Kendrick Lamar didn't make an album. Or at least not in the traditional sense. To Pimp a Butterfly isn’t an album you’re going to want to just throw on. Its shuffle play value is low. This is an album you revisit. It’s an album you sit with. It’s an album you study. Kendrick didn’t make an album. He recorded a thesis. Kendrick recorded the 2015 State of Black America for posterity. And he did it brilliantly. It’s accurate. It’s artful.
To Pimp a Butterfly opens with Kendrick laying the historical context of the American Dream. It highlights how Black America internalized capitalism as self-worth and instead bred self-hatred. Kendrick then takes us through a journey of trying to find happiness and failing. He paints a vivid picture of the depression that comes from being black in America, and then journeys back to self-discovery. Finally, it gives us a plan for looking forward.
The introduction to Kendrick’s thesis on the State of Black America, “Wesley’s Theory,” picks up exactly where Kendrick’s debut album good kid, m.A.A.d city left off with “Real.” The final track of gkmc calls into question everything Kendrick once viewed as self-affirmative. The hook on this song is a mantra repeated over and over: I’m real. I’m real. I’m really really real. It’s soothing. It’s something you want to believe. It’s hypnotic. It’s convincing. It’s of my highest recommendation that you stop reading and just vibe out while that plays.
Each verse on “Real” has Kendrick detailing how we’ve negatively internalized the American Dream by viewing the wrong things as proof of our self-worth. The first is a woman obsessed with material things: “You love red bottoms and gold that say ‘Queen’. You love handbag on the waist of your jean.” In the second verse, we see a man in love with street life and everything that comes with it: “You love fast cars and dead presidents owed/ You love fast women, you love keeping control/ Of everything that you love, you love beef/ You love streets, you love running, ducking police.” And in the final verse, we have Kendrick asking himself, and us, what’s the point? I should hate everything I do love. Should I hate living my life inside the club? …Hating all money, power, respect in my will. Or hating the fact none of that shit make me real.”
Kendrick does an amazing job not talking down to us on this. It could’ve easily been a fake woke hotep type of verse. But instead, he essentially says, “I know all of this is true because I have the same problem. I think the same way. I thought the American Dream was going to be enough too.” By taking this tone, he aligns himself with us. He exposes his wounds so that we’ll believe him. He’s giving his references. He’s telling us where he’s from and where he’s been. He’s asserting his blackness.
What’s blacker than having your parents yell at you on the phone to bring the car back while you’re out with the homies over the smoothest beat they can step to? It sets him up nicely to be the person to give us this thesis on the state of our union in 2015. The outro angelically implores us, “Sing my song, it’s all for you.” And it sounds so endearing, we want to believe him.
And we do.