The Narrative Guide to Kendrick Lamar’s 'To Pimp a Butterfly'
The base takeaway from this album is simple. And it should be taken onboard by everyone who listens.
If things went to plan, Kendrick Lamar’s third album, To Pimp a Butterfly, would have been released yesterday. As it happened, the record currently sits at Number One in the UK chart, smashed Spotify’s streaming record twice, and has been reverberating around the rap internet’s head for the past week. The record’s been called a lot of things - “overwhelmingly black”, “deeply powerful”, “the Great American Hip Hop album”, “an instant classic” - and it’s all of them. But it’s an album that, for all its complexities and deep readings, offers a very simple message. One that we can all learn from and grow onward with. We’ll get to that later though.
For now, lets delve into Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, looking at the ins-and-outs of its narrative structure and how it applies to Kendrick, his position, and how that can be reapplied to the rest of us, post-listen. Let’s do this!
What’s To Pimp a Butterfly talking about then?
If good kid, m.A.A.d city was like a motion picture, then To Pimp a Butterfly is a novel, with rich interwoven references leaning toward a deep character study that runs throughout the narrative. And for that reason it makes sense to look at it through such a lens.
The storyline of good kid, m.A.A.d city was split up by skits: Kendrick’s parents demanding to know the location of both their van and dominoes; Kendrick getting laced on a blunt and robbing a house; Kendrick’s next-door neighbour sending him on a path of enlightenment. The album’s final tracks, “Real” and Compton”, completed the transition of the young K.Dot from Section.80, into Kendrick Lamar the Compton resident, free from the trappings of his environment.
Like that album, To Pimp a Butterfly sees Kendrick go through another transition, but this time round it’s a poem, or as he puts it at the end of “Mortal Man”, “something you could probably relate to”, and it's this that guides the narrative. The first few lines are a synopsis of To Pimp a Butterfly’s storyline. The sort of thing that would be the blurb on a book, or in this case, the most streamed record of all time. Take a look:
“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”
good kid, m.A.A.d city’s story used the mise-en-scène of Compton to illustrate Kendrick’s reflections on his environment and his subsequent resurrection from the streets, going from a teenager that, as his mother puts it on the record’s penultimate track, “rose from that dark place of violence” to “come back a man”. To Pimp a Butterfly is what happened after Kendrick became the self-confessed "King of New York" and returned home. The analogy offered up in the record’s closing track “Mortal Man” is a caterpillar being imprisoned by its environment; cocooning itself in an internal struggle; being released as a butterfly with a new outlook. On To Pimp a Butterfly we follow Kendrick through the poem, going through the confliction of his influence into depression and near self destruction, before returning to the setting of his previous records: to be born again, a new man.
So, with that in mind. Lets strap in and start right at the beginning...
The Caterpillar: Kendrick starts to become successful but is also imprisoned by his environment, succumbing to being pimped
Tracks: “Wesley Theory”, “For Free”, “King Kunta”
“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”
The caterpillar analogy runs in tandem with the poem that unfolds across the record, with the release of each line signalling a new chapter in the life of the caterpillar and To Pimp a Butterfly’s narrative. We start at the beginning with Kendrick Lamar as a caterpillar who sees that the world “praises the butterfly”, and we see him subconsciously working out how to “pimp [his talent] to [his] own benefits”.
We start with “Wesley’s Theory”, a track that takes place before the release of good kid and Section.80. Kendrick says when he “gets signed” he’s going to “act a fool”, buy a “brand new caddy on fours”, and “take a few M-16s to the hood”. He’s a prisoner to the streets; a caterpillar who consumes the product of his environment. The second verse plays up to that idea and reframes it from a different position. Lines like “what do you want? A house? A car?” come from the perspective Uncle Sam - a character who represents capitalist America - describing how the caterpillar succumbs to American society’s “pimping of the butterfly”. This outlook continues on the next track, “For Free”, with Kendrick using slavery as a way to suggest his choice is an illusion. He raps that he’s “picked cotton that made [America] rich” but his “choice is devastated” and has been “decapitated” - an idea that suggests the system in America only serves to “pimp out” blacks for their profit, rather than offer them a choice.
At the beginning, Kendrick seems comfortable with being “pimped out”. On “King Kunta” he says although he’s a prisoner like Kunta Kinte (the 18th century plantation worker whose foot was cut off to prevent escape) he’s also the “motherfucking king”. He talks about going from a “peasant to a prince” to someone who “runs the game” and “has the whole world talking”. But here, he’s already displaying the negative attributes that come from pimping the caterpillar. “King Kunta” is a king - a wealthy black man - but he’s also oppressed. From society, but also by himself, by displaying elements of conceit and believing he’s better than everyone else. He’s shutting himself off from his full potential.
