Empowerment and Protest in Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly”

“When the four corners of this cocoon collide
You’ll slip through the cracks hopin’ that you’ll survive
Gather your wit, take a deep look inside
Are you really who they idolize?
To pimp a butterfly”

In a 2015 interview with MTV, young Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar introduced his third LP To Pimp a Butterfly. Excited to hear that someone had figured out the significance of the album title To Pimp a Butterfly, which was initially supposed to be called “Tu Pimp a Caterpillar”, he says: “That was the original name […] because the abbreviation was Tupac, Tu.P.A.C” (Markman 2). So, what overwhelmed his desire to honor his idol Tupac Shakur, whom he symbolically interviews in the song Mortal Man? Markman quotes Lamar as saying,
“[M]e changing it to Butterfly, I just really wanted to show the brightness of life and the word pimp has so much aggression and that represents several things. For me, it represents using my celebrity for good. Another reason is, not being pimped by the industry through my celebrity.” (7)
Lamar’s album is a personal journey. It’s an embodiment of a personal struggle which resonates an internal conflict brought on by external forces. And, above all, it’s a blueprint for a possible path to empowerment. But how is empowerment achieved? This question can and will not be answered by this thesis. However, attempts will be made to outline Lamar’s approach.
Empowerment and protest are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps it can even be claimed, that a personal journey of empowerment builds the foundation for any further cultural protest, while a ‘protesting’ of internal and external forces, which are the influencing factors behind individual conditioning, are necessary to achieve empowerment. Consequently, the two interlinked themes of protest and empowerment are common in rap music, a creative style which can be foundationally linked to those two subjects. African-American cultural protest is rooted in a history of injustice and persecution, throughout which, music has been a platform for creative expression, used to uplift, to cope, to educate, and, thereby, to empower. More than just aiding in the heightening of one’s self-confidence, however, empowerment has the potential to lead to a greater cultural consciousness as well: a cultural consciousness of resistance, built on an identity which is upheld unapologetically, thereby directly linking it to active protest and social change.
Lamar’s critically acclaimed album has been described as an enormous success. Produced by high-profile hip hop producers such as Dr. Dre, Sounwave, Terrace Martin and many others, released by Top Dawg Records, Aftermath Records and Interscope Records and recorded in studios all over the United States, the album is versatile and multi-layered in many ways. More than just highlighting the political and social discontentment of contemporary African-American communities, it is the assertion of this thesis, that the lyrical content of Lamar’s album engages in complex structural break-downs, which systematically unfold levels of political and social relevance on, both, a personal level, and, almost by default, on a cultural level. These break-downs are based on a concept of duality:
[Lamar] frequently raps about the duality of his life, a hero for all of hip-hop, but also a man with faults. These faults are visible in his music, every boastful line of success can be accompanied by a line declaring his fear of judgement. (Bowman 1)
Stylistically, To Pimp a Butterfly has been referred to as an “ambitious avant-jazz-rap statement” (Helman 1), due to its specific sound which draws on jazz and funk music, and flaunts its innovative use of poetics and vernacular. Lamar’s work also incorporates spoken word poetry, which clearly sets it apart from many other rap albums. Casey Michael Henry of The Los Angeles Book Review defines the album as, both, original, as well as being a contemporary revival of African-American postmodernism when he calls it the “fully realized apotheosis of a new kind of postmodern rap ‘mega’ or ‘concept’ album” (2) in his 2015 review.
Lyrically, To Pimp a Butterfly describes not only Lamar’s personal journey of empowerment, but also a desire for a more self-aware cultural consciousness of resistance. This entanglement of subjects is highlighted by juxtaposed themes, which are divided into three steps of development. Lamar shares his path with his listeners, while warning of those external and internal influences which seek to keep young African-Americans from the kind of inner reflection which has the potential to end in an empowered movement. Lamar’s personal journey of empowerment, “from cocoon to butterfly”, as implied in the title of this thesis, and used throughout the album as metaphors for developmental stages, is directly linked to the theme of cultural protest outlined by the metaphor “from Compton to Congress”, implying its social impact.
In brief, it is the assertion of this thesis, that the lyrical content, and the specific use of vernacular, poetics and musical style in Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly highlight a tripartite development towards an empowered African-American identity in the form of Lamar’s personal journey, which is achieved by juxtaposing several binary themes which are comprised of a dual perspective at interrelated subjects which are all tied to the two overarching concepts of protest and empowerment. Therefore, it is the aim of this research paper to investigate Lamar’s creative expression in To Pimp a Butterfly with a focus on the vernacular, poetics, and musical style, as well as exploring patterns to be found in the lyrical content and the two spoken word poems of the album representative of 1) interlinked binary relations and 2) tripartite developmental stages towards empowerment.

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About AnekaB

Literature, Philosophy, Culture
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