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Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly, works as a continuation of black poetic literary traditions and its uses to document the Black American experience. To Pimp a Butterfly, has pushed Lamar’s status as a leading voice in the new generation of hip hop that rose in the early to mid-2010s. Lamar continues the uses of Black artistic expression to display the Black American predicament to wider audiences through the hip hop genre. Lamar does this by displaying his personal experiences, hardships, and growth as his struggles echo the larger condition of Black American experience through his own personal narrative.
Lamar follows the lead of artists like Amiri Baraka and The Last Poets whose countercultural poetry stirred controversy and societal reevaluation in the 1960s. Works like the Black Arts Movement’s founder, Amiri Baraka’s “Black Art”, reevaluates poetry’s uses in society and mirrors Lamar’s “Alright”, a track that rebels against police brutality and the demonization of Black men in 21st century American society and has now been used in Black Lives Matter protests. Baraka’s “A Poem for Black Hearts” where he calls for the resilience of Blacks against outside oppressors of the mind and body can be connected to Lamar’s “i”, where he calls for his audience to have solidarity in self in order to withstand outside pressures that wish to invade their sense of identity. Hip hop’s arrival in the music scene in the mid-1970s was created from the ingenuity of black youth, who wished to express themselves in a new manner that has now exploded into a globally recognized art form. However, the thoughts expressed by emerging hip hop artists, who are and were predominantly Black, relate to past issues that continue to be relevant to the Black community as we see in The Last Poets’ 1970 performance poem, “When the Revolution Comes” or Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry”.
Lamar’s documentation of Black experience comes in the form of hip-hop music, a tool he uses and scholars recognize as a way to communicate the Black condition, frustration, and cultural power since the mid-1970s. Though To Pimp a Butterfly is a recent album, released in 2015, it has stimulated new ideas on the use of hip hop to illustrate experience and the ever expanding malleability of the genre. Hip hop was forged as a means to talk about, critique, and analyze the realities of American life as lived by African Americans. Lamar’s explication of these Black realities comes through his experiences in Compton such as, poverty, ostracization of its citizens, as well as the survivalist mentalities that occur among the Black community due to this. Lamar follows this pattern in the hip hop genre as TPAB’s foundation is built on his understanding of his place in the world and how hip hop is utilized as his means to articulate and face harsh realities that directly affect the creation of his art. To Pimp a Butterfly works as not only a hip-hop piece but utilizes the most basic makeup of the genre, poetry, to convey a continual process of self-discovery that is added upon throughout every track. This is done through epiphanic moments that mark the growing understanding of Lamar’s own identity and his own lack of agency’s connection to the impoverished, chaotic state that his home community of Compton lives in.
Lamar fights with survivor’s guilt and struggles to find a way to make amends for his past shortcomings throughout TPAB. The death of a close friend, that he even calls his brother, is a huge influence in TPAB and helps set the groundwork for his cleansing process in the album. Compton, California has become notorious for being the stomping ground of West Coast “Gangsta rap” and is also considered a dangerous area, including gang activity. According to Lamar’s statements in his work outside, opportunity for the citizens of Compton are limited and this idleness has resulted in a dangerous, poverty stricken environment. Lamar finds himself becoming a victim of the surrounding violence after a fight that ended with him being beaten and escalated to Lamar’s close friend, Dave, being shot in an effort to protect Lamar.
These events are defining for Lamar’s character within TPAB because it helps to create an inescapable problem for Lamar that cannot be avoided by the money he has acquired or the fame he has reached. Though he has been able to become a world renowned artist, things like protecting his loved ones are still outside his reach. These details help to define Lamar’s search for the fulfillment he is striving for in TPAB. Something that he thought could be found in the material items he now possesses and helps bring to light the idea of what happiness is, where it can be found, and how one achieves it. But first he must confront his survivor’s guilt with rather than hide from it under materialistic items and status. He does this in the sixth track of TPAB, “U”. “U” is the lowest point of Lamar’s depression on this album. The song’s setting is in a secluded hotel room as the speaker locks himself off from the rest of the world and drowns his sorrows in alcohol while an internal voice of self-sabotage takes over. Lamar utilizes different voices in order to capture the internal struggle and chaos happening within the speaker. One voice has a tone of blame and harsh judgement at Lamar’s past choices and the use of his vocal power within lines such as:
What can I blame you for? … I can name several
Situations, I’ll start with your little sister bakin’
A baby inside, just a teenager, where your patience
Where was your antennas?
Where was 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
I never liked you, forever despise you- I don’t need you!
The world don’t need you, don’t let them deceive you.
