrote good kid, m.A.A.d city, a concept album and his first major label release. It was a sort of venting process to tell these stories he never told, he needed to write it to move on with his life.
He then found himself conflicted between his Compton upbringing and his newfound status as a global icon.
Two things caused Kendrick to scrap the material he had been working on and start fresh with what would become To Pimp A Butterfly.
A trip to South Africa, which included visiting Nelson Mandela’s jail cell.
The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 and 2014 brought to light the killing of multiple unarmed black men by white police officers who were/are not being held responsible for their crimes against humanity.
As he has said in interviews, Kendrick is not speaking for the community, he IS the community. He knows that he could have easily been a Trayvon Martin or a Michael Brown.
Right away we hear the summary of the album:
“When the four corners of this cocoon collide
You'll slip through the cracks hopin' that you'll survive”
The four corners of the cocoon represent Compton, and he slipped through the cracks of chaos with music. Now, he is navigating a new world and life around him as he undergoes deep reflection.
He goes on to fantasize about reckless spending, which includes buying enough guns to arm his whole hood. Kendrick is already being pimped by his fantasies. They work to the benefit of, and are encouraged by, capitalistic America. His image of success works to the advantage of the oppressive establishment that’s held him back his entire life.
Thus, monetary success is an illusion, a ploy to keep the talented tamed by their own ego-driven desires, feeding themselves right back into an unjust system instead of developing into a real position of influence.
Kendrick is uneducated but he made it against the odds and is now considered a rich and famous king. However, that uneducation will come back to exploit him.
He has been duped into an illusion of success and freedom while Uncle Sam, the American Dream incarnate, has been playing the puppet master the whole time.
He is ignorant still, and he’s not in a position to ignite real change in the system working against him. There is the possibility of becoming a butterfly in all of us but keeping from getting pimped is the real challenge.
It would be a lot better to be educated and rich like the white men in power whose success was due in part to the system built for and by them.
On the contrary, all of Kendrick’s success can be taken back through taxes, unfair royalty checks, and shady contracts that an uneducated person could not fully understand.
"The overall theme of the record, why I love it so much, is because it talks about something we weren't taught in school when we get this money. I spent all my time in school and escaping prison and escaping the system. So you mean to tell me the moment I become successful and I get some money and I don't know how to manage this money, you're going to throw me back in jail for taxes?"
If you're successful and black in America, you better watch your back.
On this next track, even with his monetary success and feelings of empowerment, Kendrick is still falling victim to Uncle Sam’s trap.
Kendrick demands compensation for his talent from Uncle Sam. He refuses to work for free like his enslaved ancestors.
Though he may feel free, he is still enslaved by our history of systemic racism, by his Compton upbringing, and his own selfishness.
After rising to fame Kendrick is back in Compton.
On the surface this is a hype, funky, boastful track.
“King Kunta” is really referencing a fictional slave from the novel Roots, Kunta Kinte. Kendrick watched the show Roots (an adaption of the book) growing up.
Kinte attempted to escape captivity on many accounts and eventually had his foot cut off by slave hunters so he could not escape again. Kendrick draws parallels between Kinte’s experience and his own escape from Compton.
He is back home to show that he is on top of the food chain; showing his enemies how far he’s come and that he is taking no shit.
He himself is a character using his influence to feed his ego and escalate conflict with his peers rather than unite them.
And who can blame him?
He is turning all the negativity of names he’s been called in the past into pride for his black community and for himself - he has become a king.
There are intentions here to uplift but there is also a more sinister meaning.
“King Kunta” is an oxymoron. He rules like a king yet is controlled like a slave.
Kunta Kinte is missing a leg, a handicap that will forever serve as a reminder of his past. Despite Kendrick’s celebrity and wealth, he is still handicapped as a black man in America.
He has been held back from the day he was born.
At this point in the album, Kendrick is still a caterpillar; immature. Fame and wealth is surely not the pinnacle of his story.
Thus far, Kendrick has displayed all the ways in which he is limited (or cocooned) by institutions, his own selfish actions, and his own selfish thoughts.
“For Free” and “King Kunta” showed us that defiance doesn't mean that you’ve overcome anything. A prisoner who yells at his guard is still a prisoner.
“I'm trapped inside the ghetto and I ain't proud to admit it
Institutionalized, I keep runnin' back for a visit”
He begs the question what good is all this money if he still feels like he could kill someone, more importantly, someone of his own race. He also has immature fantasies about what he would do if he was president.
Success hasn't alleviated him from the institutionalized mindset of his upbringing. He is beginning to feel trapped by his own thoughts.
Later in the album he stresses the importance of change from within and becoming the best version of himself.
