Finally. It is here. Kendrick Lamar has delivered again, cementing his legacy as arguably our generation’s greatest rapper. I knew that I wanted to write about this album, but once I listened to it I had a hard time deciding what I should actually write about. The album is so dense. There are so many things to talk about, and none of it is trivial. I decided to try to condense the album/my thoughts on the album into three points. Naturally, some things will be missing, but I hope you all can get that conversation going. But, before I talk about some of the main message points, I have to mention the quality of the music/production. The music is so good. In an age where the radio waves are dominated by pre-manufactured, unimaginative music, this is so refreshing. Lamar pays homage to the heritage of black music in America, most notably jazz. This makes sense as the album has heavy doses of production involving Terrace Martin (pretty much on every track), Robert Glasper, Flying Lotus and others. I’ve always found that the mixing of Jazz, soul, funk, and hip hop music is so natural. If you trace the musical lineage, Hip Hop really is the evolution of Jazz. It’s also fitting that an album entitled “To Pimp A Butterfly” is so heavily laced with jazz and other music from the black tradition in a very direct way that goes beyond just using samples. No other art has been pimped in so many different ways than black art. But we’ll get to that.
Now, as I mentioned above, there are so many different levels of metaphors and messages in each song that its really hard to condense it. Beyond that, he also does a genius job of relating and linking multiple concepts to one another. Here’s how I see everything being synthesized:
1. What is success for a black person in America?
The first element of the album that I find most important is the discussion of the internal and external conflicts that come with a high level of success. He deals with this in a number of ways but maybe these are the most critical points:
– There is the conflict of being one of the few that actually makes it out of an environment in which you aren’t supposed to be able to survive and how you balance moving past the elements of your community that hold people back while staying grounded to the elements of your community that give you strength.
-The realization that “making it out” of one struggle only ushers you into a larger conflict that is even harder to fight than the battle you thought you escaped. He realizes that even when you become a rich black person that there are still mechanisms in place to try to control/”pimp” you and that it is easy to lose success, not only in a monetary way, but also in the eyes of the people who you thought were supporting you.
-Lastly, there is the realization that all of the financial gain of success comes with a price and that it doesn’t bring happiness. In the end, he defines success as being able to use his platform to spread a message of enlightenment and help other people break out of the destructive mentality. This point about redefining what success looks like is very critical because the idea that success equals some amount of dollars is the first critical lie that is accepted and necessary for all of the pimping that he talks about throughout the album to occur.
2. When Will We Discuss Mental Health?
Throughout the album, Kendrick talks about his own battles with depression and how they manifest in a number of ways. The song “u” is probably the most poignant in this regard. His inner dialogue reveals many of the self doubts that plague millions of people. And obviously once you have achieved some degree of financial success or fame, the monologue of these self doubts only increases. This depression is in a sense linked to the first point as he discusses how even as people think he is such a success, he knows a number of ways in which he thinks he has failed on an interpersonal level and how that overshadows everything else. He has finally gotten what he was after only to discover that “money can’t stop a suicidal weakness”. Aside from his own personal struggles, the issue of mental health in the black community as a whole is dealt with in a number of nuanced ways throughout the album. To me, this is another super important issue as mental health is one of the most undiscussed but important factors in determining the plight our communities. Here are a few statistics from Mental Health America.
- Adult blacks are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites.
- Adult blacks are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than are adult whites.
- While blacks are less likely than whites to die from suicide as teenagers, black teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than are white teenagers (8.2 percent v. 6.3 percent)
- African Americans of all ages are more likely to be victims of serious violent crime than are non-Hispanic whites, making them more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- 63 percent of African Americans believe that depression is a personal weakness, this is significantly higher than the overall survey average of 54 percent.
- In 1998, only 2 percent of psychiatrists, 2 percent of psychologists and 4 percent of social workers self-identified as African Americans.