The first voices sets the tone of guilt for the song while also allowing listener’s insight into the cause of the speaker’s degraded psyche. These lines give detail on the responsibility that Lamar feels for those around him and the “blame” Lamar feels for the circumstances of his loved ones. In this quote, the pregnancy of his young sister is the center of his shame. Lamar feels that he could have stopped this from happening if his attention would have been in the right places, not absorbed in the perks of fame. In the final three lines of the above quote the full weight of guilt and shame has dissolved Lamar’s idea of his own purpose as the voice invalidates his vocal power and deems it to be misused by Lamar. At the turn of the song another voice enters that is garbled, disjointed and displays the alcoholic, depressed state of the speaker well, stating that the speaker is:
… no brother, you ain’t no disciple
You ain’t no friend
A friend never leave for Compton for profit
Or leave his best friend, little brother
You promised you’d watch him before they shot him.
Internal versus external conflict is used by Lamar as the speaker mourns over his shortcomings and views his newfound fame as being in opposition to his duty as a “friend” and “brother” to those in Compton. The internal chaos of the speaker is preying on the guilt of Lamar as he struggles to maintain the validity of him leaving Compton. This moment in the album pushes the speaker to face issues that he has been suppressing; the internal voice is aware of this and jabs at the speaker more stating that “I know depression is restin’ on your heart” and “you shook as soon as you knew that confinement was needed”. These lines are another hint at the speaker’s inability and apprehension about facing the true source of his problem. The depressed state of the speaker paired with overwhelming shame leaves the speaker to contemplate thoughts of suicide in his seclusion. The reader gathers insight into how much these failures have impacted Lamar’s psyche through the second voice’s taunting him stating that if he “told Lamar’s secrets/the world’ll know money can’t stop a suicidal weakness”.
When one listens to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, the case may be made that Lamar isn’t a hip-hop musician within the same sense as Usher, Nicki Minaj, or Drake. Artists that are basically products of the current music industry. Instead, Lamar seems to square outside of the hip-hop game as more of a ironist. This can be particularly evident when taking a look at two other songs from the same album: “The Blacker the Berry” and “I.” Within the opening verse of the latter, he introduces himself as “the biggest hypocrite of 2015.” However this statement isn’t important till the climax of the composition; he notes “Once I finish this, witnesses will convey just what I mean” to verify this. For now, it is a quick supply of contemplation for the listener; one thing to electrify deeper analysis of Lamar’s lyrics going forward. Lamar continues by creating the assertion that whites “never liked” African-Americans, which the peace or “friendship” between the 2 races is artificial. Every year, Black History Month is widely known in February, however from this angle, it may well be seen as a political move to conciliate blacks, making them want they’re valued – a minimum of for one month annually. In effect, the remaining eleven months celebrate white American history, that is just referred to as “American history” in colleges. From a wider perspective, the idea of racial equality in America might never be accomplished since most of America is inherently racist; it absolutely was based by whites, and its history, culture and values are, and have continually been dominated by whites.
Lamar then states that he’s “black as the moon” and his “heritage is of a small village.” This alludes each to having pride in his African lineage, also on the very fact that the majority of blacks don’t pride oneself in their ancestry. He goes on to list conventional traits of African-Americans like “nappy,” or unchanged hair, abnormally big penises and noses that are “round and wide.” These stereotypes, for the foremost portion, don’t have positive connotations once used. Lamar then claims that the overarching set up has been to “terminate” black culture, whereas profiting, or “makin’ a killin.’” It may be argued that White America has been exponentially flourishing in doing each of those things.
Within the chorus, or hook, Assassin, a Jamaican musician and DJ, goes on to parallel material wealth – a “big gold chain full of rocks”- to the shackles of slavery. This lends credence to the idea that slavery remains noticeably a component of American culture for blacks, only now, it’s become mental slavery; it’s from this that whites have with success profited. Today, African- Americans, particularly the youth, see a flourishing life as being rich, carrying massive, gold chains, and being wanted by multiple ladies as contrasted to creating lasting impacts on their societies as Martin Luther King Jr, Langston Hughes and many others did before them; they rank value over identity and culture.
In Lamar’s second verse, he raises the question of however relevant African-Americans really are to society once one considers the actual fact that young black males while not degrees are more probable to finish up incarcerated than to seek out employment. Keep with the theme of present day slavery, this can be a relation to an absence of support for African-Americans in centre communities wherever poorness reigns. These communities may well be seen as a entry to jail as black males would become consumed by the despair of their surroundings and circumstances, inflicting them to resort to violence; this violence either ends up in their death or their imprisonment. If incarcerated, the remainder of society benefits from their labor, even as was the case throughout the time of slavery a few years past.
In Lamar’s third verse, he compares the Zulu and Xhosa tribes of South Africa to the Crip and Piru gangs of Los Angeles; gangs primarily comprised of black males As he closes, he asks why, would he, as a black person, claim to be happy with his heritage, to celebrate African- American culture, and to “weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street” when he participated in a gang bang, leading to the death of another black male. He ends by saying to himself, and anyone else guilty of this a “Hypocrite!” This forces one to go back and re-assess all that Lamar aforementioned, and review all of the criticisms that he created before. It’s insincere to criticize anyone for a criminal offense that you just are guilty of committing yourself; for several black males, it’s routine to slaughter fellow blacks within the name of gang dominance, profit and standing.