He argues that the biggest challenge of institutional racism is the mindset that is often yielded in neighbors like Compton.
In an interview with NOISEY, Kendrick says that institutional racism not only cages black people in prison, but in their own minds…making black people feel like there is no hope.
So, they will always be institutionalized because white society makes them feel like they can’t better themselves.
“And that's even worse than being trapped between walls. To know that up here, your son will be thinking the same thing. Forever locked up.”
To break the cycle, one has to conquer the mind that has fallen victim to systemic racism. Only then would one know how to use power and influence to its fullest, most positive potential.
“Master take the chains off me.”
The way “master” is pronounced, the way slaves addressed their owner, is implying that institutional racism is a form modern day slavery.
In this track, Kendrick brings his friends to the BET awards and they want to rob everyone. He is so frustrated that people from places like Compton cannot change easily.
That desire to steal is instinctual as a result of the environment they grew up in and they’re lashing out at the success around them that feels so unattainable.
It's as simple as you can take the man out the hood but not the hood out of the man.
At this point in the story, Kendrick doesn't fully realize that this is all due in part to institutional racism and that he has the influence to shed light on these issues. He is not yet in a position to help them.
As he adjusts to a life of fame, Kendrick reconciles with the idea that he has abused his fame and influence.
He does so by inflicting pain on the prisoner who killed his friend and takes advantage of the woman who is now a single mother grieving about her child who will grow up without a father.
No matter how successful and famous you are, you are still human and you still have the same emotions, whether they are feelings of love or vengeance.
Having money and influence doesn't stop you from reacting in the same ways you did before you had those things.
Redefining himself has been harder than he imagined it would be and Kendrick is still caught up in some of the hood politics of his past.
He is depressed by his behavior which is made clear in the next track, a brutally honest drunken confession.
He is screaming at himself in front of a mirror. An emotional rock bottom.
It's not only pulling from recent experiences, but from growing up in Compton, pulling from the experience of going through change and accepting change.
He was on tour while things were going on back home involving his family and friends that he couldn't do anything about - close friends of his were killed in one summer and his teenage sister got pregnant.
Everything that was built up, spilled out on this record.
“Whats your intentions where is the influence you speak of
You preached in front of 100, 000 but never reached her
I fuckin' tell you, you fuckin' failure you ain't no leader”
He was influencing so many people on the stage but not the people he wanted/needed to influence back home.
Kendrick attempted to numb his pain with alcohol which only made his issues worse, brought repressed feelings to the surface, and prompted the release of this confession.
Kendrick had fallen into a state of manic depression, wanting to kill himself.
He realizes that the success he fantasized about as a child does not bring him the satisfaction he anticipated and he will begin to look for answers, meaning and purpose.
In these next few tracks, Kendrick attempts to emerge from the cocoon of his institutionalized upbringing.
“Alright” is an unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement. It's a simple message of hope through solidarity and resilience. The concept is accredited to Pharrell Williams.
The song kicks off with a quote from the novel The Color Purple
“Alls my life I has to fight”
Kendrick has dramatically risen from his depressed state, ready to continue to fight. He preaches a message of strength, union and having faith in god’s plan.
This track also fully recognizes Uncle Sam’s goal to exploit Kendrick’s talent for financial gain.
“I recognize you’re looking at me for the pay cut”
Thus, Uncle Sam is defeated on this song and no longer appears on the album.
Kendrick references a gun that is typically equipped with a noise suppressor.
“What MAC-11 even boom with the bass down”
He is calling attention to the silence surrounding the many tragic deaths of black Americans in the U.S.
It parallels the adage if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
If a gun fires and no one in the world cares about its victim, does it actually kill?
“Wouldn't you know
We been hurt, been down before, nigga
When our pride was low
Lookin' at the world like, "Where do we go, nigga?"
And we hate po-po
Wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, nigga
I'm at the preacher's door
My knees gettin' weak and my gun might blow
But we gon' be alright”
This is the shared plight of the black experience; Kendrick finds strength in solidarity.
This song is ever so relevant right now.
“His gun might blow” means that he’s tired of waiting and sometimes prayer isn't enough. Sometimes action is necessary!
It’s a mission statement, a call to action - a reminder that the black community has faced many hardships and survived.
Kendrick is still vulnerable to the temptation of sin, falling prey to materialism, exploitation and the promise of the American Dream.
This is represented by the character in the album Lucy, named after Lucifer the devil incarnate, who seemed to replace Uncle Sam.
This track is Kendrick’s internal reaction to Lucy. He knows how dangerous she is but is continuously tempted by her.
