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"Do you pray at all?"
It may as well have come in all caps, the way it landed like an accusation instead of a question. It wasn't the first time I'd received a text from my mother dripping with good ole Christian guilt. The only sin greater than letting God down is allowing your parents to find out your faith walk is no longer patterned after their footsteps.
Her text wasn't about Kendrick Lamar's album, DAMN., per se, but without knowing it she'd just triggered an existential debate I'd been having with myself since its April release. I was in the middle of laying down some definitive thoughts about the LP when the realization hit me. Just like her nagging text, the Compton MC had spent the better half of a year forcing me to reckon with my doubts about the wrath of God.
I've developed a love-hate relationship with DAMN. In some ways I suspect this is the response Lamar set out to provoke. I imagine I'm not alone. In order to have your LP debut at the top of the Billboard 200 chart — then remain in the top 10 for more than 25 consecutive weeks, while racking up double-platinum sales and seven Grammy nominations to boot — all of God's children, or a close approximation, must be listening hard.
Between its chart-topping success and cultural dominance, DAMN. is easily the most celebrated album of the year. It snatched the top spot on NPR Music's list of the best albums of the year by a long shot. It's clearly made for such a time as this — one in which politics and personal accountability are colliding with unprecedented force. The question is whether or not we're grappling with DAMN. — and being convicted by it — like Lamar no doubt intended.
This is an album that requires much of faithful listeners. It suggests even more about his relationship with his audience, and the ways in which he envisions himself as a prophet more than a pop star. Like a lot of fans, I've found myself meditating over DAMN.'s verses like scripture, dissecting the text forward and backward in search of holy discernment. Lord knows I'm no biblical scholar. Hell, I can't remember the last time I set foot inside a church. (Trust, my mother reminds me of this often.) But Lamar's magnanimous LP has me wrestling with the nature of my supposed cursed existence as a black man in the bowels of Babylon — and the ways in which I may be complicit in it.
Like Ta-Nehisi Coates laying out America's legacy of racial plunder with an atheist's realism, Lamar's faith walk is no cake walk. It often borders on the fatalistic. His futility is echoed across a present-day hip-hop landscape awash in suicide ballads, drug abuse and mental health issues. Steeped in the black prophetic tradition, Lamar is less interested in the glory to come in the sweet by and by. He's also no prosperity pimp, pushing a gospel of good-and-plenty in the here and now. Rather, it's God's judgement, and our collective failings, with which he's most concerned.
Yet, for all the religious overtones in which the Compton native shrouds his fourth studio album, the real revelation of DAMN. is that faith no longer feels adequate enough to sustain America's masquerade. And when a country tosses its moral compass aside, all hell tends to break loose.
What good is a prophet, anyway, unless he's come to level total condemnation?
"As I lead this army, make room for mistakes and depression."
— Kendrick Lamar, "Mortal Man"
The Old Testament is full of prophets trying their damnedest to save the world. More often than not, the first obstacle they must overcome is self: self-doubt, self-loathing, even their personal aversion to self-sacrifice. Moses the deliverer was a murderer with a speech impediment. Noah the ark-builder was a documented drunk. Elijah the resurrector was straight-up suicidal. All were broken vessels, but vessels for their God, nonetheless. Then there was Jeremiah. He suffered depression so badly — likely from carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders — that students of the Bible refer to him as the weeping prophet.
I've recently taken to calling him something else: the patron saint of Kendrick Lamar Duckworth.
Like Kendrick, Jeremiah was pretty prolific in his time. He penned the longest book in the Old Testament, Jeremiah, as well as Kings and Lamentations. Think of them as his three major-label studio LPs, the same number contained in Lamar's TDE/Aftermath/Interscope discography. His most personal LP, Good Kid, M.A.A.D.City most easily aligns with Jeremiah's self-titled accounting, while his follow-up and most political album, To Pimp A Butterfly, might be seen as his Book of Kings — Jeremiah's 400-year history of the upheaval of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
But DAMN. is Lamar's Lamentations, bleak in tone and temperament, long on suffering and short on hope.