“I” is perceptibly a lot more upbeat and positive in composition, however is additionally challenging and contemplative below the surface. As Lamar is introduced, “little boys and girls” are invited to return and hear the rapper; Kendrick has traveled “all over the world” however has finally come home: to Compton.
Lamar begins by introducing themes of good and evil; “God” and “the Devil” to show tribulations. This may be understood as not simply tribulations from a religious viewpoint, however of a racial viewpoint also. Lamar has battled living within the streets of Compton, that crawls with gangs and drugs, however has managed to become an important success, and a role-model for others within the projects. Statistically, several succumb to the despair and distress of their surroundings; Lamar’s success may be a glimmer of hope for teenagers aiming to create a difference within the world around them.
The chorus is positive and bleeds pridefulness, as Lamar repeatedly exclaims “I love myself” He emphasizes this by proclaiming that he’s “Illuminated by the hand of God.” The chorus isn’t simply an announcement of self-encouragement, however additionally a message to the black community. Lamar is explaining that to be admired, someone should begin to love himself, in spite of the way he’s treated by others. The chorus’s positivity could be a manifestation of the ideology Lamar is drawing from; that of being pleased with who we are, no matter the circumstances we were placed in.
Lamar’s 1st verse paints a painting of a normal day within the Compton ghetto. One where violence reigns, “police” fill the streets and persons line up for drugs. This is the backdrop; the setting of black suffering and strife; the surroundings in which they were placed to suffer and become statistics, doomed to end up dead, poor or in jail. And yet, at the end of the verse, Lamar says that he’s still able to “smile,” clinging to hope that some day, life is going to be better for those that stay within the ghetto.
Later within the song, Lamar parallels 2 battles. The initial battle is one within the streets involving “automatic weapons;” an outline of black-on-black violence perceived to be common in the streets of Compton. The second battle is an internal one fought by each black person. It’s one during which persons fight depression and anxiety, questioning themselves and their futures. Both battles finish in either triumph or defeat; life or death. Lamar is continuous to encourage perseverance and self- love, however what’s fascinating is what follows this verse.
an argument is heard breaking out in the audience, prompting Lamar to just stop rapping. This action could be a clear image of the lack of unity within the black community referenced in the previous song. Rather than coming together for the larger good and looking out at the larger image, Lamar is arguing through sound that Blacks spend an excessive amount of of their time arguing amongst themselves over “petty” things, or fighting amongst themselves in gang wars. As Lamar addresses the audience within the middle of their argument, he reminds them of problems that truly matter. He reminds them of the precipitation of black violence in inner-city neighborhoods, asking “how many niggas we done lost bro?… This, this year alone.” He explains that they have to “make time” to get pleasure from life as a result of “the judge makes time;” jail time, that is. This portion of the song is similar to a priest, or an educator addressing pupils, re-centering their priorities and reminding them of the most necessary thing in a community: unity.
The last portion of the song discusses what has become a taboo subject in today’s society: the “N-word.” Lamar states that he promised he would never use the saying “fuck nigga,” since he interprets this saying as meaning, in different words, fuck black people. This exposes the discussion of what correct use of the word is versus what improper use of it is. Kendrick Lamar deviates from what would be considered the norm for a 21st century hip- hop artist in almost every aspect. He does not spend his time rapping about gold chains and women in the same way that someone like Juicy J or Wiz Khalifa would. He stays true to his Compton roots, providing social commentary and insights into black culture and the world around him.
The true aim of Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is to depict the continuation of Black struggle through the lens of a 21st century hip hop artist. Though Lamar, himself, has reached great levels of fame and exposure to the world, still feels he cannot fully escape the conditions that plague Black Americans. And though he has tried to ignore them, he cannot continue to do so in good conscience. This is the start of Lamar’s epiphanic journey which widened his understanding of the conditions that keep his hometown of Compton in a form of unrecognized oppression by forces that work internally, in the community, and externally, by outside dominant American culture and government. Throughout TPAB, Lamar attributes the confusion and chaos within the Compton community he loves to a lack of identity and purpose that makes progressing in life with a firm moral compass extremely difficult.
Lamar’s epiphanic moments work not only for his own personal journey but to make him aware of his responsibility to be a voice for the Black community and to share their stories so the Black American experience heard by wider audiences. For Lamar this is what it means ‘to pimp a butterfly,’ to use his talents and vocal power for a cause. The progression from a caterpillar to a butterfly involved Lamar secluding himself in a cocoon of angst and resentment, only being able to break out of it and become a butterfly when he becomes able to see the world clearly. Lamar’s new focus is attributed to the enlightenment he gains through epiphanic moments and guiding figures. In To Pimp a Butterfly, he is able to break out of the confinement of his cocoon through these epiphanies because they show him the true purpose of his talents which is his responsibility to his community. Those realizations allowed for his transformation into the butterfly. The butterfly represents Lamar as he can now fully use his talents for the good of not only his home community of Compton but to continue the representation of Black life through art that defies American dominant culture.
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