“Lucy gone fill your pockets
Lucy gone move your mama out of Compton
Inside the gi-gantic mansion like I promised
Lucy just want your trust and loyalty”
The price of giving in would not only be financial bankruptcy but also negative influence.
On the previous track, Kendrick spoke of reaching heaven and righting his wrong with God.
Kendrick is now sitting at a crossroads with an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.
On this next track, Kendrick will return home again, but this time with different intentions than in “King Kunta”.
After running from the temptations of Lucy, he returns home to Compton once again, but rather than returning to gloat, the dark experiences of “u” and “For Sale” have humbled him.
He sees Compton in a different light. He is nostalgic and reflective. His experience in South Africa only further shifted his world view.
Kendrick is displaying signs of revelation. He is hypothesising on the existence of fulfilment.
“Ah, I thought I found you, back in the ghetto
When I was seventeen with the .38 special
Maybe you're in a dollar bill, maybe you're not real
Maybe only the wealthy get to know how you feel
Maybe I'm paranoid, ha, maybe I don't need you anyway”
Don't lie to me I'm suicidal anyway
I can be your advocate
I can preach for you if you tell me what the matter is”
Here, Kendrick is calling back to an earlier verse and juxtaposing sucide against a higher calling to preach or be an advocate for his community. We are left wondering what choice he will make.
His wings are emerging but he’s not quite ready to fly.
Should he run from destiny and give into Lucy’s temptations like so many successful people before him and live a life of riches drugs and sex?
Or does he choose destiny, and pimp his situation for the betterment of mankind - to become an advocate for the Comptons of the world and provide insight so that they may, too, get out of the cocoons of their environment.
The question is universal. How should we all live our lives? How do we define success? Do we live to better ourselves or to better mankind?
Kendrick experiences survival guilt for making it out of Compton.
This is a conversation he is having with himself, reiterating his roots and attempting to prove that he is not caught up in the rap politics, but rather he is still deeply affected by the hood politics and the violence in the streets of Compton.
The track ends with:
“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.”
He was entering Johannesburg, South Africa, a truly meaningful experience that has been previously referenced and will continue to play a role in the remainder of the album.
“How Much A Dollar Cost”
After an encounter with god in South Africa, Kendrick embraced his role as a leader.
He is the closest thing to a preacher for a lot of kids in Compton. This track represents Kendrick’s acceptance of this role and a recommitment to the teachings of Christ.
Kendrick’s spot in heaven is the answer to how much a dollar costs, but there is also another interpretation.
The question might really be asking: How much does the pursuit of the dollar cost for the individual seeking it? What price does our soul pay in our pursuit of the American Dream?
Does our society truly benefit from this mentality, or does it keep us a nation divided, independently chasing a dollar while ignoring the needs of our neighbors?
Kendrick stated in an interview: “When are we going to understand that we are put on Earth to love? That’s all it's about!....I really think that it's going keep going on, war gon keep going on, frustration gon keep going on, anger gon keep going on, til we finally go down to the simplest word: love.”
“Complexion (A Zulu Love)”
On the final tracks of this album, Kendrick is entering an enlightened state.
This is the first song that shows Kendrick embracing his new leadership role, the spokesman for the Compton’s of the world.
This track is rich with history but its overall message is that complexion doesn't mean a thing, another lesson he took from his experience in South Africa.
Rhapsody promotes a message of unification within the black community:
“And spike your self-esteem, the new James Bond gon' be black as me
Black as brown, hazelnut, cinnamon, black tea
And it's all beautiful to me
Call your brothers magnificent, call all the sisters queens
We all on the same team, blues and pirus, no colors ain't a thing”
Both Kendrick and Rhapsody address the uselessness and hypocrisy of the black communities participation in colorism.
Rhapsody is citing the gangs, bloods and crips who claim the colors red and blue. She opens the verse up for interpretation through the lens of not only social divisions of colorism, but also through gang politics, which lead to the black on black violence that plagues many inner cities across the nation.
Progress and unification is possible even in the most conflict ridden circles of the black community. Kendrick encourages his community to unshackle themselves from the invisible handcuffs of slavery’s long lasting legacy.
He is not persuading the perpetrators of colorism, but he is speaking directly to the victims.
Kendrick attempts to negate the antiquated notions of colorism with confidence, positivity, and a celebration of beauty found in all women; Highlighting the theme of change from within.
Next track addresses the complexities of black on black violence.
“The Blacker The Berry”
Kendrick discusses his double consciousness - he is partially proud to be black and wants “everything black,” but on the other hand, he is insecure and suggests he might not “need black.”
