From what I read and heard, “To Pimp a Butterfly” initially had mixed reviews. The critics and site editors loved it, but the average listener seemed to disagree. To the average hip-hop fan, it was too preachy. It was hard to listen to. There wasn’t a huge standout or radio single. It didn’t seem to live up to up “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” which produced hit after hit. And to those people, I agree to an extent. “To Pimp a Butterfly” was completely different from “good kid, m.A.A.d. city.” There wasn’t a true radio single. The original “i” was the first to come out on September 23, 2014. It was different than anything K Dot had ever done. It was funky and tried to preach to people to love themselves even through hard times. But even the original “i” didn’t make the cut for “To Pimp a Butterfly.” So you can really only say that “The Blacker The Berry,” which was released on February 9, 2015, was the only true single from “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Some might also argue that the only real standout track was “King Kunta.” And to this, I’d argue that it takes a deeper level of listening to understand everything Kendrick Lamar is trying to say on this album. I’d even go as far as to say that it exposes the mainstream listener.
To understand the meaning behind “To Pimp a Butterfly,” you must listen to it all the way through… a few times. I think Kendrick Lamar is such a genius because he embeds certain things within each song to tell a story that’s meant for a bigger picture. “To Pimp a Butterfly” has multiple layers, and I will attempt to break them down.
On the surface, the first layer can be pinpointed with each, individual song. In the first song, “Wesley’s Theory,” the main point is when rappers who have been struggling financially and artistically finally make it and get signed or get their big break, they normally end up with nothing because they get too caught up in the fame and the wealth. This introduces the pressures from Uncle Sam, a character on “To Pimp a Butterfly.” On "Wesley's Theory," from the perspective of Uncle Sam, Kendrick says, "What you want? You a house or a car? Forty acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar? Anything, see my name is Uncle Sam. I'm your dawg." Uncle Sam is pressuring Kendrick to buy anything he wants without knowing the repercussions. Uncle Sam wants to get Kendrick on tax fraud. Kendrick also seems to blame the government and the school system as Big Sean did on “24K of Gold” when he said, “Like why don’t schools teach more mathematics, less trigonometry and more about taxes.” Kendrick compares young, black men to Wesley Snipes who served a three-year jail sentence for tax fraud from 2010 to 2013.
The first interlude, “For Free?” features a girl dissing Kendrick for not being able to buy her name brand clothing. It’s an extended metaphor of “Wesley’s Theory.”
In “King Kunta,” Kendrick begins to get cocky. He begins to realize he’s one of the best rappers alive and claims to run the game. He says, "Where you when I was walking? Now I run the game, got the whole world talking, King Kunta." This song is funky and can be argued to be the standout from the album.
The theme in “Institutionalized” stems from the ongoing poem Kendrick reads in multiple songs from the album. In “King Kunta” he says, “I remember you was conflicted—misusing your influence…” Kendrick is saying that all rappers lose their focus and get caught up in the fame and fortune. They literally misuse their influences. Another theme on “Institutionalized” is the corruption and brainwashing powers that money and the ghetto have when mixed together. Kendrick is saying that young, black people will do anything to get rich—even leave the place where they grew up in. The irony in that comes when outside forces shun the young, black person for leaving, when they are just trying to do what’s best for him or her.
“These Walls” may be one of the most complex songs on "To Pimp a Butterfly." It starts off with the ongoing poem. Kendrick reads, “I remember you was conflicted—misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same…” meaning even he gets caught up in the fame and fortune and misuses his influences. He uses his status in the rap game to get women. On the surface the song is about sex. “These Walls” literally translates to a woman’s vaginal walls, and, on a deeper level, could mean the inner walls of Kendrick’s conscience. “These Walls” ends with the ongoing poem, which reads, “I remember you was conflicted—misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same. Abusing my power, full of resentment—resentment that turned into a deep depression. Found myself screaming in the hotel room…” It paints a vivid picture of Kendrick Lamar sitting in a hotel room, depressed about getting caught up in the fame and the fact that he left his home to chase money.
The song “u” starts with K Dot screaming. In the song, he says, “Loving you is complicated.” He is speaking as an outsider, (someone most likely close to Kendrick) telling him that they love him and the music he makes, but resent him for leaving Compton, which is Kendrick’s hometown. Later on in “u,” the outside perspective tells Kendrick that he isn’t a “friend” because “a friend never leave Compton for profit, or leave his best friend; little brother, you promised you’d watch him before they shot him.” The outside perspective also tells Kendrick that God would say that he failed because he didn’t try to come home to be close to his friends and family.
On “Alright,” Kendrick contradicts “u” by saying even with everything going wrong in his life, with positivity, everything will be alright. However, as a foreshadow to "For Sale?," Kendrick introduces another character named Lucy, otherwise known as Lucifer. Lucy says, "What you want? You a house or a car? Forty acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar? Anything, see my name is Lucy. I'm your dawg." Lucy wants Kendrick to get caught up in the fame and materialism. This is the same thing Uncle Sam said on "Wesley's Theory," showing Uncle Sam and Lucy are both pressuring and tempting Kendrick.