These are troubling statistics and there are historical and systemic reasons for all of these. One of the results of these disparities is that there are many young black people suffering from undiagnosed depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc. This manifests in a number of ways including anger, violence, and self medication with drugs/alcohol/sex. His openness throughout the album, but especially on the song “u” goes very much against the bravado that has come to characterize much of rap music and hopefully opens up some future avenues for more honest discussion about the mental health issues we all deal with in different ways.
3.”To Pimp a Butterfly”
To fully understand what this phrase means requires first understanding “To Kill A Mockingbird”. This book covers a lot of ground, but as a starting point here is a quote from the book that probably summarizes the most important point as it relates to the album:
“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
The mockingbird in this context is the black person in America who is responsible for the birth of the only original American music and pioneers of pretty much ALL modern popular music. Additionally, the black person has also been subject to extreme unjustified violence (a sin). Now in today’s context, Kendrick re-imagines the black person as more of a butterfly than a mockingbird. This metaphor works on so many levels its ridiculous. Here are two of the more obvious ways he discusses it.
-The butterfly represents the beautiful art, culture, and spirit of the black person and how this is pimped by “the system” for financial gain. He discusses how this happens on both a cultural level as well as on the level of individual artists. Black music has been pimped over and over again, from blues to jazz to rock and now to hip hop. This has always led to a dilution of the spirit and culture that initially was embedded into our art. However, this sort of pimping is not unique to art. In a broad sense there is always a pressure to move away from blackness/revolution/radical change in exchange for more opportunity, financial security, fame, etc. In fact, success within many “professional” circles requires an abandonment of an unapologetically black revolutionary stance or a stance that truly seeks to challenge the system. This is what 2Pac is referring to in the interview at the end of the album:
“In this country a black man only have like 5 years we can exhibit maximum strength, and that’s right now while you a teenager, while you still strong or while you still wanna lift weights, while you still wanna shoot back. Cause once you turn 30 it’s like they take the heart and soul out of a man, out of a black man in this country. And you don’t wanna fight no more. And if you don’t believe me you can look around, you don’t see no loud mouth 30-year old muthafuckas”
As real as this sort of pimping is, Kendrick really focuses more explicitly on the sort of pimping we do to ourselves as a people. I previously wrote about how Kendrick should not be ridiculed for what some people view as respectability politics (check it out). He is representative of every person who has had a first hand view of the issues and sees the internal problem and with the last words of the album he really brings everything full circle, tying together all of the main themes of the album:
“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 eternal struggle
Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same.”
Importantly, the butterfly and caterpillar are the same on two levels. Even if you are a black person that has “escaped” to spread your wings and become a butterfly, you can’t escape the larger issue of what it means to be black in America. A black person in corporate America is the same as a black person in Compton because they both have a common struggle that manifests in different ways (completely different, but one in the same). In fact you only truly become a butterfly (or come to represent that which is beautiful about who we are as a people) when you become active in helping those who are still trapped and providing them with the tools to become butterflies as well. Lastly, the butterfly and the caterpillar are the same because they both reside in each person. Each person has talents, gifts, and beauty to offer the community and the world and its up to them to decide whether they will exploit (pimp) themselves in order to achieve some false idea of success and notoriety or whether they will use their gifts for the betterment of the people.
This album is special for many reasons but I think these two quotes really sum up why:
“Hip hop can be a very powerful weapon to help expand young people’s political and social consciousness. But just as with any weapon if you don’t know where to point it, or what you’re using it for you can end up shooting yourself in the foot or killing your sisters or brothers.”- Assata Shakur
“Culture is created only by the people. All artists use this culture. They do not create it…Thus, the artist only represents the People’s culture. The culture of all oppressed is the culture of resistance.The enemy seeks to corrupt the artist into misrepresenting the people’s culture thus betraying them. Thus all artists coming from an oppressed people must represent resistance in their art form. Anything other than this is betrayal.”- Stokely Carmichael
The album has a timely and important message. Many black people of my generation have opportunities that our forefathers could never have dreamed of. How will we use it? The moment we forget what true success is and what the purpose of our talents are, is the moment we not only allow the system to pimp us, but truly, pimp ourselves.