To get a sense of where Lamar is coming from on DAMN., it helps to rewind his previous studio masterpiece, 2015's To Pimp A Butterfly. Juxtapose the cover art of TPAB and DAMN. and the contrast is stark. The former is a jubilant image with Lamar surrounded by his boys from the hood as they stand on the front lawn of the White House, just outside its gates, like shirtless conquerors bearing ravenous grins and fist fulls of cash. It's a portrait of the American Dream, extended to "the least of these," in the Age of Obama. The latter, released just months into Donald Trump's presidency, features a close-up of Lamar alone in a white tee, looking defeated, depressed, possessed. His eyes are hollow and soulless; he resembles a demon with hellish intent.
Our image of prophets today is warped by history. Consider the realities they lived and the messages they espoused in ancient times: They did not bring hope and redemption. They preached apocalyptic visions, full of fire and brimstone, meant to turn the people away from ungodliness. They did not come to praise or worship, but to destroy and rebuild. With a sense of duty that compelled them to speak truth to power, they faced frequent persecution, imprisonment, even death. Prophets rarely won popularity contests, at least not without being beheaded for it later.
Lamar agonized over his own metaphoric beheading in the 12-minute opus "Mortal Man" that concluded To Pimp A Butterfly. It wound up foreshadowing the direction of DAMN., an album that finds his head swollen with temptation and righteous indignation as he calls out false prophets, fights the pull of false gods and holds up a mirror to X-rated America. Mostly, he's fighting a battle within.
That an album as unlikely as this epic conceptual narrative, steeped in Old Testament theology, has emerged as the year's centerpiece speaks to the seemingly troubled state in which we find ourselves. By making a choose-your-own adventure album, with faith and fate hanging in the balance, Kendrick's offered us a way out. It's a morality tale, to be sure, but one in which he grants his listeners free will to determine our own destiny.
"Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide," producer and DAMN. contributor Bekon sings in a ghostly voice at the album's outset. "Are we gonna live or die?"
Like the prophets of old, Lamar uses a range of rhetorical devices to convey the urgency of his message. His lessons come steeped in allegory, hyperbole and metaphor. Above all, he uses himself. Just as Jeremiah once bore the yoke of an ox in public to illustrate the impending yoke that God would allow Babylon to place on his chosen people, Lamar spends the majority of the album alternating between protagonist and antagonist in a psychodrama of his own undoing.
The Old Testament is packed with stories of God's chosen people cyclically falling out of favor with the Lord, only to be defeated by their enemies, thrown into slavery and forced to worship foreign gods as divine retribution. It's a narrative that bears more in common with the Transatlantic Slave Trade than coincidence.
For too many centuries in this country, black Americans couldn't afford to harbor doubt. When the powers that be are whip crackers, a relationship with a higher power is not optional. It's bare necessity. Like an old patch quilt, Christianity got handed down from one generation to the next. If it was good enough to get your great-great grandparents through slavery, it was good enough for you. And so the logic went, even though our ancestors were legally prohibited from learning to read the biblical text white evangelicals used to justify their enslavement.
Kendrick Lamar's focus on God's heavy-handed judgement comes straight out of that same biblical bag historically used to oppress African-Americans on these shores. Which begs the question, what does it mean when your liberation tool, the key to your spiritual redemption, is the same tool your oppressors wielded to marginalize you for hundreds of years?
It's a trick bag, no doubt, one that black America has wrestled with since pre-emancipation. Even as the black church became the primary site for progressive political leadership in the late-19th and 20th centuries, we found ourselves othered and outcasted within the scope of our own theological worldview. More than anything, it highlights the absence of a westernized framework, or cosmology, to center the black experience. So we learned to adopt and adapt, taking old models and reclaiming them as our own.
Herein lies the appeal of the Hebrew Israelites, the black nationality Lamar lyrically aligns himself with on DAMN. "I'm an Israelite / Don't call me black no mo' / That word is only a color / It ain't fact no mo'," he raps on "YAH." — a double-entendre of an exultation meant to simultaneously evoke Yahweh, the ancient Hebrew name of God. Dating as far back as the early 1900s, the Hebrew Israelites have proclaimed themselves direct descendants of the 10 lost tribes of ancient Israel. "We are a cursed people," Lamar's cousin, Carl Duckworth, says on the album via voicemail. "Until you come back to these commandments ... we're gonna be under this curse because He said He's gonna punish us — the so-called blacks, Hispanics and Native American Indians are the true children of Israel."
