To Pimp a Butterfly: A Track by Track Review Part 1
Release Date: March 15, 2015 Rating: 10/10
Favorite Tracks: For Free?, Institutionalized, U, Alright, Hood Politics.
Within a week of its release in October 22nd 2013, music lovers, from critics to the general public, were already hailing the debut album good Kid, m.A.A.d city an instant classic; launching Kendrick Lamar’s career into the mainstream. Because of this album’s success and acclaim, it’s no surprise that the expectations for a follow-up equate nothing more than greatness, especially after a 2 ½ year hiatus. Finally Lamar gives us To Pimp A Butterfly, an album that manifests a true post-modern piece of work. The album mostly delves not a multi-perspective narrative style that invokes instrumental substitutions at any given point of a song. Despite the schizophrenic complexion that deludes us from one particular theme/story, the intertwining allusions of the individual songs (and its themes) and the overall arrangement of the album (structured by a poem) compress Lamar’s message in an orderly fashion.
Without giving any more away, ladies and gentlemen I give to you: A track by track analysis of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly.
1. Wesley's Theory
The parabolic tone of the album is introduced in the beginning by its most important message. TPAB starts with an excerpt of Jamaican singer Boris Gardiner’s Every Nigger is a Star, from the movie of the same title. The film’s motive was to make the notorious “n word” into a positive word, uplifting the people of Jamaica (more on this motive later).
Hit me !
Lamar hit us with this classic James Brown line, setting the funky tone strong from the beginning. And that’s exactly what we got… Funk. Wesley’s Theory is by far the funkiest sounding song on the album. The distinctive tone in Thundercat’s bass and his adventurous playing, along with the synthesizers, give this song the afrofuturistic sound of bands like Parliament in the 1970’s. Interestingly enough, the legendary George Clinton is featured on this song.
The narrative of this song deals with rappers who get their first taste of money. I could write a dissertation on this song alone because of its rich/complex components. The song’s structure itself is…
Gardiner sample>Clinton> Chorus 1>Verse 1>Chorus 2>Chorus 1>Dr. Dre>Verse 2>Clinton 2>Verse 2
And each section has its own perspective. For instance Kendrick in Verse 1 is the typical rapper that wants to go stir crazy in spending. While in Verse 2 Kendrick plays “Uncle Sam” (something he does often in the album) manipulating Lamar to spend his money. At the end of this verse he says:
And everything you buy, taxes will deny, I’ll Wesley Snipe you ass before 35
Lamar cleverly hints at the Wesley Snipes tax evasion fiasco and also the youngest age someone could be president. He warns rappers that to be smart with their funds or the government will kill your career before you could even reach your full potential (or your own mistakes will).
2. For Free?
If you have wanted to step into a jazz bar/club in the 40’s just slip in your earphones and listen to For Free? From the sassy saxophone to the quick syncopated jazz chords on the piano, it was almost like Kendrick brought back Charlie Parker and other Bebop musicians back from their graves. The fast paced and improvisational techniques are especially evident in Grammy-award winning drummer Robert Sput Searight who starts dropping bombs like if he was the reincarnation of Kenny Clarke. Along with the music, Kendrick spits in a spoken word style. All of these components add to the smoky bar, background band, lead singer on stage smoking a cigarette, type of feel.
Wesley’s Theory ends with the phrase “taxman coming” repeating as it gets louder. Continuing from that, Kendrick (now playing the role of himself) rejects the notion of giving up his money and/or services. For Free? starts with your typical urban goldigger, to put it nicely, degrading Kendrick for not pampering her with luxury. Also saying she needs a “baller-ass boss-ass nigga”. Kendrick responds with “This dick aint freeeee” and executes with other quotable lines.
I need forty acres and a mule not a forty ounce and a pitbull
These lines make it clear that this woman symbolizes corporate America or the “taxman“. Lamar feels like he deserves to be reimbursed rather than offering his services for free.
