To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB) by Kendrick Lamar is the most highly discussed album of 2015. It has sparked countless debates about black rights and equality since its release, and it doesn’t seem to be stopping. People are still talking about this album and what it has to offer. The album has had massive critical acclaim even though many Lamar fans didn’t like the album for its seriousness and jazz influence. However, I agree with the critics in calling it a classic and I believe that this album will continue to shape future discussions on race equality, self love and hate, and hopefully break down barriers between people.
Before I even begin to talk about the tracks on this album, the title deserves to be noted. The title itself is a message to the listener, speaking volumes about the purpose of the album. Lamar invokes a feeling of growth in just the title alone, creating the picture of an already beautiful animal becoming even more so. This is an allusion to taking black people, who are already beautiful in their own right, and making them even more wonderful in the hopes to get them love themselves. This is a common theme throughout the record that Lamar emphasizes. He speaks on self love and his own personal self hate, and recognizes the subconscious self hate within the black community. While many people disagree with him, Lamar uses his own personal experiences to explain why he believes this to be so. And its not just self love and self hate that Lamar speaks on, but a love for everybody else as well. He pushes the idea of loving everybody, and he’s even been quoted in interviews saying that love is the reason we exist on this earth.
To start this album off, Lamar gives us “Wesley’s Theory”. This track embodies what happens when a black man who comes from a poor upbringing suddenly becomes famous and has money essentially thrown at him. Because he came from a poor upbringing, the man doesn’t know how to properly manage his money and maintain his wealth, thus, he spends it unwisely and doesn’t pay taxes. Then, as soon as he got his riches, it’s taken away from him by the government and he’s thrown in jail. This cycle of poor to rich then back to poor is common among celebrities who come from nothing. Lamar notes that this is not uncommon among black celebrities, particularly rappers, because the record labels essentially pimp out the rappers to the public and shower them with money in amounts that the rappers just don’t know how to handle responsibly. This is also a nod to the title of the album.
“Institutionalized” takes on a narrative form similar to “Sing About Me” from good kid, m.A.A.d city (GKMC), in which Lamar takes on two different perspectives on this track. From Lamar’s perspective, we see what life has become for him since his career took off, although he maintains that he’s still down to his roots and “real”. In the second perspective, his friend tells Lamar about how he feels seeing Lamar’s fellow rapper wearing expensive watches, flying privately and living lavish lives. He tells Lamar that he can’t just sit by and watch, but that he is compelled to steal from them because there’s nothing else he can do to get anything. His friend mentions stealing from the rich and giving to the poor and how Lamar is supposed to remember that, but now that Lamar has become rich and famous, his friend now views Lamar in a different light. Both perspectives view the other in a condescending light, and both show how each side truly feels, exploring flip sides of the same coin. Lamar is telling us in this song what can happen to your relationships when you become famous.
On the track “u”, Lamar’s emotion is let loose as he raps about how he feels deep inside. He talks about how he hates himself because he wasn’t able to protect his younger sister from getting pregnant at a young age even though thousands of people claim to have been positively affected by him . He regrets that he hasn’t been around for his own family and friends because he’s been busy with his career, and he shows just how much that regret has affected him. This track is one of the most emotional ones on the album, and also happens to be one of my personal favorites. He holds nothing back as he reveals the self hate that he deals with daily, and how hard it is to love himself because he blames himself for so many things. This self hate isn’t uncommon among others, especially within the black community for similar reasons, be it the inability to protect family or the inability to become successful.
“Alright”, possibly the most popular track from the album, starts the transition from how dark the album has been thus far and takes a turn for the positive. No matter how hard things may seem, he believes that everything will eventually be alright. He’ll get through all of his emotional pain, he’ll overcome the oppression he faces as a black male, and he’ll be able to live a happy life. This anthem for faith is powerful in its message of positivity even in the face of any adversity.
Lamar then gets addresses his faith in God on “How Much a Dollar Cost” where he recounts a meeting he had with someone who he believes to be God. In it, he spoke to a homeless man who asked for a dollar, and when Lamar refused to give him one, the homeless man then revealed to be God and told Lamar that because of his unwillingness to give the man a dollar, that action has now cost Lamar his spot in heaven, giving meaning to the value of a dollar. Lamar, now with the realization that a dollar can be worth much more than just its monetary value, asks for forgiveness. From this he learns what it means to be truly selfless and continues to speak on similar ideals further along on the album.
“Complexion” one of the most important tracks on the album in my opinion. This track brings together everything that Lamar has been talking about for the last 11 tracks and culminates in what he’s trying to tell the public. He raps about loving everyone for who they are as a person rather than basing opinions solely on the color of one’s skin. He speaks of unity between people regardless of race. Lamar is expressing that Love is the most precious thing that we as humans can share with one another; more precious than money or fame, love is what ties everyone together. Rapsody then adds to this sentiment with one of the best verses on the album. She expresses how as an adult, she has learned to love herself instead of hating herself because of the color of her skin. She believes in the importance of self love and how it can change one’s perspective on life drastically. And to add to Lamar’s message of unity, she goes on to say that everything is beautiful, no matter the color. Rapsody dismisses the significance of gang colors to say that opposing gang members should be united instead of fighting each other and killing each other. This track defines just how important love and unity are to Lamar and how he feels.
The first single from this album was “i”, which was controversial among Lamar fans, and upon retrospection could have also been foreshadowing the album’s reception. Many fans loved how upbeat the song was and the expressions of self love. Others didn’t like the song because of its campy feel and how it felt like it was catered for the radio to just be a generic “feel good” song. I was among the latter when the single came out and I had my doubts about the album. However, that opinion drastically changed when I heard the full album, and subsequently the album version of “i”. The album version of this track is much different than the single version, the former being a live version rather than a studio version. It has much more energy and liveliness to it. Still, I wasn’t really a fan of the song. Not long after that, I read an interview with Lamar where he said his reasons for making the song. He said that he made the song because he needed something to counteract the song “u” and that he needed something to make him feel better about himself. The songs overindulgence of self love is because Lamar needed to force himself to love himself so that he could escape from his depression. He didn’t make it as a radio single, but as a means to better himself as a person and to help others do the same. After realizing just how admirable the reason for this track was, my opinion of it immediately changed. While I enjoy the live version more than the single version, I now have an immense amount of respect for either version of the song because of how personal and meaningful it is. Even more so, not only is this song extremely personal, but it’s extremely easy for people to relate to this song and it gives them hope for personal change just as it did for Lamar.
TPAB is an album filled with messages about self love and self hate and the promotion of love and unity through the telling of Lamar’s personal experiences. While GKMC gave insight into Lamar’s upbringing and his youth, TPAB gives insight into how Lamar feels now and what he’s dealt with since his climb to fame. This album is personal on such a deep level and reaches out to people who feel the way Lamar felt. This album is a message to those in need of hope as much as it is a message of love. This album defines Lamar’s beliefs and personality through incredible lyricism that Lamar has been showing off since his mixtape Overly Dedicated. This album has cemented his status as one of the best rappers of our generation and his place in hip hop history. The importance of this album is often overlooked, but I have no doubt that as time goes on, more and more people will look back and realize just how much heart and personality Lamar put into this project. What makes this album even better is that it has incredible replay value. Many albums that make important statements lose replay value quickly because the statements are made too bluntly or directly that it can get in the way of simply enjoying the album. TPAB seamlessly ties its messages into its sound and makes the album an incredibly smooth and enjoyable journey, one which can be taken over and over again. Listening to this album feels good, regardless of whether you listen for its meaning or its sound. Albums like this don’t come out very often, but Kendrick Lamar gave us one that won’t soon be forgotten.