After “Alright” comes the second interlude of the album, “For Sale?” On the surface, “For Sale?” is a song about the illuminati. It’s set up by the ongoing poem in “Alright,” which reads, “I remember you was conflicted—misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same. Abusing my power full of resentment—resentment that turned into a deep depression. Found myself screaming in the hotel room. I didn’t wanna self-destruct. The evils of Lucy was all around me, so I went running for answers…” This is why the beginning of the song has Kendrick huffing and puffing as if he has been running. In this song, Kendrick is speaking as the devil, Lucy. Lucy knows Kendrick is depressed and conflicted about the fame and money has already obtained, so Lucy attempts to get Kendrick to sign a contract or sell his soul to the devil for more fame and fortune, thus the name “For Sale?” It purposely sounds like a happy song with beautiful bells and chimes at the beginning because the devil is manipulating and tempting. Lucy wants Kendrick to think he is good and that signing this contract would be beneficial to him. “For Sale?” ends with the ongoing poem that reads, “I remembered you was conflicted—misusing your influences. Sometimes I did the same. Abusing my power full of resentment—resentment that turned into a deep depression. Found myself screaming in the hotel room. I didn’t wanna self-destruct. The evils of Lucy was all around me, so I went running for answers until I came home…”
On “Momma,” Kendrick finally realizes he needs to go home to Compton to find happiness. He starts by saying, “This feeling is unmatched,” and during the hook, a female voice (most likely Kendrick’s mother) says, “We’ve been waiting for you.” He finally goes back to Compton and realizes this was the right move for him.
On “Hood Politics,” Kendrick delves back into a gangster approach, showing he’s reverting back to his Compton ways. On another level, Kendrick is speaking on the state of gangs in America, hence “Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans.” The song ends with the ongoing poem that reads, “I remembered you was conflicted—misusing your influences. Sometimes I did the same. Abusing my power full of resentment—resentment that turned into a deep depression. Found myself screaming in the hotel room. I didn’t wanna self-destruct. The evils of Lucy was all around me, so I went running for answers until I came home. But that didn’t stop survivor’s guilt. Going back and forth, trying to convince myself the stripes I earned, or maybe how A1 my foundation was. But while my loved ones was fighting a continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one…” Kendrick is saying, while he's happy he went home, he still feels guilty because he has to hype himself up about what he has accomplished. He notices the gang violence going on in Compton and realizes he needs to do something about it.
“How Much a Dollar Cost” is a turning point on “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Throughout the whole album, Kendrick has been influenced and corrupted by Uncle Sam and/or Lucy. In this song, Kendrick is telling a story about a time he ran into a homeless man, on the road to South Africa, who wanted one dollar from him. Kendrick believes the man is a crack addict, gets bigheaded and decides to tell the homeless man he doesn’t have a dollar to give. After trying to leave, Kendrick notices the homeless man is staring at him and begins to feel guilty. However, he battles with the idea that every nickel he has made is his to keep. The man looked back at Kendrick and said, “Know the truth, it’ll set you free. You’re looking at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, the higher power, the choir that spoke the word, the Holy Spirit, the nerve of Nazareth, and I’ll tell you how much a dollar cost: the price of having a spot in heaven, embrace your loss. I am God.” Therefore, the homeless man represents God and Kendrick not wanting to give the homeless man a dollar represents greed and the ruthless and, sometimes meaningless, chase for money.
“Complexion (A Zulu Love),” The Blacker The Berry,” “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said),” and “i” all tell a tale of race and acceptance. They all were supposedly inspired by Kendrick’s trip to South Africa where the influences of Nelson Mandela rubbed off on him. Kendrick speaks on acceptance, peace and equality in these songs.
The most compelling song comes at the very end of the album on the 12-minute long “Mortal Man.” After two verses about loyalty, Kendrick reads the entire poem. It reads, “I remember you was conflicted—misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same. Abusing my power full of resentment—resentment that turned into a deep depression. Found myself screaming in the hotel room. I didn’t wanna self-destruct. The evils of Lucy was all around me, so I went running for answers until I came home. But that didn’t stop survivor’s guilt. Going back and forth, trying to convince myself the stripes I earned, or maybe how A1 my foundation was. But while my loved ones was fighting a continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one. A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination. Made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned. The word was respect. 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 n****.” Kendrick has noticed how much turmoil and violence is going on in America. He realizes, through music, he can save lives and promote peace. He wants young, black men to unify and respect one another because, as one, they can beat the corruption and police brutality of recent.
Kendrick then begins to interview Tupac. The most compelling Tupac quote comes when Kendrick asks him what he thinks the future will hold for our generation after the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. Tupac responds by saying he believes people are going to stop looting and rioting and rather start shedding blood and murdering over the next police brutality case over a young, black man. Kendrick rebuttals Tupac by saying the only hope we, as a generation, have left is music and vibrations. Tupac then says, "We ain't even really rapping. We just letting our dead homies tell stories for us." Kendrick is taken back by this statement and recognizes the complexity of what Tupac just told him.
The deeper layer of “To Pimp a Butterfly” comes again on “Mortal Man.” Kendrick reads to Tupac, “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. He’s trapped. While trapped inside these walls, certain ideas take roots, such as going home, and bring back new concepts to this mad city. The result? 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.” This is a metaphor about a teenager finding his talents and realizing his talent could break him free of the city that institutionalizes him. It represents the transformation from a boy to a man. It represents the fight to be accepted. It represents hope.
Hope is the underlying theme throughout the whole album. There is hope for young, black men in America, and while I am not African-American, I can appreciate what Kendrick Lamar is preaching. Kendrick is telling us that there is hope for a black man, and this is why I believe “To Pimp a Butterfly” is the best concept album that I have ever heard. It's finally safe to call this album a classic.