Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album “To Pimp A Butterfly” turned six on March 15, and it’s remarkable how prevalent and topical it feels even after all these years.
While this album is currently regarded as a classic and is considered to be one of the best rap albums of all time, “To Pimp A Butterfly” deserves a re-examination of its themes and how its message is still relevant to society today.
The first song of the album, “Wesley’s Theory,” transforms the story of Wesley Snipes, a Black movie star who got arrested for tax fraud, into a parable about the pitfalls that Black artists find themselves trapped under.
Throughout the music industry, contracts use coded language to give record labels the lion’s share of an artist’s profit, which prevents the artist from ever seeing most of their money. Black artists who grew up in an institutionalized environment typically sign an advance and are told to spend their money frivolously, which is only expanded by the image most rappers feel as though they have to maintain through expensive cars and jewelry.
Additionally, bad record deals force artists to sell the rights to their own masters, which means that most artists who release music on major labels do not own their music. This greatly restricts their creative freedom and prevents Black artists from creating generational wealth for themselves and their families.
“You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” focuses on the negative pressure that comes with acting a certain way to impress people, and this sentiment is expressed in the negative attention that comes with lying for respect or personal gain.
Lamar raps, “And the world don’t respect you/And the culture don’t accept you/But you think it’s all love/And the girls’ gon neglect you once your parody is done.”
Most people believe if they act a certain way, they’ll be accepted by the ones around them. Lamar argues that the type of pandering only makes you less of an asset and he relates it specifically to Black artists who return to their neighborhood looking for respect or admiration from their peers.
“Alright” provides a moment of hope among the album’s layered messaging. By putting his faith in God, Lamar embraces the strength of a higher power in order to provide an outlet for escaping his troubles. This song became the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement, and its greatest strength comes in how it expresses Black trauma with a hopeful and defiant tone, instead of commodifying its suffering.
Black pain is primarily used as a marketing strategy instead of a valued emotion. And since Black youth are constantly dealing with the emotional effects of stereotypes and racial trauma, faith provides an outlet to these issues that strays away from violence and the temptations of our environment.
When Lamar raps, “Wouldn’t you know/We been hurt, been down before,” it reinforces the effects of police shootings and racial profiling in America. These police shootings have become a continuous and unchanging aspect of America’s identity, but the fact that Black trauma is inherently tied to America’s identity continues to have lasting effects on the Black population.
“To Pimp A Butterfly” explores themes that are consistently being discussed in today’s society. The themes Lamar tackles and his method of presenting his ideas transcend the songs themselves, and his message continues to be relevant and important six years after its release.
Beyond a great sounding chord progression or a stellar verse, Lamar’s lyricism and subject matter elevates this album to receive the praise it rightfully deserves.
As long as Black people continue to be marginalized and disenfranchised by the country they call their home, the messaging and sentiment of “To Pimp A Butterfly” will remain timeless and unique.