A look back to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album
“To Pimp a Butterfly” album cover
Image Source: Kendrick Lamar YouTube Channel
When it comes to listening to an album, there are many angles that the listener can approach it from, like from a sound standpoint or from a lyrical standpoint. However, if the album is gonna be perfect, you need to fulfill or surpass everyone’s expectations no matter what standpoint they’ll be in. The 2015 Kendrick Lamar album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” manages to mix storytelling, sound, and lyricism all in one album, and that’s why it is considered, by many critics including myself, one of the best albums of all time.
To understand what the album captures within, we need to understand Kendrick’s background and where he came from. Kendrick grew up in Compton, California, a city that had the highest crime rate in the US back in the ’90s. He regularly witnessed murder, robberies, and participated in illegal activities himself. According to him, he grew up embracing what the dangerous streets of the ghettos and gangs have to offer, and describes this as he tells his story on another album called “Good Kid m.A.A.d City.” This information will be essential for understanding the main themes of “To Pimp a Butterfly” because it depicts Kendrick’s perspective on his surroundings judging them by all of his experiences.
The album starts off with “Wesley’s Theory,” a very jazz-like track that foreshadows what the album has to offer. The track begins describing the process from caterpillar to butterfly, and Kendrick follows that with “at first I did love you, but now I just want to ****.” This line is dedicated to Luci who is a “person” that is brought up very often in this album. “Luci” is short for “Lucifer” who, in this album, is a personification of the music industry. The previous line is basically how he feels about the music industry and how it has torn him apart mentally. This track also parodies some of the album’s tracks by switching up the lyrics; an example of this is when he switches the lyrics from the song “Alright”; instead of saying “My name is Luci, I’m your dawg,” he says “My name is Uncle Sam, I’m your dawg.” This track perfectly serves as an appetizer for what’s about to come.
The album follows with tracks such as “King Kunta,” “Institutionalized,” “These Walls,” and “u.” It also has the interlude, “For Free,” and all of these tracks are part of the first half of the album. They deal with Kendrick not being able to let go of his past yet still being with the blessings that “Luci” gave him, as described in the climax of the album, “Alright,” in which he says, “What you want you, a house? You, a car? 40 acres and a mule? A piano, a guitar? Anything, see my name is Luci, I'm your dawg.” Kendrick is constantly feeling paranoid throughout the first half because he’s not yet used to living a life of luxury, having everything; he describes this by repeating the line, “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 want to self destruct, the evils of Luci was all around me.”
The track “u” is the peak of Kendrick’s depression right before going into “Alright” which switches the mood of the album, repeating “we gon’ be alright!” throughout the whole track. After “Alright” Kendrick goes back to what was tormenting him, he goes back to where he grew up but has all the “evils of Luci” still around him. The album proceeds with the tracks “Momma,” “Hood Politics,” “How Much A Dollar Cost,” “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” “The Blacker The Berry,” and “i.” It also includes the interlude, “For sale.”
In case you haven't seen the pattern, the album contrasts itself in its two halves: “For Free” And “For sale”, “u” and “i” are opposites and are both the beginnings and ends of the first and second halves.
To further analyze what makes this album a masterpiece we must take a look into the conclusion of the album, a track called “Mortal Man.” In the last track, Kendrick has a conversation with the one and only Tupac Shakur and perfectly summarizes what the album was supposed to mean: the first half, sad tracks; the second half, “self-improvement” tracks.
Now that we have covered the tracklist and the structure of the album, we need to actually link them to the title and how this album is a masterpiece. To put things simpler, Kendrick is supposed to be a caterpillar in the first half that goes through a cocoon in the middle and shines like a butterfly in the second half, making a perfect reference to the title “To Pimp A Butterfly.”
We can conclude that what makes “To Pimp A Butterfly” a masterpiece is its message and how it's built. Every track has lots of personality, a strong message, deep yet simple lyrics, and they all contribute to the bigger picture as smaller puzzle pieces. Tracing back to what I had said about the standpoints, this album covers everything; every single track has a great sound and also has a message. This album went as far as winning a Grammy for Kendrick and, in my opinion, it was very well deserved.
The reason I enjoyed this album was mainly because of the sound, however, the storytelling left me with a satisfactory feeling like when you just finish a movie in the theater. The tracks that I enjoyed the most were “Alright,” “I,” and “You ain’t gotta lie.” I would 100% recommend this album.