Check out the wacky music video below:
The song ends with the goldigger degrading him again saying:
Ima get my uncle Sam to fuck you up. You aint no king.
*This next section is to show how some songs on the album intertwine in messages, references, etc. As the album progresses, more songs will be available *
1. “Celery telling me green is all I need”
2. “Pity the fool that made the pretty in you prosper…” like Kendrick in the second verse of Wesley’s Theory.
3. King Kunta
I got a bone to pick. I don’t want you monkey-mouth mothafuckas sitting on my throne again.
Symbolism aside, Kendrick takes shots at rappers in the music industry. The braggadocios Lamar claims that everyone is out to get him when he has the “yams” (power, fame, etc.) Lamar follows the tradition of African writer Chinua Achebe, in his classic novel Things Fall Apart, by using yams as a metaphor. Another afro-centric allusion is a reference to the protagonist in roots, Kunta Kinte, who got his foot chopped off for trying to escape slavery. It’s interesting how he manipulates the name and uses it to his advantage in the song.
With that being said, the metaphorical meaning of King Kunta encompasses black culture. Kendrick hints how white America tends to bring a black man down (cut leg off) when he gets a taste of success (the yams).
Like Wesley’s Theory, this song has a funk vibe to it, as Lamar channels his inner James Brown. His flow is very reminiscent to James Brown in The Payback (noted by many as the first rap song). He also flows like Tupac in some lines, paying homage to the G-Funk music he was raised on. What makes this song a true G-Funk song is its bassline. The repetitive riff sounds like something DJ Quik would produce. TDE longtime producers Soundwave and Terrace Martin perfectly epitomize the ambiance of a west coast house party. This is perfectly suited for the rapper who shows nothing but love to his hometown Compton, CA.
Check out the music video below:
Well done, king.
The song ends with…
I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence.
As the last line of King Kunta echoes in the head of the listener, Institutionalized starts. Like Wesley’s Theory, this song is interestingly structured and has multi-perspectives. So for the sake of this review I am going to split the song into 7 parts.
- Intro: This section could be told from the perspective of two people (the main two perspectives in the song). 1. Kendrick being trapped in stardom (the ghetto) and 2. A person from the hood feeling trapped in his urban environment. While first listening to this song, my college suitemate Luis geniusly pointed out something in this song that truly blew my mind. Notice how “institutionalized” sounds like “Institutional lies” in this song. Furthermore saying that the lies/manipulation presented by their society (or the higher society) causes them to feel trapped (institutionalized). It's safe to say Luis had me like...
- Verse 1: The beat completely shifts to a more jazz sounding instrumental, which carries throughout the entire song. Kendrick starts with the same cockiness in King Kunta until he brings up his “homies”. He tells the story of how he took one of his friends from back home to the BET awards. His friend wants to steal from the celebrities at the awards show (misusing your influence). Alluding to the title, Kendrick warns that if a person is institutionalized, they will have the urge commit crimes in whatever circumstance. Like so,
Kendrick ends with “I shoulda listened when my grandmother said to me.”
- Chorus: “Shit don’t change till you get up and wipe your ass, nigga”. Neo-Soul singer Bilal sings the chorus as Kendrick grandmother. The raspy voice fit perfect as the image of a grandmother was definitely fulfilled. Chorus says you won't see progress in life until you cleanse yourself and put in the work yourself (wash yo ass).
- Snoop Dogg 1: In the style of hip hop legend Slick Rick, Uncle Snoop tells the story of the song like if it was a bedtime story. “Once upon a time in a city so divine…”
He ends it by saying “took his homey to the show and this is what they said”
- Verse 2. Kendrick is now talking as the perspective of his friend, who is clearly angry at the fact that celebrities flaunt their wealth when “it’s a recession”. He also justifies his actions by saying he is modern day Robinhood giving to the poor. Kendrick ends by getting out of character( and the tone of voice he’s currently in) and says “I guess my grandmother was warning a boy she said..”