It's hard to feel the self love demonstrated on “Complexion”, amidst the anxiety and frustration caused by historical oppression, contemporary racism, and the hypocrisy he feels for participating in black on black violence.
The song works to expose the consequences of the oppression of the black community, holding a mirror up to American society.
However, in the third verse, Kendrick turns the mirror back on himself.
“So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street
When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?
He is defending the integrity of black people who are the products of historic oppression and racism. He is saying that he is that product.
He is as Compton as they come: He didn't go to college, his parents weren’t educated, his father was a hustler, his uncles were gang bangers, he saw his first murder at the age of 5, he raised on section 8 housing and welfare, he participated in gang banging, and his close friends were, and continue to be, killed to this day.
He is allowed to be angry with the world and also angry with himself. It's all very complicated.
He can say that he is mad and that he hates everything, but nothing really changes until he changes himself.
“You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”
This is a song about self acceptance and self love.
“You ain't gotta lie to kick it, my nigga
You ain't gotta try so hard”
He is promoting self authenticity and self respect.
Kendricks mother has asked him to return to Compton to share his story of rising from a dark place and becoming a positive person.
His main idea is this: Be yourself, love yourself and love those around you....How else can you care about the neighborhood you live in?
On the next track, “i,” he quite literally returns home to spread this message.
“I done been through a whole lot
Trial, tribulation, but I know God”
This song is for those incarcerated, by physical bars or their own minds, and for the kids that are suicidal - those who don’t feel like they have anything to live for.
“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”
The world is flawed, dark and full of conflict, but if you work on loving yourself and cultivating that energy, you’ll learn to love the world around you. One day at a time, the sun will shine.
He is bold and unafraid of how others will perceive his newfound positivity.
Intercity kids are rarely provided with opportunities that allow them to flourish and the government provides empty promises to cities like Compton.
The world around him has proven to be an unreliable vessel for change time and time again, so he promises to love himself, the one thing he can control.
While fighting external societal battles is important, drastic changes are rare and external forces cannot be relied upon for inner peace.
Control what you can and work to cultivate the best version of yourself.
“They wanna say it's a war outside and a bomb in the street
And a gun in the hood, and a mob of police
And a rock on the corner, and a line for the fiend
And a bottle full of lean, and a model on the scene, yup
These days of frustration keep y'all on tuck and rotation”
His community uses vices as coping mechanisms for the frustrations they feel about the world around them.
Kendrick is saying that positivity can provide superhuman strength in the face of turmoil. He likens his fight with depression to war, and he can now walk the Earth without fear.
“i” is the pinnacle of his transformation from a naive self-loathing rapper to an affirming self-loving leader.
He is pimping his money and influence to become a leader.
Never in a million years did he think he’d be making a positive track coming from where he came from. Thus, he attributes this song to be the best song he ever wrote.
He actually released this song as a single 6 months before the album - giving away the end to the movie before it even came out.
So then, when we hear it within the context of everything else on the album, we are able to truly see how far he’s come. Genius.
However, the real genius is the fact that on the album, the track isn't the same track that was previously released - it is a recording from a live performance of the song in Compton.
We know it's live because of the hype man setting the stage.
“We're bringing up nobody, nobody, nobody...but the number one rapper in the world.”
Using the word “nobody” three times is an intentional contrast to show how Kendrick was once a nobody and is now an international star.
He draws attention to the youth in the crowd, symbolic of the future, and says “This is for you.”
In the live version he says he put a bullet in the back of the head of the bully. The way he says it, it could be heard as “bully” or “police”.
Midway through the track he pauses to break up a fight in the crowd and it is made clear that this is an extended skit. He works to regain control of the crowd.
"Not on my time, Not while I'm up here
Not on my time, kill the music
Not on my time
We could save that shit for the streets
We could save that shit, this for the kids bro"
The purity of the event has been tainted by the fight which is symbolic of the gang violence.
He addresses the fight in the crowd as a petty waste of time and that so many black people have been killed in the streets in that year alone.
Black on black violence is a waste of energy, energy that could be used to fight the greater issues plaguing the community.
“Niggas gotta make time bro
The judge make time, you know that, the judge make time right?”
Referencing the fact that white judges are making time, or prison sentences, for them.
He omitted his lead single, which won 2 Grammys before the album even came out, for this dramatic impact.
It shows his dedication to the album as a form of art, not just a collection of songs.
To Pimp A Butterfly is so effective because it is deeply personal but also entirely universal. He conveys his story in such a way that we all feel a connection. It is truly powerful.
At the end of this track, Kendrick reclaims the meaning of the n word. Black people have been trying to reclaim the word from all of the negativity associated with it for years, trying to instead use it as a term of endearment.
