On March 16, Kendrick Lamar dropped his new album To Pimp a Butterfly a week early. The album was an instant success, shattering Spotify’s streaming records set only a few weeks earlier by Drake’s If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late. Despite its success, Lamar’s new album is much less accessible than his 2012 album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. To Pimp a Butterfly sees Lamar shifting gears, working with producers such as Thundercat and Flying Lotus to make instrumentals that resemble old-school boom bap and jazz rap with a modern twist. To Pimp a Butterfly’s production is impeccable, but Lamar’s lyrics are even better. At the end or beginning of almost every song, Lamar performs part of a poem that he composed. With each song, Lamar makes it further and further into the poem, finally performing the entire work at the end of the album. The poem serves as a summary of the array of issues Lamar addresses on the album -- issues such as race relations, depression, fame, and self-respect.
The contrasting songs “u” and “i” examine the two sides of Lamar’s self-esteem. “u,” sees Lamar confronting his failures. Lamar talks to himself in a twisted monologue, expressing his guilt that he has preached to so many people but failed his own brother and sister. Lamar is frustrated by his brokenness, realizing that he is not even trying to be good, and struggling with whether or not God thinks he is a failure. As the album continues, we hear Lamar gain self confidence. This newfound confidence culminates in the track “i.” Lamar talks about self-love, stating that he finds his confidence in the fact that he was “illuminated by the hand of God.”
Lamar speaks about the racial tensions that have overtaken America in the song “The Blacker the Berry.” Lamar spends most of the song protesting injustices that whites have perpetrated against blacks, but he begins every verse of the song with the phrase, “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015.” At the end of the song, Lamar clarifies his hypocrisy, rapping, “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? When gang banging make me kill a n*&¢% blacker than me? Hypocrite!” Lamar condemns blacks as well as whites for committing violence against blacks, calling both groups to reform their actions.
Perhaps the most powerful song on the album is “How Much a Dollar Cost.” This song deals with Lamar’s encounter with a homeless man begging him for money to buy food. When the old man asks Lamar for money, Lamar wrestles with whether or not he should give it to him because he assumes the man will spend it on drugs or alcohol despite the man’s assurances that he just wants a meal. After an intense inner battle, Lamar decides not to give the man money. In the last verse of the song the man states, “Know the truth, it'll set you free. You're lookin' at the Messiah… I'll tell you just how much a dollar cost, the price of having a spot in heaven, embrace your loss, I am God.” The song is a retelling of the parable of the sheep and the goats in a modern day setting. Lamar recognizes that serving"the least of these" is helping Christ himself.
Kendrick Lamar has been blatantly Christian in his music throughout his career. Good Kid M.A.A.D. City started with a young Lamar and his friends praying the sinner's prayer, and on the next song on the album, Lamar sings “I am a sinner who’s probably gonna sin again. Lord forgive me.” His 2009 song “Faith” talks about Lamar’s acceptance of the fact that God is still present during the murder of his friend. On the song "Jesus Saves," Lamar thanks God for pulling him out of the violence and destruction of Compton and continuing to bless him.
Lamar has been open with his religious views in interviews as well. In a recent interview with Billboard, Lamar stated that he believes that God’s providence is the only reason he is famous. In an earlier interview with Complex Lamar stated, “God put something in my heart to get across and that’s what I’m going to focus on, using my voice as an instrument and doing what needs to be done.”
While Lamar’s faith is instrumental in his work, he makes a careful attempt not to sound preachy. Most of his music uses stories to prove a point. Because of this, Lamar avoids alienating the part of his fan base that disagrees with his religious views.
Lamar grew up in Compton, California, one of the most violent cities in America, known for its Crips vs. Bloods violence -- in one of his songs, Lamar talks about hearing gunfire every time he goes outside. Lamar grew up around profanity; because of this, his music includes profanity. Lamar’s songs are autobiographical; they take listeners inside of his past and inside of his head. The songs are parables, Lamar provides insights on everything from relationships to race through the stories he tells. The reason that To Pimp a Butterfly is so powerful is that it contains truths. The truths Lamar teaches are not always pleasant, but making feel-good music is not his purpose. Because of this, Lamar’s music can be tough to enjoy, but digging in to To Pimp a Butterfly is a rewarding experience.