Kendrick So Far: Everything We've Already Learned from 'To Pimp a Butterfly'
The album uses the story of the caterpillar and the butterfly to illustrate an eternal struggle and the want for change.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
Interscope released Kendrick Lamar’s third album To Pimp a Butterfly in the early hours this morning. Like good kid, m.A.A.d city and Section 80, there’s lots to unpack—the record deserves repeated insertions into the cranium to make sense of its interweaving narratives but for now, as we sit in the proverbial freezer, cooling down and feasting on one of the year’s most anticipated releases, let’s take a look at the most immediate, key pieces of information from the record.
The Early Release Probably Wasn’t a Tribute to 2Pac
Like so many albums, To Pimp A Butterfly was rush-released to iTunes and Spotify ahead of its release date, but this morning some kids on Reddit were arguing that there’s more to the change in release date than wanting to get out ahead of Bittorrent.
The themes of 2Pac and Kendrick’s third albums, which both concern loss of innocence, paranoia, and self-loathing, have led some fans to believe the rush-release was planned to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of 2Pac’s third album, Me Against the World, an anniversary Kendrick called "a special day," and had tweeted about days earlier. The album’s closing track, “Mortal Man,” features Kendrick conversing with 2Pac, not with the aid of a hologram, but excerpts of a 1994 interview between 2Pac and Swedish radio show P3 Soul.
But most decisions in the music industry are cynical not conceptual. Drake put his last mixtape #IfYoureReadingThisItsTooLate straight on iTunes, sold 721,000 copies in the first four weeks, and smashed streaming records. It seems more likely to me that To Pimp a Butterfly is following the path of that release, with Interscope wanting to cash-in and combat the album’s lack of radio friendly singles with instant streams.
Whether the release was for monetary reasons or not, it doesn’t matter because it seems Interscope left Kendrick’s team in the dark. Soon after To Pimp a Butterfly was released, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, CEO of Kendrick’s label Top Dawg Entertainment, tweeted:
Not that Kendrick’s letting an early release stress him out though…
The Cover Art
The album’s cover art is a strong visual statement. The sleeve features a group of black men, woman, and children, celebrating outside the White House. There’s faces of defiance and joy, money and booze signifying material success, a white judge with his eyes crossed out, and a young child flipping the bird, who has been obscured with pixels. The artwork, which was released a week ago, suggested the album would be themed around some sort of revolution. But initial, first impressions suggest that revolution is within oneself.
Kendrick’s on the Eric Carle Caterpillar hype
Kendrick Lamar’s first album, Section 80, set the stage for good kid, m.A.A.d city, a record that recounted Kendrick’s life growing up in Compton. Both records are the building blocks for To Pimp a Butterfly—an album that peers into where Kendrick finds himself within the world he’s created. If it’s not already clear from the title, Kendrick is retracing the central narrative from The Hungry Caterpillar: the story of a catepillar turning into a butterfly, just, you know, with added somber analysis of black America, heavy religious imagery, and a basic reimagining of the rags to riches story that has pervaded hip-hop almost since its inception.
The album’s opening track “Wesley’s Theory” brings in the first theory—the “pimping” of successful black artists by the entertainment industry. “When the four corners of this cocoon collide / You’ll slip through the cracks hoping that you’ll survive” describes the moment an artist breaks out of the hood. Kendrick talks in past tense, saying that when he gets signed he’s gonna “act a fool,” “snatch a little secretary bitch,” and get “platinum on everything, platinum on a wedding ring”.
He’s referencing a common mindset – the idea the caterpillar can grow into a butterfly, and reap benefits. But it’s not just about success; it’s about doing it in the right way, growing, and retaining. Not getting pimped.
The track features an interlude from Dr Dre. He says:
“Remember the first time you came out to the house?