“Well, this is my explanation straight from Ethiopia
N-E-G-U-S definition: royalty; King royalty - wait listen
N-E-G-U-S description: Black emperor, King, ruler, now let me finish
The history books overlook the word and hide it
America tried to make it to a house divided
The homies don't recognize we been using it wrong
So Imma break it down and put my game in a song
N-E-G-U-S, say it with me”
In “King Kunta,” Kendrick called himself a king in a spiteful, egotistical context, but now, he is a leader calling all his brothers and sisters kings in a positive manner.
While the thematic context of the album concludes here, there is an important epilogue.
The end of “i” is stressing leadership, but then in this track, Kendrick is questioning himself, feeling a sense of insecurity.
Is the crowd going to listen to him?
He’s not only questioning himself, but he’s also thinking about what happened to the past leaders who have put way more work in and touched way more hearts than himself.
“The ghost of Mandela, hope my flows stay propellin
Let these words be your Earth and moon, you consume every message
As I lead this army, make room for mistakes and depression'”
Kendrick is referencing Mandela, the iconic symbol of global civil rights activism, making clear his humanitarian intentions.
He wishes the spirit of Mandela to be carried on through his music.
He is also asking for people to consume his message, but still see him as a human who makes mistakes. There is not enough justice in the world and “Mortal Man” is questioning whether people believe in him to be a leader for this cause, and whether his fans are loyal or not.
“When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?”
Will he be built up just for them to reveal in his downfall? Will they claim to need him then leave him for dead?
“If the government want me dead, plant cocaine in my car
Would you judge me a drug-head or see me as K. Lamar?
Or question my character and degrade me on every blog?
Want you to love me like Nelson, want you to hug me like Nelson
I freed you from being a slave in your mind, you're very welcome”
He hopes his message has freed his fans from the imprisonment of their mind like it has for him. Kendrick has met fans on tour that told him his music saved their life, thus he takes this very seriously.
Kendrick prompts his family, friends and fans to question their priorities, challenging the people that said they love and believe in him.
And he makes us all think:
Where does our own loyalty begin and end within our own lives?
How are we embodying the change we wish to see in the world?
Then he reads more lines from the poem that has been read to us throughout the album.
“Just because you wore a different gang color than mine's
Doesn't mean I can't respect you as a black man
Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets
If I respect you
We unify and stop the enemy from killing us
But I don't know
I'm no mortal man
Maybe I'm just another nigga”
Kendrick was reading this poem to Tupac, and “Mortal Man” continues with a conversation with him from beyond the grave.
Tupac was taken from us too soon due to his involvement in rap and street politics. Studying his life and work, Kendrick was able to learn from Pac’s experience without having to suffer his same fate.
Kendrick is the continuation of Tupac’s legacy.
Tupac doesn't answer him at the end, which might symbolize how, much like many of Kendrick's friends who died before the age of 25, his voice was tragically lost.
Tupac had a strong desire and real potential to help uplift his people from historic oppression, and he died at the hands of the people he was trying to save.
Kendrick sees the horrible irony in killing potential saviors and wants to end this pattern, giving young black men a way out through self respect, union, authenticity and love.
The album was originally titled to pimp a caterpillar, an acronym for Tupac, but the contrast was stronger between caterpillar and butterfly.
The word pimp has so much aggression but a butterfly is bright and full of life. It represents using his celebrity for good, not being pimped by the industry, and his overall journey from caterpillar to butterfly.
“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 that when there is hopelessness, then people revolt…For us to survive here, white folks, black folks, korean folks, mexican folks, puertorican, we gotta understand each other. I mean YOU, YOU need to do something,” Kendrick urges in an interview, twisting the words of Uncle Sam himself.
This album teaches us empathy, and empathy is essential, but it is just the bridge to taking action.
Cole Cucha, the creator of Dissect, is a white guy from a suburban town in America. He embarked on this journey of dissecting this album because he believes that we don’t get anywhere as a culture if we’re afraid to confront issues because they are difficult or feel like they don’t apply to us.
He says that art gives and gives and gives, but ultimately you must make yourself available to it. You have to listen when it calls you.
I hope this article helps you understand the black experience and feel inclined to continue to educate yourself, use your voice, take meaningful action, and continue to listen to the words of black artists. Black Lives Matter.
Before I go, I want to reiterate that if you are really interested in this - listen to the podcast. I have only scratched the surface of Cucha’s work dissecting this album.
There is so much thematic content with double and triple meanings...Cucha highlights Kendrick’s genius in such a thought provoking way. The podcast is incredibly well researched and rich with history. It’s over 10 hours of mind blowing content.