Like Black Liberation Theology before it — which rejected the image of a white European Jesus and remodeled Christianity under a black power rubric — Hebrew Israelites center black folks within the biblical lineage. But, ironically, being God's chosen people in this context also means being cursed, which puts African-Americans back in the same position where the old Christian enslavers once relegated us.
When it comes to the Judeo-Christian tradition, black folks are literally damned if we do and damned if we don't.
It's part of what makes listening to DAMN. a somewhat agonizing, if enlightening, experience: Are we damned by our existence in America? Or are we damned by our reliance on a theology that paints us a cursed people? Is it the inherent wickedness of America's racialized politics or our weakness as a people that we must overcome? Or is our faith predicated on a false binary that only feels like free will while leaving us judged by our nation and cursed by our God?
While Lamar makes clear that he's "not 'bout a religion" on "YAH.," his conceptualization of God reflects a western dichotomy that prizes good over evil. What if the very thing he's relying on for salvation is the thing that's killing him?
More than anything, I hear him searching throughout this album for answers. Maybe he realizes the faith he's been armed with is inadequate to quell his fatalistic urges. Like the protoypical Old Testament prophet, he's a tortured soul. When he wails out, "Ain't nobody praying for me," he sounds like a modern-day Jeremiah, pleading on behalf of his people, "Is there no balm in Gilead?"
If suffering for the sake of our sins is Lamar's cross to bear, then the personal truly is political. In that, he's not alone. Whether your beliefs are being assailed or your very being, we live in a time of increased domestic extremism, with many paying the back taxes on America's transgressions. Like the mythological Garden of Eden, the origins of our nation are wrought in a self-deception so deep that strange fruit, it seems, is our destiny to bear.
Interpreting an artist's intentions is always a tricky thing. But I don't think Kendrick's hung himself out to dry for his sake alone. He's dying for us to grapple with DAMN., in the same gut-wrenching way he has.
The best exegeses of DAMN. have come not from elite publications with access to Lamar, but from hip-hop blogs with dedicated writers obsessive enough to keep turning the album over in their heads — figuratively and literally.
Two weeks after the LP dropped, Lamar penned a response to an essay written by DJBooth.net scribe Miguelito, who drew a sharp distinction between Lamar's heavily-burdened displays of his Christian faith in comparison to the praise-and-uplift put forth by mainstream peer Chance the Rapper. In an email thanking the site for its "accuracy" and "respect for the culture," Kendrick summarized the profound distinction between New Testament redemption and his Old Testament-rooted discipleship: "I feel it's my calling to share the joy of God, but with exclamation, more so, the FEAR OF GOD," he wrote. "The balance. Knowing the power in what he can build, and also what he can destroy. At any given moment."
It was Ambrosia For Heads writer Parfit who decoded the duality of DAMN. upon discovering it to be two albums in one if played backwards from finish to start. After Parfit wrote about it in April — debunking the short-lived theory that Lamar had planned to release a second album titled NATION. on Easter Sunday to bookend the Good Friday release of DAMN. — Lamar went on to confirm the double-play concept four months later in an interview with MTV News.
"You listen from the back end, and it's almost the duality and the contrast of the intricate Kendrick Lamar," he said. "Both of these pieces are who I am." Last week, Lamar's label released DAMN. Collector's Edition., with the tracklist reversed.
Played from beginning-to-end, DAMN. is introduced with an allegory of a blind woman Lamar approaches to offer help finding something she's lost. The woman — presumably, Lady Justice — proceeds to take his life with the bang of a gun that resembles the sound of a gavel. It also feels symbolic of the sacrifice one makes upon accepting a calling to give one's life to God. Kendrick follows that intro ("Blood") with the Mike WiLL Made-It-produced "DNA.," on which he goes on a lyrical warpath, taking personal inventory of his heritage of human contradiction.
"I know murder, conviction, burners, boosters / burglars, ballers dead, redemption / scholars, fathers dead with kids / and I wish I was fed forgiveness," he raps.
The internal battle continues with the album counting the wages of sin and sacrifice, as Lamar vacillates, track-by-track, between vanity and humility, lust and love, vengeance and peace. "I'm willin' to die for this s***/ I done cried for this s***, might take a life for this s***," he raps, reveling in his "Element." "Put the Bible down and go eye for an eye for this s***." "Feel" finds a self-absorbed, egotistical Kendrick bemoaning the fact that "the whole world want me to pray for 'em / but ain't nobody praying for me," while the climactic "Fear" features Lamar's cousin Carl Duckworth quoting Deuteronomy to explain the generational curse that's given him "that chip on [his] shoulder." But Lamar is unearthing more than his personal fears here. His struggles serve as proxy for the human condition, a mirror image of America's own dark soul. "But is America honest or do we bask in sin? / Pass the gin, I mix it with American blood / Then bash him in, you crippin' or you married to blood?" he raps on "XXX."