You said you wanted a spot like mine
But remember, anybody can get it
The hard part is keeping it, motherfucker”
The butterfly is described in the final song, “Mortal Man,” as representative of the talent, thoughtfulness, and beauty within the caterpillar. Meanwhile the caterpillar is described as “a prisoner to the streets that conceived it.” He’s shunned and “has a harsh outlook on life”, but notices butterflies receive praise. Seeing butterflies as “weak, [he] figures out a way to pimp [them] to his own benefits”.
Throughout the record, there is one line of spoken word repeated like a mantra. “I remember you was conflicted. Misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same. Abusing my power full of resentment”.
It’s a line used to introduce in the character of “Lucy.” On the track “For Sale (Interlude),” she’s described as someone that’s going to give Kendrick “no worries,” will “fill his pockets,” and move his “Mama out of Compton.” But she’s not real—she’s an object of temptation. In some ways, “Lucy” represents “Lucifer,” the devil. She says she heard “some prayers on [Kendrick’s] first album” and knows Kendrick loves his “Father,” but she “don’t mind cause at the end of the day [Kendrick] will pursue [her].”
Lucy is representative of the destructive forces the caterpillar sometimes has to eat through to survive within the m.A.A.d city. Later in the album, that one line of spoken word describes “the evils of Lucy” being all around Kendrick, making him want to “lose his mind” and “self destruct,” which is why he feels he’s abusing his power, succumbing to the caterpillar’s want to “pimp the Butterfly,” rather than being the thoughtful, talented, beauty it can be.
Several essays could be written about a few key songs, “Blacker the Berry,” the self-hate self-love themes of “I” and “U,” and more, but it seems the album’s theme is about the eternal struggle that exists when growing from a caterpillar into a butterfly—because “although they’re completely different, they are one and the same”. As Snoop Dogg raps on "Institutionalized," you can "you can take your boy out the hood / but you can't take the hood out the homie," meaning that no matter how much money the Butterfly makes, or how famous he gets, he will never the lessons he learned when a caterpillar. But "shit don't change until you get up and wash your ass." It’s a theme centered around having a revolution within oneself before that can happen on a global scale, echoing Kendrick’s controversial comments on Ferguson, in which he said change shouldn’t “start with just a rally, don't start from looting—it starts from within”.
He shouts out Killer Mike
On "Hood Politics," Kendrick says: "Everybody want to talk about who this and who that / Who the realest and who wack / Who white or who black / Critics want to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin’ / Motherfucker if you did, then Killer Mike'd be platinum / Y’all priorities are fucked up, put energy in wrong shit / Hennessy and Crown Vic, my memory been gone since."
Killer Mike, always gratious, responded on Twitter:
He doesn't shout out Taylor
But she was gassed anyway:
Other Musicicans really like Kendrick Lamar actually
The sound is drenched in funk
The few cuts that dropped before the album—“I”, “King Kuntah,” and an “Untitled” track played on The Colbert Report, specifically—suggested Kendrick would experiment with a new sound on the album. To Pimp a Butterfly is an amalgam of p-punk instrumentation, jazz piano, and cocoa-buttered vocals, which all contributes to it sounding like some lost Prince record has made love with the back catalogue of Parliament and Outkast’s Stankonia. You already know that though, right? I mean, you should be on your fifth listen by now.
The Album’s Credits Include…
The album’s features are huge. Sure, there’s no one from TDE on here, but does that matter? Production credits include Pharrell Williams, newcomer Knxwledge, and Flying Lotus. George Clinton came down from the Mothership to guest on “Wesley’s Theory.” Snoop Dogg’s on “Institutionalized.” There’s even a credit from Sufjan Stevens—which, although unconfirmed if it's a direct writing credit or a sample, seems surprising, but looking back at how both artist’s careers have been peppered with strong references to religion, isn’t so outlandish.
Right can everyone leave me alone now? I want to listen to this album without pressing pause every five seconds. I want to lock myself in a cupboard and not talk to anyone for three days straight. I want to break something. To Pimp a Butterfly may be the most important release of the last decade—it's going to take countless re-spins to understand the record's breadth and density, that's for sure—and for now, I'mma turn off all outside contact and hibernate to find out.
You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter: @RyanBassil