Album review: Kendrick Lamar pens open letter to Black America on ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’


The ground is going to open up and swallow the evil … The ground is a symbol for the poor people. The poor people will open up this world and swallow the rich people.

To understand the gist of Kendrick Lamar’s new album, To Pimp a Butterfly, you must start with the end in mind. The sophomore offering from Kendrick Lamar unfolds like a hip-hop version of Elijah Muhammad’s Message to the Blackman in America and Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro. Lamar makes a point to confront numerous issues within the Black community with a clever approach that’s neither too preachy or stale.

The album’s journey opens with the song, “Wesley’s Theory.” With assists from George Clinton, Thunderkat and a cameo by Dr. Dre, Lamar gives a hint on how the “butterfly” is pimped. On the first verse, Lamar places himself in the shoes of an eager rapper who plans on indulging in sex, and purchasing high-priced jewelry and weapons once he signs his first record deal. On the second verse, Kendrick Lamar poses as the voice of Uncle Sam who encourages the rapper to continue spending wildly only to leave him broke shortly after his initial success.

Sonically, the album’s mood is reminiscent of music created by Erykah Badu, OutKast, and production of the late, great J. Dilla.

On “u,” Kendrick Lamar confronts himself after the death of a friend and folds into an alcoholic stoop of self-pity. It’s in contrast to the inspirational “i” which has become an anthem for self-love.

He tackles the unfortunate issue of skin complexion within the Black community with the help from female emcee, Rapsody, on “Complexion.”

“Even if master’s listenin’, I got the world’s attention, so I’m gonna say something that’s vital and critical for survival, of mankind, if he lyin’, color should never rival,” Lamar raps.

But the album’s crown jewel is “Mortal Man.” He calls on the triumphant spirit of Nelson Mandela as he attempts to navigate his future as king of rap while looking back on past leaders who were assassinated or shunned. “Want you to love me like Nelson, want you to hug me like Nelson, I freed you from being a slave in your mind, you’re welcome … How many leaders you said you needed then left ’em for dead? Is it Moses, is it Huey Newton or Detroit Red [Malcolm X].”

As the song ends, Lamar completes a poem and seeks approval for the first time on the album. Listeners soon discover that he’s reading the poem to Tupac Shakur. In what could be the most surreal moment ever recorded on a hip-hop album, Lamar interviews Shakur about life and the state of Black America.

“The ground is going to open up and swallow the evil,” the voice of Tupac tells Lamar. “The ground is a symbol for the poor people. The poor people will open up this world and swallow the rich people.”

At that moment, the meaning of the album’s cover is revealed. In what could be an artistic foreshadowing of Shakur’s prophecy, a group of poor Black men and boys take over the lawn of the White House while holding stacks of money. A helpless judge is underneath the pile of boys as they appear to celebrate a victory in the war on classism.

He ends the album by describing how the caterpillar uses his unfortunate surroundings to pimp the butterfly. Overall, To Pimp a Butterfly is an artistic masterpiece that happens to be Kendrick Lamar’s open letter to Black America.


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