Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly should’ve won album of the year at the Grammy’s last night. I’m not usually this resolute but there is not a single argument to refute this.
Last year, I sat down for a few hours to mindfully and intentionally listen to the album. It changed my values. I wanted to remember everything I thought I understood and felt - it’s written below. I don’t post everything I write, especially if I can barely understand what everything is supposed to mean. But this dude should’ve won. So here's to you.
I’m so sorry Lamar.
Written March 22, 2015 / Read time: 4 minutes
You can listen to Drake when you’re emotional, but go to Kendrick Lamar when you want to change the world. Kendrick is the greatest thing happening right now in rap and social evolution. You could teach a history, literature, or psychology class with his new album - and I think that’s what makes a great album. To Pimp a Butterfly is full of powerful stories that speak even louder than its beautiful jazz and funk. This isn’t an album/songs review because there are too many layered concepts and complex allusions. It will take me years to fully let this album sink in.
A few takeaways from each song that left me in daze for days:
Most singers and artist have their pre-stardom story and it’s usually a rough one fit for movies. When artists finally make it out (of their cocoon), they get lost in the light. Artists become a slave to the label. In his second album after m.A.A.d, Kendrick tells the story he initially wanted to tell.
For Free? (Interlude)
The Government won't help.
Kendrick’s been used by women.
Society has insatiable expectations of artists, black men, black people.
Corporations suck you dry.
The American Government isn’t here to help you.
Kendrick has an agenda.
The moment you become a King, you are both in power and a slave. King’s are at the mercy of the voice of the people, people are at the mercy of the power of the King. Even if Kendrick becomes King, he is at the mercy of listeners, the fans, the critics, the industry ..
The inner walls of a woman, the inner walls of a prison cell, the walls we put up against others, the walls we put up to protect ourselves, and the walls we live in/confines of a cocoon.
It starts with a scream but everything in this song is Kendrick beating himself up for his pasts’ mistakes, indulging in his dark thoughts. It’s a reminder to himself that theres a long way ahead for him to make his life, this industry right.
I almost forgot Kendrick was religious and very Christian until this song. He pulls himself out of darkness and let himself and others know its all going to be alright. Sometimes he needs god, sometimes he needs painkillers or women. He won’t judge himself, he’ll just stick through it all with faith. No matter the injustices in this world, everything will be fine afterwards.
For Sale? (Interlude)
Here something else clicked. The last song ended with a lot of references to Lucy/Lucifer/Satan. And while “For Free?” talks about the abuse of artists, “For Sale” talks about how they chose the glamor and torturous life. They were lured in by the money and ultimately it ends in the artist's’ demise / humanity's demise.
The temptations and pervasive nature of fame sent Kendrick running back to his Compton roots for life’s answers, turning back to his joy in writing, and seeking artistic redemption.
Kendrick doesn’t care about hip-hop drama. He isn’t interested in defiling his work with gossip like most rappers do these days. He focuses on life, his life, the hood life - the music life.
How Much a Dollar Cost
How far will you go to make money?
How far will you stretch that money to gain fame?
What is the true price we pay for the things we own?
What would that dollar do for someone in a third world country?
(edit 2016: this one is Obama’s favorite song)
Complexion (Zulu Love)
Takes us through the historical journey of racially divided societies in South Africa, Germany, and America. It’s a reminder that though we’ve come a long way, there is still so much room for reform.
The Blacker the Berry
This is my favorite song, forcing me to reevaluate injustices within my own community. A part of the solution to racism/prejudices will be to end the self perpetuating cycle of hate propaganda. It is important now more than ever to be conscious of how we express our opinions and thoughts if we’re serious about eradicating prejudice.
You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)
This is about the importance of being yourself. Once again, if you have nothing good to say, don't say it at all. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, don’t add to the noise. Talk about solutions, not the problems.
This song is the exact counterpart to “The Blacker the Berry”, exalting the triumphs and influence of black people. This is the only purely feel good track - which was important because at this point, I was overwhelmed with frustrations against society. It’s important to keep your spirit alive if you plan on being a part of the positive change.
During this time you have on earth, be conscious of the good and bad propaganda that drives your actions. “When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan,” will you stick it through the tough times? Kendrick lives by acting on the words of Mandela, continues the work of Tupac, and lives as a man of God.
He should have won. Even if you disregard the albums impact on social change, even if you disregard it's comparison to other nominated albums, you can't ignore everything that went into To Pimp a Butterfly.
Some cool thoughts from Kendrick and his squad on Medium.