- Chorus: Bilal sings the chorus again
- Snoop Dogg 2: Snoop Dogg opens with the same line and ends the song perfectly tying in the songs concepts. He tucks the listener into his/her bed, turns off the light, and as he closes the door he gently says “fuck you, goodnight, thank you much for your service.”
“So many rollies around you and you want all of them”
Constant mention of mixing the hood and politics. “I should run for mayor…” “If I was president…” “Ima put the Compton swap meet by the White House, Republic run up, get socked out”
5. tHese walls
I remembered you was conflicted, misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same.
The last Line of King Kunta now expands with the purpose of Kendrick applying it to himself.
These Walls serve as the Poetic Justice slot for TPAB. The slow jam two-stepper does a great job of encompassing 70’s soul music, as I could picture Kendrick performing this on soul train. This is the closest we’ll get to that though.
Lamar for the majority of the song talks about being inside “walls”, meaning a woman's genitalia from a literal standpoint. However, the walls also represent the walls of his urban upbringing that have molded and enclosed so many people. The walls could also be himself, more specifically his mind and the many depressive thoughts that come to it.
If these walls could talk they'd tell me to go deep. Yelling at me continuously I can see. Your defense mechanism is my decision. Knock these walls down that's my religion.
In the last verse, the beat slightly changes and Kendrick says he was using his fame to sleep with the girlfriend of the person who killed his friend in GKMC. “So when you play this song, rewind the first verse. About me abusing my power so you can hurt” (Sometimes I did the same) And as we know well, especially from listening to Lamar, nothing good ever comes from being spiteful.
I remembered you was conflicted misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same. Abusing my power full of resentment. Resentment that turned into a deep depression. I found myself screamin' in the hotel room.
There are records in the Hip Hop world that truly stand out in their experimental approach of delivery. Take Eminem’s Kim for instance. Never was there a song in which an artist truly embodied the emotion needed to bring their words to life, and most of that is because of Em’s delivery. The same goes for this song.
The song starts where These Walls left off, Kendrick screaming. The scream adds to the winding down effect perpetuated by the music. The dark ambient sound, (which could be vocals) unexpected saxophone fills, and random clunky piano notes add to the haunting vibe of the song (Ironically this song is number 6 on the album). Note: This is the only song where Kendrick is consumed by the evils that seduce him.
Loving u is complicated
Considering the success of i (winning two Grammys), it was a risky move for the album to contain a song that is the polar opposite in both lyrics and sound. Addressing himself as “u” instead of “i“ would be an example of the contrast; and also how detached he feels from himself. Or lines like
I can feel your vibe and recognize that you’re ashamed of me. Yes, I hate you too.
We then hear a collection of static sounds of the song Lovin You Aint Complicated, by Whoarei, with the knocking of the Hispanic housekeeping lady. We get another beat change, based on the Whoarei sample. The song, and Kendrick, goes from sporadic and crazy to gloomy and depressing. Lamar reaches his breaking point. His drinking and crying in the song is evident in his voice cracking.
This is one of the most honest records I have ever heard. Everyone included in this track does a great job on making the listener feel the emotion. Lamar takes us through the point of a view of someone having a nervous breakdown, which is throwing a fit at first and then crashing and crying towards the end. You could hear him dropping the bottle of alcohol and interrupting himself by taking gulps. The sample does a great job of dragging the song down, especially the bass and piano chords that drop heavy. Kamasi Washington on the screeching saxophone also adds pain and emotion with every wailing note.
Kendrick even says:
And if I told your secret, the world will know money can’t stop a suicidal weakness
Listen to Kendrick talk about the importance of the record below.
“And If this bottle could talk…” “and if those mirrors could talk…” Both lines follow the same structure of the chorus and offer the same overall message in
Alright immediately starts on a vibrant tone, a ginormous contrast from u.