DAMN. resolves itself with "Duckworth," the autobiographical parable in which he illustrates how his own destiny, that of the "greatest rapper," stems from his father (Kenny "Ducky" Duckworth) and TDE label founder (Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith) exercising free will many years ago to avoid a tragic fate for all three. Through karmic law, they overcome wickedness.
But that's only one side of the story. On the reverse listen the narrative subtly switches from insufferable but gradual enlightenment to one that seems to devolve deeper into frustration and spiritual degradation over the course of the 14 tracks. In this opposite playback sequence, Lamar succumbs to his weakest emotions and base character traits before meeting the same fate that started the original listen.
Most prophets die misunderstood, their pronouncements discarded by the rulers of the day and their followers, only to be paid credence in hindsight. That DAMN. has garnered the fanaticism to warrant a re-release, despite the only difference from the original being a reversed tracklist, speaks to the degree to which his message is being heard. Whether we, as individuals, a people and a nation, are prepared to take heed remains to be seen.
"I'm not a politician. I'm not 'bout a religion."
— Kendrick Lamar, "YAH."
Despite the album's biblical context and the Christian faith that has long been explicit in Lamar's work, his relationship with the church sounds about as testy as mine. Just listen to him recount a service he attended in his April letter to DJBooth.net: "I went to a local church some time ago, and it appalled me that the same program was in practice. A program that I seen as a kid the few times I was in service. Praise, dance. Worship. (Which is beautiful.) Pastor spewing the idea of someone's season is approaching. The idea of hope. So on and so forth.
"As a child, I always felt this Sermon had an emptiness about it," he continues. "Kinda one sided, in what I felt in my heart. Fast forward. After being heavily in my studies these past few years, I've finally figured out why I left those services feeling spiritually unsatisfied as a child. I discovered more truth. But simple truth. Our God is a loving God. Yes. He's a merciful God. Yes. But he's even more so a God of DISCIPLE. [sic] OBEDIENCE. A JEALOUS God. And for every conscious choice of sin, will be corrected through his discipline."
I find it hard to believe in a God who would create me and curse me in the same breath. Even Pope Francis recently advised overhauling the Lord's Prayer so it no longer reads in a way that suggests God's the one who leads us into temptation. "A father does not do this," the pope explained in Italian. "A father quickly helps those who are provoked into Satan's temptation."
Our concept of the divine is a reflection of how we see ourselves. And it makes sense that black America, despite being the moral compass in the country, still feels the weight of a cursed fate. But I also hear DAMN. as Lamar's revelation that evil is not something that only exists outside of us. The same way we proclaim ourselves gods, in the metaphysical sense, we are inhabitants of the darkness. So maybe it's as important to confront the evil and the fear within.
From the birth of the Old Negro Spiritual, black America has crafted hymns to get over the confounding hardships of this world. Lamar complements that tradition, but he also complicates it. DAMN. embodies a year in which hip-hop — and America at large — finds itself wrestling in public with its inner demons. He could've made another Black Lives Matter anthem like "Alright" to quell our fears. Instead he held true to his prophetic vision and laid his vulnerabilities on the line.
He's shown how hard it is to hold one's self accountable to God's word, and how challenging it is for America to hold herself to her own.
In fact, his prophecy is being echoed in some pretty high, if surprising, places as of late: "I don't think President Trump has a fear of the Lord, the fear of the wrath of God, which leads one to more humility," California Governor Jerry Brown said last Sunday on 60 Minutes. The governor of Lamar's home state was commenting on the president's position on climate change, as his state experiences its most destructive fire season on record. "This is such a reckless disregard for the truth and for the existential consequences that can be unleashed."
I'd missed 60 Minutes myself and probably wouldn't have heard anything about Brown's statement, save for an unexpected text I got late Sunday night. "He said Trump has got to wake up," my mom added, likely proud of herself for having found a way to sneak some God talk into the politics of the day. But it was obvious whose wake up call she was really praying for. It was such a perfect ending, I couldn't even be mad.
