To Pimp a Butterfly: Rap Music’s Darkest, Brightest, and Most Political Album | Adeeb Chowdhury

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“Alright” was a song from To Pimp a Butterfly—perhaps its most famous track. It had served as a Black Lives Matter anthem upon its release, during the marches of 2015. The New York Times has described the song as the “unifying soundtrack to BLM protests nationwide”, and numerous commentators including Black American Television (BET) has raised the prospect of this song being the “modern Black National Anthem” due to its iconic status. I had heard it—twenty? Fifty?—times before even being aware of the special position it held in the fight for Black lives. It was only upon hearing the familiar lyrics being chanted by protesters on CNN that it dawned on me that there was more to the song than I had realized.

 

Rap music has always been political. Not simply in lyrical content or the themes explored, but through the very existence of the genre itself. A certain story can be traced from the telltale imprints all over hip-hop music—a story of neighborhoods forced to beg for scraps from a government that left them to rot and wither; of inner-city teenagers handed 9-millimeter handguns as a rite of passage; of musical recording equipment scratched and bruised from botched robberies; of popular award shows refusing entry to a genre that would intimidate and frighten white suburban families. The story of rap is a story of power: oppression by it, the fight against it, and the everlasting pursuit of it.

Poverty, injustice, and the politicization of human lives—in particular lives of color—are more than just topics covered within rap music. These issues actively shaped and defined rap since its creation in basements in the Bronx in the 1970s, molding a casual, dance-party soundtrack into the aggressive counterculture movement sweeping America in the 80s and 90s. Black artists took the conditions thrust upon them by a system designed to sideline, subjugate, and disenfranchise their communities, and channelled them into a genre that was not designed to entertain or appeal to white audiences but make them increasingly uncomfortable of the fact that even the most basic safeties and comforts of white America were kept beyond reach for many. The rage, frustration, materialistic pursuits, and distrust of an authority—all manifestations of a community historically downtrodden and stripped of a voice—came to be recognized as hallmarks of rap music.

In many ways, rap has grown too big for its old clothes. Much of its political history have remained just that: history. Today, massive commercial success and diverse listeners worldwide have propelled hip-hop to without doubt the biggest genre of music on the planet. The socio-economic struggles that defined rap in its adolescence have been relegated to the underground, in favor of appealing to wider and more mainstream audiences. Themes of racial justice and revolution have taken a backseat to easy-on-the-ears party tunes, club bangers, and songs to blast on the aux during a 1 a.m. drive with friends. This is not necessarily a bad thing—in fact, had it not become more radio-friendly, rap would never have emerged from inner cities and urban communities to dominate the global music charts.

Yet the opportunity sometimes arises for a hip-hop project to tap back into the sentiments and experiences that served as the lifeblood of its genre. To reach into the age-old story told by hip-hop—the story, as we discussed earlier, of Black suffering and Black celebration and Black power—and piece together a new chapter of that story to fit its own time, year, decade, and century. A rap album touching base with other forms of Black music, from jazz to soul to funk, and putting together a final result that is more than the sum of its parts. A series of songs forged by the flames of modern-day injustice but not losing sight of the centuries of prejudice that current issues can be traced back to. Music that seizes the pain and destruction it was borne from and channels it into what can only be described as beauty—a grand celebration of resilience, empowerment, and ambition.

Perhaps no piece of music fits this profile better than what is considered one of the most daringly political, groundbreaking, and important albums in rap history: To Pimp a Butterfly by California rapper Kendrick Lamar.

Released in 2015, this project has gone on to become a landmark in not just hip-hop but music culture at large. It was crowned one of the greatest albums of the year by sources ranging from the BBC to TIME Magazine to The Guardian, as well as one of the best albums of the entire decade by almost all major media publications. Rolling Stone Magazine, a popular authority on music and pop culture, lists it as the “third greatest album of the decade” and the “nineteenth greatest album of all time.” Then-President Barack Obama publicly praised the album and listed one of its tracks as his absolute favorite song of 2015. Kendrick Lamar went on to secure a number of Grammy Awards wins and nominations for his work, including a nod for Album of the Year. The project succeeded commercially as well, debuting at #1 on the US music charts.

But what I care to talk about is not the album’s critical and commercial success, or all the decade-defining awards it received—though there are more of that than I could ever hope to mention. No, what I’d rather focus on is what To Pimp a Butterfly represents—to me, to hip-hop, and to Black lives. I want to examine the album’s significance upon its release as well as its legacy since then—a legacy that has been dynamically shaped by the civil rights issues of the last half a decade.

