Widgets Magazine
The new Kendrick Lamar: His world and his message
(Courtesy of Kim Metso, Creative Commons)

The new Kendrick Lamar: His world and his message

Kendrick Lamar’s gift is transforming the personal into the universal. If his recent release, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” tells us one thing, it’s that his universe is expanding. Lamar’s reach has grown with his celebrity and success, and while “Butterfly” loudly touches on issues bigger than him, bigger than Compton and bigger than rap, it does so entirely through his eyes. In the context of his young body of work, this album is more a departure than a follow-up, a step toward transcendence for hip-hop’s conflicted king.

This isn’t the same straightforward storytelling we heard on his 2012 major label debut “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” but his new narratives still overflow with intimacy. While “good kid” explored insular episodes of his teenage days, the new Lamar — shaped by fame and fortune — calls for a new story. If “good kid” was Lamar’s memoir, “Butterfly” is his manic manifesto, and he’s filled the margins with instrumentals, sketches and poetry to make his point clear. Nothing is left untouched: themes of self-doubt, power, race, struggle and resilience pervade his lyrics.

In an already loaded album — 16 tracks spanning 80 minutes, with contributions from stars like funk icon George Clinton and producer Flying Lotus — there’s much more than meets the eye. There’s so much beat switching and pattern breaking that the first listen can be a bit disorienting. You have to wonder if Lamar couldn’t have stretched the material into two records and indulged his fans a little more — some of his ideas seem too short-lived, limited by his own ambition to pack as much as possible into each track.

Lamar's eagerly anticipated release surprised many fans with a new sound. (KIM METSO/Creative Commons)

Lamar’s eagerly anticipated release surprised many fans with a radically new sound. (KIM METSO/Creative Commons)

But that’s what’s admirable about “Butterfly.” A second incarnation of “good kid” would have made millions, dominated the airwaves and been bumping in every club in America for years to come. Instead we got a complex mix of styles and stories that will take lots of close listening to fully digest. We got a bold evolution — and elevation — of Lamar’s art.

Now onto the tough stuff. What does it all mean? I still haven’t totally processed the album, and my interpretation should be taken for what it is: a rushed impression from a novice hip-hop head with a musical man-crush on K-dot. But hear me out.

I think it helps to view the entire album through a metaphorical interpretation of the title. Caterpillar, cocoon, butterfly. A story of metamorphosis and identity. From beginning to end, we watch Lamar grow into his fame. He seems to endorse this interpretation with a closing poem on the track “Mortal Man.” The first stanza reads, “The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it / Its only job is to eat or consume everything around it, in order to protect itself from this mad city / While consuming its environment the caterpillar begins to notice ways to survive / One thing it noticed is how much the world shuns him, but praises the butterfly.”

Lamar is the caterpillar, prisoner to the conditions he was born into. Son of a former gangbanger in Compton, many of his childhood friends dead or drugged out, Lamar is a product of the ghetto. His heroes are musicians, the ones who escaped. He too worked his way out with art — consuming and commercializing his memories in the form of music, building a cocoon of celebrity and isolation as he escaped the streets, emerging as a bona fide star — but he still maintains his roots. That’s clear on the album cover, which features a band of shirtless black men and boys wielding stacks of cash and forties on the White House lawn — the ghetto on Pennsylvania Avenue. He’s risen to the top of the rap game, arguably to the top of pop culture, and he’s brought his whole life with him, demons and dreams alike.

But his rise hasn’t been totally dreamlike. Now that he has influence, Lamar is wary about how he’s using it: He wants to address issues of race and resilience but doesn’t know how. Throughout the album, Lamar’s message is riddled by self-doubt. In the closing track “Mortal Man,” Lamar laments, “I remember you was conflicted / Misusing your influence / Sometimes I did the same,” and it soon becomes clear that he’s addressing these concerns to none other than 2Pac, the late West Coast rapper who’s been idolized by countless emcees, Lamar included.

Lamar’s beliefs are complicated, informed by his experiences with fame and without. To close the album he samples a 1994 interview with ‘Pac, staging a conversation between idol and successor. At one point he asks his hero how he balanced sanity and success. ‘Pac responds, “By my faith in God, by my faith in the game and by my faith in all good things come to those that stay true.” In the end it’s clear that Lamar’s message in “Butterfly” is simply his truth, shaped by his beliefs and biography. So don’t fool yourself by thinking Lamar has the answers. The best he can do is follow ‘Pac’s advice by keeping it real and staying true to himself. The best we can do is listen.

Contact Benjamin Sorensen at bcsoren ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Benjamin Sorensen

Benjamin Sorensen covers jazz for the Arts & Life section of the Stanford Daily. He is a junior from Stanford, California studying political science with interests in Chinese and music. He enjoys playing guitar, talking about music, and wishing he could sing. Contact him at bcsoren ‘at’ stanford.edu.
  • Not_Friendly

    Good interpretation of the album