5 Years Later: How Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ Speaks for a Generation

Kendrick Lamar didn’t make ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ to be ordinary, he made it to be exceptional.
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Kendrick Lamar wrote his 2012 major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, from the perspective of his teenage self. Like most teenagers, his primary focus in life was a girl named Sherane and a few neighborhood friends. Kendrick comes from a two-parent home, has no money, drives his mother’s minivan, and lives in the city of Compton without the worries of having to maintain a job.

Kendrick’s classic debut is a perfect soundtrack to a classic film like John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood. Both album and film depict black youth coming of age in-between adolescence and manhood. These are two stories themed around choices and how those choices play out in black, Los Angeles cities through the eyes of young black boys with parents who love them. Despite their parental guidance, good kid, m.A.A.d city, and Boyz n the Hood represent how easy it is to be swallowed whole by the world that exists around you when you are too young to know better.

The first five songs of GKMC―“Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter,” Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Backseat Freestyle,” “The Art of Peer Pressure” and, “Money Trees”―all illustrate Kendrick Lamar, our narrator, as a young man with dreams of being a successful rapper. He isn’t a “bad kid” per se, but don’t let the album title fool you. Kendrick isn’t opposed to bending the morals of a “good kid” when he’s with the homies. They are who they are. He is who he is. There’s an acceptance of roles at play, but those roles do change.

As a self-described “good kid,” the exceptional rapper doesn’t shame the city for being mad, he lived in it as a citizen of the chaos. Maybe he secretly loved the madness; at the very least, he embraced the forbidden thrills that Compton offered her babies. Teenagers are prone to do that: Go outside, and find fun in their local danger. GKMC is an album that makes you feel young again because Kendrick bases the entire story on himself, experiencing the desires of a boy in a man’s world.

There’s a natural nostalgia to be found in stories inspired by adolescence. Coming of age, told as a movie, album, or play, is relatable because we all were young once; we all remember how it feels to be reckless, or to be heartbroken, or to be mad. GKMC is a perfect concept album because the Compton rapper created a universal story based on personal experiences, and told it immaculately. Arguably, the best debut album by a musician in the last 20 years.

Three years later, on March 15, 2015, Kendrick released the long-awaited follow-up to GKMC, To Pimp A Butterfly. The opening record, “Wesley’s Theory,” is psychedelic black funk, a stark difference from the cinematic score that gave his debut its contemporary rhythm. If TPAB was a movie, as an opening scene, “Wesley’s Theory” sets the stage for the overhaul of creativity that Kendrick displays across the remaining 15 tracks.

Kendrick’s first verse is from the perspective of a rapper who dreams of wealth through a record deal. The lyrics, “I’ mma buy a brand new Caddy on vogues, chunk the hood up, two times, deuce-four, platinum on everythin’, platinum on weddin’ ring” and “When I get signed, homie, I’ mma buy a strap, straight from the CIA, set it on my lap, take a few M-16s to the hood pass ’em all out on the block, what’s good?” describe how that wealth would be distributed, how he plans to act a fool.

George Clinton brilliantly voices the opposition, who all wish against the young rapper’s come up. “We should’ve never gave you niggas money, go back home,” the Parliament frontman sings. The oppositional inclusion is an intriguing touch, a subtle addition that grounds the glamor of black wealth against unwarranted resistance. Kendrick never allows the audience to forget his Black American dreams come with Black American nightmares.

The Compton auteur raps the entire last verse from the perspective of Uncle Sam, who candidly tells the rapper that all this wealth can be taken if he’s careless. The way Kendrick sees it, Uncle Sam wants you to be reckless. He wants you to end up like Wesley Snipes in 2008, serving a three-year jail sentence and having to pay 17 million in back taxes―plus penalties and interest―because he failed to file his tax returns.

Consequences have always been present in rap lyrics. Some of the genre’s best stories are tales about cause and effect and the results they bring. “Tax man comin’, tax man comin’,” Kendrick yells as the song ends, letting the listener know, he’s aware that his come up also means Uncle Sam is coming for his cut.

Plenty of rappers have touched on the woes of having to pay taxes once they reach the highest Federal Income tax bracket. Still, Kendrick’s approach on “Wesley’s Theory” depicts Uncle Sam as a Boogieman figure, one who is summoned once you reach economic prosperity. You can’t have the “Platinum on everythin’” without the, “And everything you buy, taxes will deny, I’ll Wesley Snipe your ass before thirty-five.”

There’s nothing youthful or fun about paying taxes. Only Drake could rap about not paying taxes and make it sound like a fun thing to do. To its credit, “Wesley’s Theory” is irresistibly funky, a record groovy enough to almost mask the heaviness of the world TPAB is forming. Even Dr. Dre’s small contribution to “Wesley’s Theory” is unlike the uplifting rap features from his previous appearances on Kendrick Lamar’s “The Recipe,” and “Compton,” the song triumphantly closing GKMC. Here, the pioneer of gangsta rap has a warning for his young protégé: “Anybody can get it, the hard part is keepin’ it, motherfucker.”

Although the Boris Gardiner sample begins the album by saying, “Every nigga is a star,” Dre quickly reminds the listener: Not every star shines forever. All of this happens to begin the album. What follows is “For Free (Interlude),” a thematic and musical shift that still feels sporadic five years later. Unlike GKMC, where the songs fold into one another in a concise narrative, TPAB leaps from scene to scene, a musical odyssey that shows a rapper’s life in various vignettes, but not just any rapper, a rich one. A king.