The first time I listened to To Pimp a Butterfly, I hated it. No exaggeration—I found absolutely nothing enjoyable about it. I was a Bangladeshi exchange student in Seattle, Washington, in mid-2019. Though that may seem like just a short time ago, I was a radically different person, knowing nothing yet about hip-hop, Kendrick Lamar, or the importance of this album in its historical context. Listening to it through low-quality headphones on bumpy bus rides to and from school, I thought the album was overly complicated, bizarre, bloated, dense, and pretentious. Kendrick’s strange, high-pitched vocals and unusual rapping style was nothing like the mainstream rappers I listened to at the time—Travis Scott, Eminem, Kanye West, Jay-Z: only some of the most popular and accessible artists in the world. From those rappers, I typically got straightforward, understandable music I could vibe to at a party and share with friends. From Kendrick Lamar, I got a political thesis that I didn’t want to waste time trying to understand.

How an album this strange and difficult to listen to was so popular, I couldn’t tell you if I tried.

Time passed, and I changed. Near the end of 2019, I listened to To Pimp a Butterfly again. It seemed a little less bizarre to me—a bit less complicated, a bit more understandable. The lyrics hadn’t changed, but my approach to them had. I knew more about hip-hop culture now and the significance of this album within rap music. I dug deeper into what was happening in America when this album was being made in 2015—the shooting of Black young adult Michael Brown by a white police officer: another entry in the long list of people of color murdered by an overpowered police force lacking accountability and oversight. I learned more about the resulting protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and the conversations it sparked about racial justice in America—conversations about police militarization, racial bias, modern-day school segregation, for-profit prisons. The legacy of centuries of oppression, division, and disempowerment of Black lives. These were all themes touched on by Kendrick Lamar—a young man who grew up surrounded by poverty and crime in Compton, California—in To Pimp a Butterfly, an album that was starting to make slightly more sense to me. Yet I still refused to give it as much thought as I maybe should have.

Over the next several months, I continued casually listening to a handful of songs from the album now and then. They would pop up occasionally on my daily mixes on Spotify and appear on my playlists, though I didn’t think they were anything special. They served as nothing except the background noise to my daily life. The coronavirus pandemic started and as the months of 2020 began blurring into one another, all of them finding me pacing around my house and being able to only wistfully imagine the outside world, and I began filling up my time and space with more music. New songs, new albums, new mixtapes, almost every single day—hours upon hours, while working out and doing dishes. Music became perhaps the defining aspect of my daily life as quarantine stretched into summertime.

Then May arrived, and George Floyd was murdered. I managed to make it about halfway through the video of his death at the hands of police officers before I forced myself to shut it off for my own sake; the final whimpers of a man being killed by those supposed to serve and protect him were not something I could easily digest. The weeks following Floyd’s murder—surely the weeks that will come to define 2020 in the history of civil rights—began a period of reckoning for many, as countless people worldwide somberly grappled with the renewed conversation surrounding the reality that racism—though we often think of it in terms of slavery, segregated fountains, black-and-white photographs from the 1960s—was far from a thing of the past. It’s a living, breathing monster forever lurking nearby, never really disappearing even if we cannot see it ourselves every day. It has taken on many forms—the “explorers” orchestrating the colonization, enslavement, and genocide of indigenous populations; the local politicians drumming up paranoia and pitting together different ethnic groups in an artificial conflict to advance his own agenda; the modern-day Caucasian who is a bit more suspicious, a bit more cautious around a person of color. Heck, nothing from a law degree, Ivy League credentials, and the most powerful office in the world makes one immune to racism today: Barack Obama repeatedly mentions in his latest memoir A Promised Land the animosity, hostility, and suspicion he was on the receiving end of, such as the “well-dressed white woman who refused to shake [his]hand” at a political dinner. Suffice to say, anyone who believes racism is a relic of history—or only affects the poor and uneducated—is either thoroughly uninformed or lacks the motivation to examine their own privilege and take an honest look at the world as it is. Both possibilities are not just disappointing but dangerous.

George Floyd’s murder was a sobering reminder of these truths to the world, even though they were plain as day to the Black Americans to whom such realities are part of daily life. The conversations the people of the United States and the rest of the world began engaging in—about the racism and inequality built into the everyday fabric of society—echoed back to the same discussions that defined 2014 and 2015, another time of renewed civil rights activism; the most depressing part being that those years also the saw the murders of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and Tamir Rice, all Black men and women, at the hands of police officers. It was a cycle that didn’t seem to stop. As I watched CNN cover the 2020 protests, I heard something else that echoed back to the events of five years ago: a group of protesters singing “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar as they trooped down a packed street, hoisting banners and cardboard signs.