Kendrick Lamar’s album “To Pimp a Butterfly” is meant to be listened to from beginning to end. It tells a poignant story about Kendrick entering the music business and discovering the ugly truth behind it.
Warning: This article contains explicit lyrics.
Kendrick Lamar’s first album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was a critical and commercial success that skyrocketed the rapper’s career into super-stardom. In addition to featuring crowd-pleasing singles such as B*tch, Don’t Kill My Vibe, the album captivated music purists with an intricate story that unfolded throughout the opus.
Lamar’s second album, To Pimp a Butterfly, loosely follows the same formula, but with an added level of creative madness. The album is more intense, more bizarre, more profound and more controversial. In fact, To Pimp a Butterfly might very well be one of the most complex albums in rap history. Each song is characterized by its own distinctive concept and, on a larger scale, all the songs are interconnected by a wider narrative that revolves around Kendrick becoming a celebrity in a system owned by “Uncle Sam” and ruled by the “evils of Lucy” (a personification of Lucifer).
Let’s look at the story told throughout the album.
Pimping the Butterfly
The album begins withWesley’s Theory, a bizarre song that introduces the overarching theme of the album: The “pimping” of artists by the establishment (personified by Uncle Sam). The first verse is written from the perspective of an unsigned rapper who is excited to join the music industry.
When I get signed, homie, I’mma act a fool
Hit the dance floor, strobe lights in the room
Snatch your little secretary b*tch for the homies
Blue-eyed devil with a fat ass, smokin’
I’mma buy a brand new Caddy on fours
Trunk the hood up, two times, deuce-four
Platinum on everythin’, platinum on weddin’ ring
Married to the game and a bad b*tch chose
In the second verse, Uncle Sam responds:
What you want? You a house or a car?
Forty acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar?
Anythin’, see, my name is Uncle Sam, I’m your dog
Motherf*cker, you can live at the mall
I know your kind (That’s why I’m kind)
Don’t have receipts (Oh, man, that’s fine)
Pay me later, wear those gators
Cliché, then say, “F*ck your haters”
And so Uncle Sam encourages the rapper to indulge in his limitless credit card. At the end of the verse, however, he leaves the rapper with a grave warning:
But remember, you ain’t pass economics in school
And everything you buy, taxes will deny
I’ll Wesley Snipe your ass before thirty-five
Uncle Sam reminds the rapper that he is completely ignorant of the ways of the system and that it can easily spit him out. The line “I’ll Wesley Snipe your ass before thirty-five” simultaneously refers to two ways the system can shut down a public figure: Through financial methods (the actor Wesley Snipes was convicted for tax evasion using the tax protester theory) and through literal sniping (assassination) before the age of 35.
In For Free? (Interlude), Kendrick repeats the mantra “this d*ck ain’t free” in response to a girl’s materialistic demands. The philosophy is then extended to Uncle Sam himself, where Kendrick poetically states that he won’t be exploited by the system … without adequate compensation. Although the track appears to be about emancipation, it also narrates Kendrick falling for Uncle Sam’s trap. The same way prostitutes tell themselves “this p*ssy ain’t free” before being pimped, Kendrick ends up putting a price on himself.
In short, Kendrick affirms that his privates “ain’t free”, which also means that they have a price … a price Uncle Sam can easily afford.
Appropriately enough, the following song is King Kunta, the most radio-friendly song on the album. On a clean, dancy beat, Kendrick celebrates being on top of the rap game, even boasting that he destroyed the careers of subpar rappers. The title of the song refers to Kunta Kinte, the slave who got his foot chopped off for attempting to escape slavery. Adding “King” to Kunta’s name turns the slave into a King – Kendrick on top of the music industry.
The next songs describe effects of celebrity, mainly isolation. In Institutionalized, Kendrick invites his neighborhood homies to attend the BET awards. When he learns that they are actually plotting to rob some of the rich celebrities present at the awards, he realizes that he cannot associate with them anymore. The second verse is told from the perspective of the homies who cannot stand idly by while riches are flaunted in front of them.
