Flying free from systemic opression By Felipe Magallanes

"To Pimp a Butterfly" Cover

Polarizing rapper, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, on his sophomore album “To Pimp a Butterfly”, shares the story of his rise to the top of the rap game and the negative effects that come from such grandeur status. Soon after reaching new heights, Lamar falls into a depression that comes from feeling disconnected to his Compton roots. He is saved with the realization that he can pimp his celebrity to help his community, lifting him out of his depression. Throughout the album, Lamar takes us through the metamorphoses he endures following his ascension to the upper echelon of the rap industry. In his meteoric rise, Lamar losses sight of himself and struggles to use his newfound success to improve his gang run, drug infested community of Compton, SoCal. In his search for ways to help his city, an identity crisis settles deep within him due to what he describes as “survivor’s guilt”. His musical talents allowed him to escape Compton’s grim setting, but the problems that plagued his city remained. His friends were not allowed the privilege of getting to leave Compton and the lifestyle that comes with it. Lamar acknowledges this predicament, but being unsure of how to put his new found success to good use casts him into a “deep depression”. Contemplating suicide, he closes himself off in his own cocoon, not yet able to fly free of the guilt from acquiring such success, with his people back home continuing to be killed in the streets. Consuming the album wholly reveals the message of peace that Kendrick is pushing through “To Pimp a Butterfly” . The entire album could be thought as Lamar’s personal memoir, with each song a new chapter, differing tonally, ranging from anxious to depressing to appreciative, but with the overall tone of the album converging to the something that resembles hope.

It is unknown if the album is politically motivated. Lamar’s intentions are to create music that affect his listeners in a positive way. The album tells the story of Lamar leaving Compton to pursue riches, but returning with knowledge to uplift his community. The political discourse that it incites are indirect consequences. Lamar is not one to shy away from sharing his political opinion. He does believe in institutionalized racism and the systemic oppression that suppresses inner city kids from achieving stability. He is against police brutality, but also acknowledges that black-on-black crime is something that needs to be addressed before any significant change occurs.

Lamar performing at the 56th annual Grammy's

However, with his unique perspective as a Compton success story, he understands that in order for the real issues that affect the black community to be fixed, his community must first come together. The album sends a message of unity. In order for his community to be taken seriously, its members need to stop killing themselves in the street. However, Lamar understands that the turmoil in the black community is a consequence of the systemic oppression they face. Lamar also understands that his people will remain to be ignored and blamed for the systemic problems that they inherited, if the gang violence never stops and they don’t unite. Embracing each other as members of an underprivileged community is powerful, and can prompt the changes in the country they deserve.

Lamar visiting his High School in Compton, Ca

As his sophomore studio album, following the success of 2012’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city”, Lamar’s label expected the album to be extremely profitable, feature a few banger entries, and satisfy fan’s sky high expectations. Kendrick took a narrative approach to the album, with each song adding story to the overall arch. The genius behind his method is that each song stands on its own, with each packing raw emotion and Lamar’s most personal self-reflections. Some are songs are not meant to be listened to blissfully. Some are meant to incite anger and anxiety (“u”, “The Blacker The Berry”, “Institutionalized”). However, when the album is taken as a whole, it is evident that the lyrics and instrumentals were methodically chosen by Lamar for a specific purpose; to excite change.

Kendrick never comes across as preachy in his remarks, and that has to do with where he comes from. His “street cred” comes from the fact that he grew up in Compton, and the wisdom he shares is perceived as valuable because of the perspectives he found from his success. The album converges on the idea that in order for change on a macro scale to take place, it first needs to start from within. Lamar believes that in order for the black community to be able to fight systemic oppression and for groups like “Black Lives Matter” to be taken seriously, they need to stop killing themselves on the street and love one another first. Only then can the butterfly be free. In “To Pimp a Butterfly”, Lamar starts as an encapsulated caterpillar and is transformed into a wise and free butterfly, capable of lifting his community from the gloom they find themselves in. The transformation is slow, and occurs over the length of the album. Being born and raised in Compton, Lamar learns to survive the city by succumbing to its immoral demands. On “Mortal Man”, Lamar 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”. Growing up in such an underprivileged community deprived Lamar of opportunity to succeed. His musical abilities returned him the possibility of success. As a Compton native, Lamar had an abundance of content to rap about. He witnessed shootings, robberies, drug deals, and death in his circle of friends. Ironically, Lamar found success in rapping about these negative experiences, giving him the opportunity to leave.

"King Kunta"

"King Kunta", the third track on the album, Lamar is at his most brash self. The song title is a reference to Kunta Kinte, the fictional slave the book “Roots:The Saga of an American Family” is about. However, in the context of the song, Lamar creates the oxymoron of giving the title of “King” to an oppressed slave. The dichotomy Lamar creates is meant to remind his listeners he is the “King” of the rap industry, while also guilty of being black. Although he is no longer living in the projects, he is still subject to be oppressed as an African-American man. His musical talent ascended him to the hip hop’s throne, but it didn’t take away his Compton roots or the institutionalized racism he faces as a black man.

Shot in Compton, California

The setting of the song is familiar to Lamar’s fans living in the inner city. It doesn’t take place in an expensive mansion, doesn’t feature expensive sports cars, or other items that Lamar’s Compton following might be unfamiliar with. Instead, it is filmed in his very own hometown. He is home. Lamar’s lyrics can come across as bombastic, but with the additional context the video provides, it is evident that Lamar wants to come across as a man for the people. The video features people coming together and dancing to the funky beat. Lamar is appealing to the intended audience the album is for; the Compton community he left behind. “To Pimp A Butterfly” is not an apology for Lamar leaving Compton, but rather, the vessel through which he hopes to bring his people together in hope to achieve the change they all desire. In order for any of that to take place though, his people need to relate to him and see him as one of their own. Only after Lamar gains this credibility, can his message be taken for truth.