“Alright” was a song from To Pimp a Butterfly—perhaps its most famous track. It had served as a Black Lives Matter anthem upon its release, during the marches of 2015. The New York Times has described the song as the “unifying soundtrack to BLM protests nationwide”, and numerous commentators including Black American Television (BET) has raised the prospect of this song being the “modern Black National Anthem” due to its iconic status. I had heard it—twenty? Fifty?—times before even being aware of the special position it held in the fight for Black lives. It was only upon hearing the familiar lyrics being chanted by protesters on CNN that it dawned on me that there was more to the song than I had realized.

In the midst of a time of personal soul-searching for me, as I tried to better understand the struggles of a community that I—despite not being a part of it—cared about and wanted to fight for, I decided to revisit To Pimp a Butterfly once more. Sitting in the gray-ish darkness of my balcony at 4 a.m., when the chilled silence of the early dawn liberated the music from the distractions of daily life, I played the album again. Looping the same songs over and over and pausing between tracks, I freed myself of all previous judgement and made an effort to understand what Kendrick Lamar, a child of one of the most dangerous and racially segregated cities in the United States, was trying to tell me.

What the album made me feel, above all, was uncomfortable. Without a doubt, that was Kendrick’s intention exactly.

The album kicks off with “Wesley’s Theory”, a hyper-energetic opening song infused with 70s’ funk sounds and a frenzied blend of frustration, bitterness, and self-reflection. Kendrick raps from the perspective of a young black artist—more than likely drawn from his own experiences—hungry for recognition and reward. He has lost his previous ambitions of representing, supporting, and empowering his hometown of Compton, helping other talented Black youth rise up and lead better lives than their parents did. The aspiration of cultivating a generation of strong, intelligent Black leaders who know what their people are entitled to, has disappeared from Kendrick’s mind in this song—replaced only by visions of money, sex, and material gain. The character Kendrick is playing in this song has been misled and manipulated by commercial interests—label owners, corporations, big brands, all the forces of a capitalistic music industry more interested in financial gain than actually guiding young artists towards reaching their full potential. This is what the “pimp” in To Pimp a Butterfly alludes to: artists being pimped—used, exploited, taken advantage of—by wealthy industry leaders concerned only about year-end revenues, luring Black artists away from supporting their communities by dangling lurid dreams of riches, power, and sex in front of them.

These thematic currents of exploitation, deprivation, and profiteering off Black talent continue into the next track, “For Free (Interlude)”—possibly the most lyrically dense song on the album, breathlessly rapped over a high-intensity jazz instrumental. At first listen, the song seems to center around a contentious romantic relationship on its last legs, featuring a woman levelling accusations at her man of being cheap, poor, irrelevant, and not having enough clout or status to justify his inflated ego. The man, played by Kendrick, responds in a minute-long spoken word poem firing back at such accusations, pointing out that he had toiled and labored all his life to provide a good life for his woman, giving her the best of everything while living off of second-hand items, leftovers, and scraps of food for himself.

Except this song isn’t about an ungrateful woman and her man seeking recognition for his hard work. Looking past the characters and deeper into the lyrics, it becomes clear that this is a conversation between the United States of America—personified as a grossly entitled woman benefitting off of someone else’s labor while putting herself on a pedestal—and the Black community, played by Kendrick as a man being forced to defend himself. Kendrick points out rightfully that though the modern United States would have never evolved into an economic superpower had it not been for the enslavement of African Americans, the Black population has forever been denied the fruits of their labor—receiving only scraps from the nation they helped build: “Oh America, I picked cotton and made you rich…like I never made ends meet, eating your leftovers and raw meat…” The system, plain and simple, is one of exploitation. Similar sentiments have been detailed by public intellectual Noam Chomsky in a popular op-ed for The New York Times: “The America that ‘Black people have always known’ is not an attractive one. The first black slaves were brought to the colonies 400 years ago…We also cannot allow ourselves to forget that the hideous slave labor camps of the new ‘empire of liberty’ were a primary source for the wealth and privilege of American society.”

A change in tone emerges further down the album, however, as Kendrick moves away from defeat, distress, and desolation, and more towards hope. This is most luminously illustrated in the song “Alright”, perhaps the centrepiece of To Pimp a Butterfly—certainly its most popular and recognizable song, at the very least. “Alright” changes gears from the darkness of the previous songs and adopts a more positive, optimistic, and comforting tone, assuring listeners that despite all the hardship, discrimination, and institutionalized prejudice the Black community faces, in the end everything will be alright:

[Wouldn’t you know
We been hurt, been down before
When our pride was low
Lookin’ at the world like, “Where do we go?”
N***a, and we hate po-po
Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’
N***a, I’m at the preacher’s door
My knees gettin’ weak, and my gun might blow
But we gon’ be alright]

In this hook to the song, Kendrick touches on issues of police brutality, racial bias, and the constant undermining of the Black identity in a society that associates Blackness with evil, criminality, violence, poverty, and ugliness. Yet in the end, he promises his audience, in spite of all such matters facing his community, that things will work out.