In These Walls, Kendrick indulges in one of the benefits of stardom: Sex with groupies who are impressed by his celebrity status. Playing on the expression “if these walls could talk”, the song actually refers to vaginal walls as Kendrick penetrates them. In the third verse, the song takes an unexpected turn: Kendrick reveals that he is sleeping with the “baby mama” of one of his enemies who is incarcerated. The apparently sexy song, therefore, turns into a cruel tale of revenge where the fleshy walls of physical pleasure turn into the concrete walls of a prison cell.
Kendrick is also however in his own prison: Between the four walls of a hotel room. As we hear Kendrick literally screaming inside a hotel room, the song u begins. Easily the most depressing song of the album, Kendrick talks to himself in the third person, hating what he’s turned into.
I f*ckin’ tell you, you f*ckin’ failure—you ain’t no leader!
I never liked you, forever despise you—I don’t need you!
The world don’t need you, don’t let them deceive you
Numbers lie too, f*ck your pride too, that’s for dedication
The song breaks down for a few moments as we hear a hotel maid knocking on Kendrick’s door. In the second part of the song, Kendrick is dead drunk, still talking to himself and going into the deep end as he’s contemplating suicide.
Shoulda killed yo ass a long time ago
You shoulda feeled that black revolver blast a long time ago
And if those mirrors could talk it would say “you gotta go”
And if I told your secrets
The world’ll know money can’t stop a suicidal weakness
After the psychological torment of u, the song Alright responds with hope as Kendrick convinces himself that his hardships are all part of God’s plan. The video extends feelings of pride and optimism to the entire Black community in the wake of countless police killings.
Despite the positive vibe of Alright, it is during this song that Lucy introduces herself to Kendrick, promising him material gain.
What you want, you a house, you a car?
40 acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar?
Anything, see my name is Lucy, I’m your dog
Motherf*cker, you can live at the mall
Here, Lucy uses the same lines as Uncle Sam in Wesley’s Theory, implying that Uncle Sam and Lucifer are related … closely.
After introducing herself in Alright, Lucy gets particularity insistent in the next song, For Sale? (Interlude).
My name is Lucy, Kendrick
You introduced me Kendrick
Usually I don’t do this
But I see you and me Kendrick
Lucy give you no worries
Lucy got million stories
About these rappers that I came after when they was boring
Lucy gone fill your pockets
Lucy gone move your mama out of Compton
Inside the gigantic mansion like I promised
Lucy just want your trust and loyalty
It’s not so easy I’m at these functions accordingly
Kendrick, Lucy don’t slack a minute
Lucy work harder
Lucy gone call you even when Lucy know you love your Father
I loosely heard prayers on your first album truly
Lucy don’t mind cause at the end of the day you’ll pursue me
Lucy go get it, Lucy not timid, Lucy up front
Lucy got paper work on top of paper work
I want you to know that Lucy got you
All your life I watched you
And now you all grown up to sign this contract if that’s possible
In this verse, Lucy promises Kendrick wealth, peace of mind and proper handling of his business. She does not mind that Kendrick “loves his Father” (God) and that his first album even had Christian undertones. She simply wants him to sign the contract selling his soul, the rest is irrelevant.
At this point, we understand that, as Kendrick enter deeper into the industry, he is increasingly exposed to raw, spiritual evil. Uncle Sam turned into Lucifer and his record deal turned into a contract selling his soul. Disturbed by this situation, Kendrick goes back home searching for answers.
In Momma, Kendrick is welcomed back to Compton as a hero. In Hood Politics, however, he realizes that his people are up to the same shenanigans as always and that his community is still riddled with the same problems. While he believed he would find answers back home, Kendrick ultimately has an epiphany far, far away from Compton.
In How Much a Dollar Cost? Kendrick meets a homeless man at a gas station in South Africa. When the old man asks him for some money, Kendrick tells him to “beat it”, thinking he was a drunk and a drug addict. When the insistent old man begins citing the Bible, Kendrick gets irritated and offended, stating that he does not give away his hard-earned money to bums. The homeless man then proceeds to reveal that he is God himself … and that Kendrick has lost his spot in heaven.
I looked at him and said, “Every nickel is mines to keep”
He looked at me and said, “Know the truth, it’ll set you free”
You’re lookin’ at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, the higher power
The choir that spoke the word, the Holy Spirit
The nerve of Nazareth, and I’ll tell you just how much a dollar cost
The price of having a spot in Heaven, embrace your loss, I am God
In the outro of the song, Kendrick repents and asks for forgiveness.