The Cocoon: Kendrick shuts himself off and gets self-analytical.
Tracks: “Institutionalized”, “These Walls”, “U”, “Alright”, “For Sale”
“Already surrounded by this mad city the caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon which institutionalized him / He can no longer see past his own thoughts / He’s trapped”
“King Kunta” ends with two lines from the poem - “I remember you was conflicted / misusing your influence” - which bring in the next chapter of Kendrick’s story. Already pimped, fighting and consuming its environment, “Institutionalized” sees Kendrick enter his cocoon, rapping about being “trapped inside the ghetto”. On “These Walls”, “the four corners of the cocoon” described by George Clinton on “Wesley's Theory” close in around Kendrick, trapping him in his thoughts and making him question himself. As the walls tell him to “listen to Sing About Me”, a track from good kid in which one of Kendrick’s dead friend’s brothers told him to “promise to tell [his] story” when he made it out of Compton, Kendrick reflects on his past and wonders if, as the poem says, he’s “misused his influence”.
These wandering thoughts spiral downward on “U” as Kendrick enters what he calls “a deep depression” and we find him “screaming in a hotel room” - which is nicely punctuated by a housekeeping maid yelling in Spanish over a sample of Whoarei’s “Loving You Ain’t Complicated”, suggesting Kendrick’s mind is full of contrasting ideas. To call the track dark is an understatement. Kendrick hears voices in his head telling him he’s “irresponsible, selfish, in denial”, and that when he tells his family he loves them, “he doesn’t mean it”. As a caterpillar, Kendrick thought he could reap the benefits of his new-found influence, but now he’s in a cocoon he’s full of doubt, questioning whether he using his power in the correct way. “Where is the influence you speak of?”, he raps, stating that although he can “rap in front of 100,000”, he hasn’t been a big enough influence in his sister’s life to prevent her from getting pregnant. While he was away, a friend died too. Kendrick “facetimed” him instead of “a hospital visit” and believes his own “trials and tribulations are a burden on everyone else”. Losing hope, and feeling like a piece of shit, the track ends with Kendrick downing liquor, blaming himself for everything that’s happened, calling himself “fucked up”, and contemplating suicide.
“Alright”, which follows directly on from “U”, brings the listener to Kendrick the morning after. He’s got a fresh mind and is ready to fight because he knows that “everything will be alright”. But that’s still a long way away yet. Until then he’s going to keep writing his rights and wrongs until he’s “right with God”, which is why he runs into the devil - “Lucy”, or Lucifer - and her temptations on “For Sale”.
Taking The Cocoon Home: Kendrick returns to Compton
Tracks: “Momma”, “Hood Politics”, “How Much a Dollar Cost”
“When trapped inside these walls certain ideas start to take roots, such as going home, and bringing back new concepts to this mad city”
Kendrick's relationship with God has been referenced throughout his career. He talks about how he "opened the Bible, in search of being a better Christian" and then subsequently lost his faith after a "homie was murdered" on the track "Faith" from his debut EP. good kid opens with Kendrick coming to "Lord God" "as a sinner" asking for "Jesus to come into [his] life and be [his] Lord and Saviour". And there are countless other tracks, unreleased ones like "Jesus Saves" up to To Pimp a Butterfly's first single, "i", which talks about God saving him from the fate that became of his peers.
Kendrick returns to Compton on “Momma”, a track where he lists things he’s learnt - “I know everything / I know cars, clothes, hoes and money” - but realises that since coming home he doesn’t know shit. After running into a friend on “Hood Politics” - where Kendrick addresses the "Control" verse that "fucked up the game" and confesses he no longer gives a fuck about rap politics when his friends, like “Lil homie Stunna Deuce”, are being murdered on the streets - Kendrick meets God again. Taking the form of a homeless man on “How Much a Dollar Cost”, God tells Kendrick his “potential is bittersweet”. He says if Kendrick’s going to keep being greedy, “insensitive” and “lacking empathy” toward the people in his hometown, then he won’t reach his full potential and will only end up being a pimped out butterfly who is trapped in his own cocoon. This is the knowledge Kendrick needs to shed the temptations of Lucy - the devil - and the pimping from Uncle Sam - capitalist America - and begin to break free. He asks God: “Turn this page, help me change, so right my wrongs”.