The song begins with a colorful funky beat that informs the listener to get ready, for they are about to enjoy an abrasive anthem. In his opening lyrics, Lamar confidently declares himself to be the king of rap in a way that could be described as cliché for the genre. It has become commonplace for aspiring rappers (or any artists) to express that they are the best at what they do. However, after the chorus, Lamar appeals to his perspicacious listeners by introducing the symbol of the “yam”. In the context of the song, “yams” represent power, success, money, and status. Lamar differentiates himself from his contemporaries by displaying an understanding for how, in attempting to obtain the yams, one can become corrupted. Lamar uses Bill Clinton and Richard Pryor as examples of people that lost their footing after harvesting their “yams”. Lamar only touches upon the power of the yams before driving forward the message that no other rapper is at his level, which is followed by a lingering outro that sums up what Lamar’s fans want from him. “We want the funk” is repeatedly sung on the outro, sounding as a request Lamar’s fans desire for his music to deliver. “King Kunta” definitely appeals to these requests.

However, in the last lines of the song, we are introduced to the album’s main narrative. Throughout the album, it is built upon with each song. In the last lines, Lamar says in a soft tone “I remember you was conflicted. Misusing your influence”. These last two lines completely change the meaning of the song. Lamar is not in the same place as he was while cruising down Melrose in his Cadillac. Rather, he is looking back at the time he thought he was on top, with what can be implied as guilt for “misusing his influence”. Although, as the album continues to shed more light on where Lamar currently is, the poetic couplet establishes one of the central conflicts on the album, which is Lamar struggling to make the best of his grand “influence”. By having those lines at the end of the song, Lamar foreshadows where the story will take us next.


King Kunta is presented in the beginning of the album, before the main story is even introduced so Lamar can be seen at his apex. It is from his highest point that Lamar sinks to his lowest and most destructive self. “U” and “King Kunta” are only separated by two tracks in the album, but the two records could not contrast more thematically, lyrically, and sonically. The conclusion of “King Kunta” changes the dynamic of the song. Lamar is no longer enjoying the wealth that comes with being a king, but rather, is contemplating solemnly whether how he should appropriately use his “influence”. In “u”, Lamar’s inquiry at the end of “King Kunta” has been exasperated into self- hatred. The track harbors intimacy that can be appreciated, but uncomfortable to listen to with its delivery. To listen to such a track feels almost intrusive. Kendrick begins the song with frightening screams followed by eerie Jazz. The intro is meant to emphatically throw the listener into Lamar’s mind. It sets the tone for the song and reflects what Lamar is going through to great effect.

Lamar’s mind, filled with angst and battling power struggles, falls into a deep depression. In the song, he attempts drink away the realization that he has failed to use his grand status to better the lives of the Compton family he left behind. This is Lamar at his most destructive self, desperate to find purpose or peace. Lamar wanted to be seen in this way as a way to express his sincerity, showing his listeners how much helping out his community means to him. When he realized he was "misusing his influence", it caused him to enter a deep depression.

(watch from :39 to 2:17)


“i” is the second to last track on “To Pimp a Butterfly”. “King Kunta” and “i” contrast “u”, but “i” and “King Kunta” do not share the same positive tone. Whereas in “King Kunta” Lamar declares himself as the king of rap, in “i”, the announcer is the one making that declaration. In “i”, Lamar doesn’t come across with the same bombastic rhetoric as in “King Kunta”. “i” is not a proclamation on his part advocating that he is the best. It is not the dark and intimate self-loathing of “u”. The hook of the song gives all the meaning to the song. It simply repeats “I love myself”. The uplifting lyrics is matched by an instrumental full of color that gives the impression Lamar is genuinely joyous. That vibe is accomplished in large part to its fast pace and rock inspired demeanor. Lamar is having fun, feeling fulfilled with his act of sharing a message of self-love.

By the time the album gets to “i”, Lamar has completed his metamorphoses, beating depression by learning that he must pimp his celebrity to help his community emerge from the shadows cast upon the slave mindset they have been indoctrinated with. In his new rise to the top of the rap game, Lamar has defeated his tribulations and he emerges with wisdom that he is ready to share through song. Through his music, Lamar can inspire his community to unite. The next step is then to fly as freely as only a butterfly can.

We find Lamar enclosed in his cocoon in “u”, where Lamar is alone, locked in a hotel room hoping to kill his demons by drowning them in alcohol. Lamar is able to break free from his cocoon by realizing he can pimp his celebrity to inspire his community to love each other. Lamar created "To Pimp a Butterfly" as the way to give his community the wisdom they need to emerge from their own cocoons. He makes it his goal to free his people. Only after he has shared his knowledge can his wings develop, giving him the freedom to fly at peace. The survivor’s guilt fades because he returned to save his city.

Kendrick is a free butterfly

Rapping about his Compton upbringing brought Lamar success and allowed him to escape. He thanks the city by spreading a message of self-love. Lamar is now pimping his rapping abilities for something good, giving his people the wisdom they need in order to fix the systemic issues that they inherited. They are now able to break from their cocoons and fly freely.

Works Cited

Homes, Martin. "Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp A Butterfly Explained." N.p., 17 Mar. 2015. Web. 2 Apr. 2017. <>.

Bassil, Ryan. "The Narrative Guide to Kendrick Lamar’s 'To Pimp a Butterfly'" N.p., 5 Mar. 2015. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

Lamar, Kendrick. To Pimp a Butterfly. Rec. 15 Mar. 2015. Top Dawg Entertainment / Aftermath Records / Interscope Records, 2015. CD

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