Kendrick Lamar, to my knowledge, has imagined himself as royalty as far back as 2009 on the character-defining declaration “I Am (Interlude).” Over a piano loop sampled from Q-Tip’s “Believe,” the young rapper gives you a condensed autobiography up to this point. He even says, “feel the good kid’s hunger,” establishing himself as a good kid three years before his debut album. This Easter egg shows the level of detail Kendrick wove into his projects since he changed his name from K-Dot, a man who needed an identity, one that he defined as:

Like Malcolm X did, I stand for what I believe in / Family, God and honor / From Chicago, my daddy and my momma came to Compton to accomplish one thing: Raise a king, reign supreme, named Kendrick / I ain’t lying, it stands for king and I am one / My unborn son and grandson will live royal / From the coochie to the soil.”

On “King Kunta,” TPAB’s third track, Kendrick appears with his crown. “Ayy, ayy, nigga, what’s happenin’? K-Dot back in the hood, nigga!” an uncredited voice rejoices. This voice is but one of many reasons why “King Kunta” sounds like a homecoming, the return of a cocky king who has made it past 25, bigger and badder than ever. Sounding six feet tall, if not taller here, Kendrick displays the confidence of a giant.

Listening back to “King Kunta” five years later, it comes as no surprise that Kendrick would call himself “The King of New York” on Big Sean’s “Control.” As a rapper, he refuses to shrink his dominating spirit to appease anyone’s ego, and if you want the crown, come take it.

What’s most interesting is how Kendrick’s confidence is diminished on “Institutionalized,” the following song that begins with him singing, in almost a whisper, “What money got to do with it, when I don’t know the full definition of a rap image? I’m trapped inside the ghetto and I ain’t proud to admit it, institutionalized, I keep runnin’ back for a visit.” Remember, this king is the same kid who, as a teenager, was breaking into homes with his homies. Changing your life doesn’t change what you’ve done and where you come from; those experiences aren’t erased with the arrival of wealth.

Although the mad city isn’t the setting of his kingdom, she isn’t far from his thoughts, creating a duality between the two worlds that have now swallowed him whole. For this very reason, TPAB requires looking back on GKMC. The two albums are interlinked; one tells us who Kendrick Lamar was as a boy, the other says you who he is as a man—a man who succeeded as a rap star.

Take the representation of the mental conflict that Kendrick confronts on “u” when survival and success are juxtaposed against the abundance of guilt that consumes him. “Loving you is complicated,” Kendrick sings, vocalizing how difficult it is to love himself and love this life he’s earned—especially since this life has alienated him from family and friends. “u” is Kendrick Lamar speaking from the perspective of his conscious, a critical consciousness, one that strips himself down with a mean-spirited attack of shame unfolding in a hotel room. Location is important to note. Only in this lonesome isolation do listeners hear how the celebrated rap genius confronts his faults as a king.

“u” articulates the burden of survival guilt with a drunken honesty. Alcohol is how Kendrick copes. On GKMC, after he gets beat up at the end of “m.A.A.d city,” the homies pass their beaten friend a bottle as a sort of healing elixir. It’s a tender interlude between boys who protect their own. They’re quick to help seek revenge. The homies aren’t there on “u;” no one is. So Kendrick drinks in an attempt to heal the wounds you can’t see.

I could go on and on, from song to song, breaking down TPAB as a hip-hop masterpiece. Not only did Kendrick exceed expectations by entering a new realm of sound and style, but he did so with the caliber of creativity not often delivered by artists who cross over into the mainstream. As the album depicts, his newfound rap stardom, celebrity status, and sudden wealth are all distinct life experiences that, when grappled with, shape the music in the image of Kendrick’s changing life as a renowned rapper, as a religious man, and as a Black American.

Upon release, I wrote about TPAB as the Kendrick Lamar project fair to dislike. It was a premature statement that assumed listeners weren’t ready for a radical shift from their beloved artist. Unlike GKMC, TPAB doesn’t tell a coming-of-age story. No, TPAB is what happens after you come-of-age, and are forced to wrestle with endless growing pains.

Initially, I couldn’t imagine radio supporting any of the songs as singles; I couldn’t see a future where such a massive, exhausting album receives universal celebration. Radio spins and popularity didn’t matter, though. TPAB isn’t a commercial album made for mainstream acceptance. TPAB is a radical album in the way it challenges the listener. Sure, Kendrick could’ve made another “Swimming Pools,” or “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” but he would’ve just been another voice on the radio, another jingle in the club.

To Pimp A Butterfly wasn’t made to be ordinary; it was made to be exceptional. The album solidified Kendrick Lamar’s transition from a voice that just wants to be heard to a voice who wants to speak for a generation. To do this, Kendrick couldn’t lead us on another trip through Comp; he he had to experiment and expand―challenge himself to challenge those who look upon him as a figure worth following. Conceptually, he avoids temptation from Lucifer, is humbled by Jesus, and converses with Tupac all in preparation for the burden he chooses to carry.

That’s what I love about TPAB, it’s a choice. Kendrick made the album from the clarity of self-realization. Without sugarcoating a word, he showed us exactly who he was: A God-fearing mortal man at war with himself and the world at large. That’s a war everyone must confront in their own time. It’s inevitable. Luckily, thanks to a Compton kid who knew he was more than a good kid from a mad city, we have a timeless soundtrack for the grueling process of becoming the kings and queens we are meant to be. 

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