What’s interesting about this record is Lamar’s inclusiveness rather than the reclusive u that came before it. He states not only is he going to be aright but “WE gon be alright”. Lamar stated before that uplifting a generation is a main motive for making music. Songs like Alright provide a message for people to embrace and live by, initially brought forth by Kendrick’s beliefs. He says “My rights, my wrongs, I write till im right with God” or in the chorus “If God got us then we gon be alright”.
In the chorus Lamar also says “And we hate popo, wanna kill us dead in the straight for sure”. As mentioned in the previous post, his BET performance shook up the wrong heads in the media. Despite the criticism, that he has responded to, Lamar seems to be an upright advocate for the black lives matter movement.
Check out the music video, which recently got nominated for video of the year at the VMA’s, where he is set to perform.
Pharrell Williams teams up with Kendrick yet again and gives us a banger this time around. I must ask: when was the last time you heard a banger that provides a multiple voices singing the main melody and random saxophone runs throughout the song? The answer is probably never. These types of songs are usually computer based, relying heavily on presets in music computer programs. However, Pharrell keeps the essence of the album by supplying Kendrick with live, natural instrumentation.
“I recognize you looking at me for the paycut”
“What u want you? A house? You a car? 40 cares and a mule? A piano? A guitar? See my name is Lucy im yo dog. Motherfucker u can live at the mall” Almost the same exact lines in Verse 2 of
“I can see the evil I can tell it I know its illegal. I don’t think about I deposit every other zero.”
From “Thinking of my partner” to “heaven I can reach you” Kendrick mentions giving money to his friends like in
“Where pretty pussy and Benjamin is the highlight. Now, tell my momma I love her but this what I like”
1. “Drown inside my vides all day” and “when my pride was low, looking at the world like where do we go”.
2. “Loving me is complicated” at the end of this song.
I remembered you was conflicted misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same. Abusing my power full of resentment. Resentment that turned into a deep depression. I found myself screamin' in the hotel room. I didn't wanna self destruct, the evils of Lucy was all around me. So I went runnin' for answers.
8. For Sale?
Serving the spot of an interlude, For Sale? delivers in the style of For Free?, exciting instrumental with a spoken word style delivery from Lamar. The beat is very dreamlike mainly because of the repetitive fast piano runs throughout the song. Check out the beginning of this video and notice the technique used in For Sale?:
The surreal sounds ironically make you feel like you’re in the clouds (I’ll touch on the irony later). The song also contains a great bassline and, what I can best describe as, an electronic Peruvian flute-sounding instrument as the lead; it could also be just a synth.
Although some similarities between the two interludes are apparent, this song touches on the subject of when an artist is successful (instead of the up-&-coming artist in For Free?) and is wanted for sale. Also, instead of talking as himself, like he did in For Free?, Kendrick takes an interesting approach in talking as the devil. As Lucy (Lucifer) talks to Kendrick, she tries to manipulate and wow him with material objects. Kendrick’s villain clearly yearns for Lamar as she continually says “I want you” in both the chorus and 1st verse. And what better way to get his attention:
“Lucy give you no worries. Lucy got million stories about these rappers that I came after when they weas boring. Lucy gon fill your pockets. Lucy gon move your momma out of Compton inside that gigantic mansion like I promised. “
The irony of this song is quite conspicuous. It’s probably the sweetest sounding song on the album yet lyrically the creepiest. Lamar had the perfect set of words (and vocal tone) to send chills down your spine by embodying such a mischievous character. Especially with lines like…
I want you to know that Lucy got you. All your life I’ve watched you...
The symbolism of “Lucy” and corporate America, once again, works in his favor. As you could picture an A&R throwing crooked contracts at rap artists would probably look like:
Wesley’s Theory, Alright
expands on the approach of talking as the manipulating devil
“Lucy got million stories about these rappers that I came after when they was boring” = “watch you politic with people less fortunate, like myself”
I remembered you was conflicted misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same. Abusing my power full of resentment. Resentment that turned into a deep depression. I found myself screamin' in the hotel room. I didn't wanna self destruct, the evils of Lucy was all around me. So I went runnin' for answers, until I came home.