The year is 2015. President Obama’s second term is wrapping up. The shooting of Michael Brown and violent clashes between protestors and police remain fresh in the minds of the public. The future of race relations in America is uncertain. Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” reflected the misunderstanding and frustration of that era. Today, his words remain as relevant as ever in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.
The genius of “To Pimp a Butterfly” is clear even before the first drumbeat. The title itself is a metaphor for society’s “pimping” of young black men for their artistic talent — the butterfly — while simultaneously driving them towards materialistic self-destruction. Lamar wishes to explore what perpetuates such exploitative alienation.
Here, Lamar is never preaching to his audience. All of the tracks on the album — dealing with issues as vast and intricate as identity, race and commercialism and as individualized as failure, imperfection and legacy — root themselves in Kendrick’s brilliant ability to weave stories for the listener. Songs like “How Much a Dollar Cost” draw the listener into another world with the descriptive ability of a spoken-word poet while “The Blacker the Berry” minces no words in both its celebration of Black culture and its confrontation with systemic racism in American society. The album’s jazzy beats, poetic lyrics, interwoven story and ever-relevant themes — all coupled with the masterful skill of Lamar supplemented by knockout features ranging from George Clinton to Snoop Dog — shine through in each track.
“To Pimp a Butterfly” is not only one of the greatest rap albums of all time, but easily one of the best works of art from the last decade. It’s a must-listen for any self-proclaimed music buff, or simply anyone wishing to perceive American society from a different lens.