Turn this page, help me change, so right my wrongs
This is the turning point of the album, where Kendrick is faced with his own selfishness and humbled by God himself. This encounter helps him shake off the temptations of Lucy and focus on having a positive impact on society.
The next four songs revolve around the themes of self-love and self-acceptance. Just as Kendrick is learning to love himself on a personal level, he is also urging his community to love itself again. In Blacker the Berry, Kendrick takes on the role of a gangbanger who denounces racism but spends his life at war with his own kind – not unlike enemy tribes in Africa.
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street
when gang banging make me kill a n*gga blacker than me?
The theme of self-love reaches its paroxysm with i, an upbeat song with a chorus that continuously repeats “I love myself”. i is therefore in complete opposition of u, where Kendrick was drowning in self-loathing. While u was written in the third person because Kendrick hated what he has become, i is written in the first person, signifying that he is happy and comfortable with who he is. On a wider scale, i urges his community to uplift itself through positive action.
After this self-love celebration, Mortal Man, the last song of the album, serves listeners a strong dose of reality. By rejecting Lucy and by freely speaking his mind, Kendrick fears that he’ll end up becoming a target. Those who speak against the system often feel the wrath of Uncle Sam … and it is often a covert operation. Feeling that his downfall is inevitable, Kendrick asks his fans if they’ll still love him after his name gets dirtied and his character assassinated.
Would you know where the sermon is if I died in this next line?
If I’m tried in a court of law, if the industry cut me off
If the government want me dead, plant cocaine in my car
Would you judge me a drug-head or see me as K. Lamar
Or question my character and degrade me on every blog
Later in the song, Kendrick lists leaders who ended up being silenced or dead in suspicious circumstances, mentioning Michael Jackson who turned against the industry towards the end of his life.
How many leaders you said you needed then left ‘em for dead?
Is it Moses, is it Huey Newton or Detroit Red?
Is it Martin Luther, JFK, shoot or you assassin
Is it Jackie, is it Jesse, oh I know, it’s Michael Jackson, oh
When sh*t hit the fan, is you still a fan?
When sh*t hit the fan, is you still a fan?
That n*gga gave us Billie Jean, you say he touched those kids?
When sh*t hit the fan, is you still a fan?
In the outro of the album, we discover that Kendrick has been reciting throughout the entire opus a poem to Tupac Shakur – who was a major figure speaking out against the system before he killed. That poem sums up the story of the album.
I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence
Sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power, full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression
Found myself screaming in the hotel room
I didn’t wanna self destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers
Until I came home
But that didn’t stop survivor’s guilt
Going back and forth trying to convince myself the stripes I earned
Or maybe how A-1 my foundation was
But while my loved ones was fighting the continuous war back in the city,
I was entering a new one
A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination
Made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned
The word was respect
Just because you wore a different gang color than mine’s
Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man
Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets
If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us
But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man, maybe I’m just another nigga
Both rappers then engage in a surreal conversation about music, society, and revolution, where Tupac shares his views beyond the grave. Then Tupac turns suddenly silent, causing Kendrick to call out:
Pac? Pac? … Pac?!
The album ends with the unbearable silence of Tupac, one of those rare charismatic figures who had all of the qualities to become a great leader – but not the kind of leader Uncle Sam likes. His death, at the premature age of 25, caused a deep wound to the hip-hop community, one that has still not fully healed. The Outro almost masochistically pokes on that wound, reviving the pain of that loss and making us wonder if Kendrick will follow the same path.
To Pimp a Butterfly can be likened to a musical play, where each song represents a scene of the unfolding drama. Through the course of the sixteen titles on the album, Kendrick describes his rise as a rap star, the temptations he faced with it, the self-hatred that ensued, and the epiphany that allowed him to remain grounded. Although he understands that he is part of a system that is ruled by “the evils of Lucy”, Kendrick feels that his influence can be used to heal, uplift, unify and inspire his community. By becoming an outspoken leader, Kendrick also realizes that he might be sacrificing himself – Uncle Sam and Lucy have no problems crushing those who stand up to them.
In short, To Pimp a Butterfly goes against everything the music business is about. It is harsh, honest, difficult, brilliant, unpredictable, anti-mainstream, Afrocentric, a little religious and filled with clarinet solos. There is, however, one thing Kendrick needs to remember: Lucy does not give up that easily.