Breaking Out of the Cocoon: Kendrick has gained knowledge and starts applying it to himself and those around him
Tracks: “Complexion (A Zulu Love)”, “The Blacker the Berry”, "You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said)"
“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”
Now breaking out of his institutionalized cocoon, Kendrick starts to offer up new ideas to the people around him. He doesn’t want to put himself above people, or be greedy, or act like a fool anymore. Gripped with the knowledge from God, he’s starting to turn into a butterfly, shedding light on new situations, and wants other caterpillars to learn from him.
On “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” Kendrick wants to reverse “Willie Lynch theory” “a thousand times”. The idea being that, by capsizing an eighteenth century technique which pitted people of different credences against each other, he can unite everyone in a stand against institutionalised racism and, in turn, prevent further pimping of the caterpillars. Kendrick recognises that “although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same", which is why, on “Blacker the Berry”, he says he wants “everything black”. He’s fiercely proud of where he’s come from but believes certain aspects of America - the pimpification of caterpillars - have created a mindset that’s sabotaged his community. He calls them hypocrites because “gangbanging” makes them contribute to death on a daily basis, yet they wept and raged after Trayvon Martin was killed on the streets. He wants to kill the aspects of being black that’ve been constructed by the cocoon of the caterpillar’s environment. The artwork suggests it's something he wants the people of today to teach the people of tomorrow.
This sequence ends with “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”. Kendrick explains money and power are not something the caterpillars need to indulge in to succeed and says that those who speak loudest, who try to impress people with their talk, have “insecurities written all over their face”, and need to be honest to themselves instead. No frontin’, and no succumbing to being pimped or tempted, he wants people to - as he stated at the end of good kid m.A.A.d city - be “real”.
It is then that the transition from caterpillar to butterfly is complete.
The Butterfly: Kendrick is free
“Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same."
The album ends, theoretically, with “i”. It’s the only song on the album that’s entirely positive - even the lines about contemplating suicide from the single’s original release have been taken out - and it’s here that Kendrick has been fully metamorphosed (with the video featuring Kendrick floating out of a car, in full butterfly pose). “Satan”, Lucy, may have “wanted to put him in a bow-tie”, offering up temptations of money and greed, but Kendrick “knows God”. As God told him on “How Much a Dollar Cost”, he knows “truth” and it’s “set him free”. The song ends with Kendrick reclaiming the use of the word n*****. He doesn’t want the books of racial history in America to keep making “a house divided”, because using that word is to make yourself “no better than Samuel in Django” or “a white man with slave boats”. To move forward, Kendrick learnt that he had to love himself. He's preaching to his community at the end of "i" because, now, he wants the world to follow his story and love themselves too.
Conclusion: Mortal Man
The album ends with “Mortal Man” - a track that, in terms of narrative, sets up the story and could come at either the beginning or the end. In an interview with the The New York Times to promote To Pimp a Butterfly Kendrick Lamar called himself “the closest thing to a preacher” and on “Mortal Man” he solidifies that idea. The caterpillar and its cocoon have been destroyed, Kendrick has moved forward as a butterfly, and he tells the world what he’s learnt on his journey.
“The word was respect
Just because you wore a different gang colour 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”.
He offers up a calling card to his generation of his listeners. “When shit hits the fan, is you still a fan?”, Kendrick asks, while placing himself next to luminaries like Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, and as an artist suceeding 2Pac. He doesn’t want this to be another album, a piece of music, he wants it to mean something. Kendrick's only alive once, hence the title "Mortal Man" and reference to other leaders that've been left for dead, and he wants to lead a generation. He questions his fans - “Is this relationship a fake or as real as the heavens be” - and asks Generation X if he will ever be their X. This record is his mission statement.
Section.80 used the characters of Tammy and Keisha as a way to explore the hardships of those who grew up in the crack-epidemic of the 1980s. good kid, m.A.A.d city used the story of Sherane to tell the tale of someone who managed to break out of their environment and make something of themselves. To Pimp a Butterfly is more. It uses the characters of Lucy, Uncle Sam and Kendrick’s own life to tell the story of a man who became institutionalized by his own environment and country, and managed to break free - and that’s why it’s political. The base takeaway - respect everyone, love yourself, know who you are - can be applied to everyone. In the context of the record, that’s specifically black people. But in order to reach a world where everything is equal, that idea should be taken onboard by everyone who listens. That’s why this album is important. This is why Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is one of the best releases of the last decade.
You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter: @RyanBassil