“Don’t all dogs go to heaven? Don’t Gangsta’s boogie? Do owl shit stank? Lions, Tigers, & Bears. But To Pimp A Butterfly. It's the American dream nigga”
That was the caption on Kendrick’s Instagram the night he released the album art for To Pimp A Butterfly. Lil Homie is cited as the wordsmith but there’s no tag to his personal Instagram, his identity remained a mystery. Matthew Trammell wrote a story for FADER the day after acknowledging renowned, French photographer Denis Rouvre as the artist who captured the iconic image and also confirmed through TDE that Dave Free and Kendrick Lamar were the ones who came up with the brilliant cover’s concept. At the very end of the piece, Matthew references the quote, calling Lil Homie, “A nameless genius that just might be staring us in the face.” He was referring to the cover and all the joyous, black faces that stared back at us gleefully, one possibly being the undercover poet who announced the title of Kendrick’s long-awaited sophomore album. He wasn’t wrong, the Lil Homie is on the cover and he is also mentioned by name in the article, except he didn’t know it. No one did.
Dave Free and Kendrick Lamar decided to become The Little Homies during Kendrick’s transitional period away from K-Dot. He was starting to truly find himself as an artist and they needed to represent that change visually. Dave Free detailed the story back in August of last year when The Little Homies started getting attention for being credited as co-directors in all of Kendrick’s music videos, everyone except “King Kunta” (although Director X told Complex that Kendrick was involved for two whole days with the video's editing process). In his interview with Andres Tardio for MTV, he recalled the “Ignorance Is Bliss” video, which was written by Kendrick and directed by Dave with assistance from O.G. Michael Mihail. The video had no budget, no major label backing or even an expensive camera, “Ignorance Is Bliss” was far from being MTV-ready but that’s where it started, the blueprint for The Little Homies. Dave and Kendrick as the creative visionaries who just needed the right people to help bring their ideas to life. The way they brought Mihail in to help with choreography is no different than selecting Denis Rouvre to shoot the cover for To Pimp A Butterfly.
The Little Homies actually came about one day when me and Kendrick were sitting down at the studio and one of our other videos came on. Everything is always a collaborative effort, so it would have so many names on there. And Kendrick was like, “Yo, we’re from Top Dawg Entertainment — so let’s change the concept of what we do together and let’s make it a brand, something under the TDE umbrella. Why not be The Little Homies?” - Dave Free, 2015
Despite the relatively little attention surrounding The Little Homies, the creative duo has quietly become a big deal in hip-hop’s realm of visual arts. If you look back on their last year of work, you’ll discover they have released nothing but creative and stunning videos. The Little Homies adapted the same collaborative mentality and meticulous precision that Kendrick uses to create his music and applied it to his visual artistry. Alexandre Moors, the director of “i,” gave a bit of insight into working with The Little Homies in his interview with Vibe after the video's release, saying that Dave and Kendrick aren’t on the sidelines following his orders, both were heavily involved in the video's process. The duo had so many ideas they could have been stretched into five or six visuals, Alex's biggest worry was not being able to fit them all into one video. For example, it was Kendrick who visualized him getting his hair braided in the club and the iconic scene where he's hanging his head out of the lowrider. Alexandre confirmed that it’s inspired by Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight.
Throughout “i” dance is used to showcase joy, a reoccurring theme in The Little Homies visuals for To Pimp A Butterfly. Colin Tilley, the co-director for “Alright,” a much darker video than “i,” told MTV that the dancers used were to represent positivity. Dancing, especially in black culture, is a form of expression that can be passionate, fun, and celebratory, the dancers in “Alright” embody this. They are meant to bring a sense of positivity to balance out all the negatives that plague the mad city. “i” uses dance in the same way—they dance through the street passing the homeless, passing a black man being arrested by two white police officers, passing the window of a man ready to commit suicide, you see both the joy and pain next to one another. You’ll notice that theme in most of Kendrick’s TPAB videos—the portrayal of a world that’s never just good or just bad but balanced. Despite all the internal and external evils Kendrick is the beam of light, an infectious positivity waking up the people around him.
As the concept continued to develop, I had a lot of great conversations with Kendrick and Dave. We just kept hammering the concept home to really keep digging deeper and deeper. I’ve never actually worked with an artist like Kendrick that wants to keep pushing the creative to a whole ‘nother world. Every little detail matters to him. - Colin Tilley, MTV 2015
In Colin’s interview with MTV, he mentioned that Dave Free called him about shooting the video and that their idea was to have Kendrick floating. The three of them put their heads together and formulated a treatment built on that foundation, a flying Kendrick. The soaring K-Dot symbolizes a hero-like character, someone that the people can look to, chase after, a superman. “Alright” gives you the contrast of good and bad, especially with the powerful beginning scenes that portray a city engulfed in madness. The clip of "Cartoon & Cereal" is gold and should’ve been nominated for a MTV Video Music Award despite only being a few seconds. Cutting through the madness is a flying Kendrick, hope personified, catching the eyes of people down the street, being held up by the mob, being chased by the kids, the same way he was chased and follow while dancing in “i.” The idea of hope and positivity only begets more hope and positivity. It’s powerful that they decided to have an officer shoot him down, once again the case of the man who is supposed to protect and serve is stealing a man’s life and hope from the community. Colin says Kendrick’s smile at the end is meant to mean, “Everything is still gonna be alright,” which alludes to the bigger idea of killing the man but not killing the dream, not killing hope.