It’s easy to see how this message of hope and progress resonated powerfully in the mid-2010s, a time of renewed Black activism in the wake of a string of deaths resulting from police violence and abuse. The Black Lives Matter movement adopted “Alright” as its anthem, and Kendrick’s lyrics became a rallying cry nationwide. In February of 2015, Kendrick performed “Alright” on top a police car to emphasize the song’s harsh condemnation of racially charged violence and brutality by the police force.

Though the performance has since become iconic and a powerful visualization of the song, several right-wing and anti-BLM commentators pounced on Kendrick, claiming he was disrespecting police officers and only inspiring more destruction. Particularly notorious among such commentators was Fox News host Geraldo Rivera, who said, “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years. This is exactly the wrong message.” In other words—as Rivera and likely much of his right-wing fanbase believed—rap music is more harmful to young Black Americans than the system of racial injustice, prejudice, and inequality that had handicapped their community for centuries. Sure, Fox News is generally known for catering to a very white, old, and conservative audience, but such a remark was on an entirely different level of blind ignorance and tone-deafness.

Kendrick responded to such comments during an interview later that year, essentially condemning those like Rivera who turned a blind eye to the issues at hand and instead pushed blame onto a scapegoat like hip-hop: “… the senseless acts of killings of these young boys out there…This is reality, this is my world, this is what I talk about in my music. You can’t delude that. Hip-hop is not the problem. Our reality is the problem of the situation. This is our music. This is us expressing ourselves.” Kendrick would also use an audio sample of Rivera’s comment in his next album, DAMN., released in 2017 and going on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 2018: the first ever rap album to be awarded the highly prestigious title.

There are numerous other songs on To Pimp a Butterfly that expand the album’s scope of conversation and the varied topics it covers, adding to its legacy and importance to the Black community. The track “Complexion” delves into the matter of colorism and the negative associations surrounding darker skin tones—not just by White people, but within the Black community as well. Themes of mental health and self-confidence emerge powerfully in the song “i”, in which Kendrick discusses his own failed suicide attempts, struggles with depression, and the anxiety that stems from being surrounded by violence and death in a city as dangerous as Compton.

The standout track “How Much a Dollar Cost” was named by Barack Obama as his favorite song of the year. In the song’s narrative, Kendrick is approached by a homeless man who asks him for a single dollar, only for Kendrick to refuse. The track explores the importance of a single U.S. dollar bill and what it represents to people from differing circumstances, as well as the materialism, greed, and selfishness that Kendrick believes is quick to overtake even the most generous among us. Other songs, too—“Institutionalized”, “These Walls”, “The Blacker the Berry”, “Hood Politics”, “Mortal Man”, and more—solidify the album’s position as one of the most complex, masterfully written, and daringly political pieces of music in hip-hop history.

Just a year ago, I would’ve said it was clichéd and cringe-worthy to say “To Pimp a Butterfly is more than an album; it’s an experience.” Yet perhaps nothing better could describe the journey Kendrick Lamar takes us on through 16 songs and 78 minutes. The story he tells is not just his own—it rings true for millions upon millions of Black Americans grappling with finding a sense of belonging, despite being met with hostility, skepticism, judgement, and lingering reminders of their nation’s history of systematically subjugating their people. There is a reason Kendrick Lamar has emerged as a sort of modern-day poet and political messiah for his community—he manages to weave his own experiences into universal tales of suffering, progress, and enlightenment. And all the while, he refuses to compromise on his integrity as an artist or sacrifice complex, thoughtful lyricism in exchange for being easier to listen to. This is not an album intended for parties or casual listens, as I had realized the hard way, but a piece of music that demands to be carefully considered, analysed, and listened to with an open, attentive mind.

From the exploitation of Black artists, to growing up in a city known as a violence capital of America, to failed suicide attempts, the stories being told in To Pimp a Butterfly—deftly communicated through brilliant lyricism, unforgettable production, and true heart and soul from Kendrick, a man who is thoroughly and abundantly authentic above all—will forever be immortalized in the history of popular music.

Adeeb Chowdhury is an aspiring lawyer and the leader of multiple social justice foundations in his city of Chittagong. He is currently studying Political Science at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh.

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