Review | Kendrick Lamar talks to ghosts on the compelling ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’
To Pimp a Butterfly
To Pimp a Butterfly closes with a conversation between its author Kendrick Lamar and the late Tupac Shakur.
The latter’s dialogue is taken from a November 1994 interview conducted with music journalist Mats Nileskar. Shakur was shot five times just weeks later while finishing up the seminal Me Against the World. It would go on to be released on March 14, 1995; 20 years and two days before To Pimp a Butterfly’s release was pushed forward and suddenly appeared in everyone’s Spotify feeds. This was not a coincidence, as Lamar’s Twitter feed can attest to. Kendrick and 2Pac go back and forth, discussing the state of society, the treatment of black people in the United States and their art. Finally, Lamar asks Shakur for his perspective on the following words, which his friend wrote about his world:
“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 start to take roots, 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.”
Shakur is no longer there, as Lamar realises that he is talking to himself and imagining how a conversation with the late, great rapper might happen (Pac’s last words are “Because the spirits, we ain’t even really rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us”, foreshadowing this). What this specific passage is, however, is a cheat sheet – of sorts – for interpreting the rest of the album. It’s an incredibly dense record that could be construed as a sort of gentle instruction to his peers: Lamar, by his own acknowledgement, used to be a caterpillar as portrayed in the first third of the record, but through his art he managed to shun his vices (money, sex, consumerism) and become a “butterfly”.
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However, he could also be the caterpillar, having abandoned his roots to seek fame and fortune – “survivor’s guilt” is a theme that is referenced multiple times throughout. Ultimately, the decision is left to the listener and, in that sense, it is one of the most mature albums released this year. It is one that refuses to hold your hand and the incredibly dense nature of the material can make it hard to digest upon the first few listens.
Thankfully, Kendrick also has the musical chops to back it up. He shines frequently throughout To Pimp a Butterfly, reinforcing his well-earned reputation as one of the finest rappers in the world right now. ‘Wesley’s Theory’ is a funky, upbeat start and it continues with the militant ‘King Kunta’. Elsewhere, the introspective ‘u’ is dark, with a haunting beat that finds Kendrick filled with self-loathing, second guessing many of his choices in life (it serves as a turning point of the LP, too, after the earlier excesses):
“You ain’t no brother, you ain’t no disciple, you ain’t no friend
A friend never leave Compton for profit or leave his best friend
Little brother, you promised you’d watch him before they shot him
Where was your antennas, on the road, bottles and bitches
You faced time the one time, that’s unforgiven
You even Facetimed instead of a hospital visit
Bitch you thought he would recover well
Third surgery couldn’t stop the bleeding for real
Then he died, God himself will say ‘you fuckin’ failed’
You ain’t try”
‘How Much a Dollar Cost’ tells a wonderful, complex story of letting go of excess and repenting with Lamar in fine form lyrically and LoveDragon providing a soothing beat that is perfect for the theme involved. ‘Complexion’, a musing on beauty in all its forms, features a thumping rhythm, continuing with the uplifting feel of the latter portion of the album. ‘i’, a direct follow up to ‘u’ about positivity and self-love is flat out fun. Although it is here that the juxtaposition which runs through the entire album (the disparity between the caterpillar and the butterfly) rears its head again. It is a “live” version of the previously released single…
…only this time a fight breaks out in the audience. Having calmed them, Kendrick launches into a poem about the appropriation of the word “nigga”, setting the stage for ‘Mortal Man’, the aforementioned imagined sit-down between Lamar and Shakur.
There are very few weaknesses to be found here and it’s an album that could aptly be described as a “grower”. There’s a lot to unpack, but it’s a rewarding experience. ‘You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)’ is relatively average and Lamar’s beat selection could have been better in places (‘Momma’). Similarly, thematically, as brilliantly as everything is brought together here very little original ground is covered. Artists such as Shakur himself, OutKast, Lupe Fiasco, Eminem and DMX have addressed basically all of the issues that Lamar does here.
Still, it’s an excellent and important album up there in terms of gravity with D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. The amount of hype it has received is perhaps a little over the top but it is still well worth your time. If nothing else, it’s an honest portrayal of a person who is trying to come to terms with their own self-worth, place in society and trying to do so by interacting with his idols in his own head. As the wonderful Fernando Pessoa once wrote:
“I slip into an era prior to the one I’m living in; I enjoy the feeling that I’m a contemporary of Cesário Verde, and that in me I have, not verses like his, but the identical substance of verses that were his.”
Don’t we all.