The officer shoots the flying Kendrick with his finger and not his gun, realism was thrown out the moment Kendrick and company were being carried in a car by four police officers. All these touches of imagination help me realize that one of The Little Homies trademarks is teetering between realism and fantasy. Take “These Walls” for example. Kendrick bursts through the wall while the girl is dancing on him. Humorous but also extremely far-fetched. The Joe Wei-directed “For Free” moves at a dizzying pace, cramming a plethora of imagery into the two-minute music video. From the opening with the saxophone player blaring from the window to the end when a dozen Kendricks are seen in the front yard, it’s a theatrical, bizarre but engrossing watch. There’s plenty of split-second symbolism that will take multiple views to absorb but watching Kendrick chase the scantily clad woman around reminding her that the dick isn’t free balances the serious with the fun.
We work with certain people for certain projects. It’s very strategic. When it comes to executing and creating the ideas, we’re not guys who say, 'Do whatever.' We’re very much involved. There have been times where people have seen me pick up a camera and I’ll start shooting sh-t myself because I want things done a certain way. We convey that message to anyone we work with, so they know that’s what we expect. And to be honest, we’ve had nothing but positive outcomes. - Dave Free, MTV
Glowing, fluorescent lighting is commonly used in The Little Homies videos, giving almost all their visuals a dream-like feeling. “i” is gorgeously shot, especially the opening scene in a dimly lite club that comes off as a wonderland for those seeking to groove until the rising sun passes the setting moon. The motel scene in “These Walls” are drenched in lush reds, blues, oranges and greens. The visuals for “For Sale” also makes use of luminous orange yellows with a touch of heavy grain.
In the second-half of the short film, "God Is Gangsta," co-directed by PANAMAERA, Kendrick walks and hangs upside down through the colorful Paris at Le Silencio, full of women who embody the temptation of Lucy. He seems dazed, uninterested, almost as if he’s sleepwalking through the wave of clothed and naked seductive vixens. There are clips of a baptism that are cut in-between the women and the cryptic messages that flash every few seconds. Another example of how in his artistry that showed Kendrick sought God to escape the industries Lucy’s.
The location being Paris at Le Silencio can’t be coincidental. The strange nightclub is owned by filmmaker David Lynch, renowned for his movies and television series that, full of surrealism, toe the line between fascinating and disturbing. The first half of "God Is Gangster" is directed by Psycho Films (can’t be a coincidence) and the visual rendition of “U” feels like something from the mind of Lynch. Kendrick’s acting is convincing, he appears to be truly losing his mind in this tiny room, trying to submerge his struggles in whiskey. The screaming and frantic moving is unlike anything Kendrick has done on camera, which is fitting of “U” since his since his soul-crushing confession of guilt and even suicidal thoughts seemed completely out of character. In the second verse is where things take a turn for the strange—the bottle that is spinning on the table doesn’t stop, the mirror in the corner begins to reflect a Kendrick that isn’t moving like the man rapping in the camera, it’s like Kendrick’s Twin Peaks nightmare sequence. Looks like Childish Gambino isn't the only rap artist inspired by Lynch.
The Lil Homies have mostly been credited for their work with Kendrick but Dave admitted in his interview that they have goals of branching out and doing more with outside artists. Starting within the squad is a start, both Jay Rock and ScHoolboy Q have visuals co-directed by the duo. Jay Rock’s “90059” (also directed by PANAMAERA) is rather intricate, the first half of the visual is SZA driving Jay around in a straightjacket-wearing a Hannibal Lecter mask. Things get strange after he’s let loose, the latter half is Jay running from the police like CJ from San Andreas. It’s rather epic and very fitting of the song’s rather deranged lyrics. Q’s “Groovy Tony” (also directed by Jack Begert) is rough and raw, the video captures the murderous persona that is more menacing than Larenz Tate in 1993. He’s crushing bodies at a junkyard in the mouth of a crane, shooting his chopper, crashing his whip and stealing faces. A gangster so terrorizing that he lights his blunt using the fire that’s burning his arm. There are some excellent angles used that help make this video one of Q’s most creative. Both videos are strong and carry a touch of the abnormal and imaginativeness that can be found in Kendrick’s visuals.
Along with music videos, The Little Homies are also the masterminds behind Kendrick’s stage content. Dave revealed that the B.E.T Awards and SNL performances were all them. It’s not surprising, the same concepts that encompass the videos are extended on stage. Especially dance, he had a black couple waltzing on Ellen while he performed “These Walls,” the crew of dancers that help change "Alright" into an impressive experience on B.E.T., just look at how the camera angles and lighting are done masterfully on Jimmy Fallon, and of course the breathtaking GRAMMY’s performance. From the transition from prisoners to proud African dancers, it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. That’s something The Little Homies have mastered, taking songs you’ve heard before and making them feel new and fresh again. No Kendrick performance is the same, he will change up the song order, take verses and place them at the beginning or end of other records. Or like in the “Alright” music video, create a whole new song just for the moment, to give the fans a reason to come back. There’s always a reason to hear and see him again.
What was Kendrick’s involvement in the creative process?
He was involved in the sense that he knew exactly what he wanted. He showed me a photo of the prisoners and was like “This is my inspiration”. There were these guys walking in a chain gang and he said 'I want them to look like this'. And I knew that he wanted the African guys to glow in the dark because they were going to go into a sequence where everything was going to be dark and they were going be lit with UV lights. - Dianne Garcia interview with Billboard (on styling Kendrick's GRAMMY performance)
The Little Homies have one of the best creative visions in all of rap. If Dave and Kendrick continue being exceptional and not trying to be accepted they will be looked at with the same admiration as the mountain building Kanye. There’s no limit for visionaries who don’t just dream but go out and make their ideas come true.
By Yoh, aka Quentin TarantinYoh, aka @Yoh31