The last five years of my life have been pivotal for me, a 19-year-old living in Chilliwack, B.C. I finished high school and became a freelance writer as well as a content developer at an award-winning organization called Rhymes with Reason, which uses rap music to teach vocabulary and literacy to young students. In the process, I’ve slowly transitioned from a kid with a sheltered world view to an adult who’s endlessly interested in issues surrounding race and culture. As I’ve undergone this evolution, one thing has progressed in tandem with my self-development: my comprehension and appreciation of Kendrick Lamar’s universally acclaimed rap album To Pimp a Butterfly.
I first listened to To Pimp a Butterfly when it was released in 2015, when I was 14. I remember studying the novel In the Heat of The Night by John Ball in Mrs. Tizzard’s ninth-grade English class and vaguely connecting its themes of racism and prejudice to powerful, race-conscious tracks on Lamar’s album, like Complexion (A Zulu Love) and Alright. I also recall taking inspiration from Lamar’s theatrical performance in For Free? while preparing my year-end solo dramatic monologue. But beyond the aesthetics and surface-level meanings, To Pimp a Butterfly was nothing more than enjoyable music for me at the time.
And the music of Butterfly is spectacular; I love hard-hitting, vibrant songs like King Kunta and Wesley’s Theory. But over the course of the past five years, I’ve come to see Butterfly more as a dramatic play than a musical composition because of its timeless moral complexity and honest examination of both self and society.
My first memory of being pointedly confronted with the concept of moral complexity was in my Grade 12 AP literature class, reading Hamlet. Hamlet desperately wanted to murder his uncle, Claudius, in retaliation for allegedly killing his father. His inner conflict with the morality of revenge prompted me to think about questions like: Is revenge ever a noble and just cause? How does one punish a criminal? And who should do the punishing?
In Butterfly’s fifth track, These Walls, Lamar grapples with this exact struggle: He describes having sex with a woman who has children with a man who killed one of Lamar’s friends. In this twisted, perverse interpersonal conflict, Lamar sees his sexual pursuit as an act of vengeance – but he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to acknowledge his actions aren’t ethical or honourable in the least (“So when you play this song, rewind the first verse/About me abusing my power so you can hurt”).
Lamar’s lyrics, whether actually autobiographical or not, are consistently full of such scathing introspection and direct confrontation of personal choices. The Blacker The Berry – the most controversial and devastating track – hit me in its blistering self-confrontation. In it, Lamar fulminates against historical and contemporary marginalization: “I mean, it’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society/That’s what you’re telling me, penitentiary would only hire me.” But in the final couplet of the song, Lamar pulls off a paralyzing dramatic reversal, flipping the responsibility to himself: “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street/When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?/Hypocrite!” Lamar is clearly unwilling to point the finger without looking in the mirror first. As Pulitzer-winning novelist Michael Chabon has said: “[Lamar forces us] to consider the possibility that ‘hypocrisy’ is, in certain situations, a much more complicated moral position than is generally allowed, and perhaps an inevitable one.” Lamar’s powerful words made me stop and rethink my role as an individual in society with a voice, as opposed to a mere product of my environment. What can I do to better myself and those around me?
But the song I hold dearest to my heart is How Much a Dollar Cost, a track I explored in a year-end presentation in my AP literature class. Lamar tells the story of a homeless man he meets at a gas station. The man asks Lamar for a dollar, but he refuses, stereotyping him as a crack addict (“And I recognize this type of panhandlin’ all the time/I got better judgment"). At the end of the song, the homeless man dramatically reveals himself as God incarnate, informing Lamar his sin has lost him his spot in heaven.
From my own non-Christian perspective as a Sam Harris-admiring agnostic, this song spoke deeply to me: Judging others based on preconceived notions is unjust. Moreover, the idea of “God” should not simply be an abstract being waiting at the pearly gates, whom you spend five minutes a day praying to. True spirituality is living morally and conscientiously, moment by moment – helping those in need and confronting our own failings.
It’s fascinating how life can imitate art. Just weeks after giving my presentation (and graduating), a friend and I drove to McDonald’s late at night. A homeless woman came up to my car and asked for spare change, saying she was starving. I said I didn’t have any (even though I did) and rolled up my window. She looked high and my first thought was, I don’t want to support her addiction. But then I remembered Lamar’s song and instantly felt guilty. Clearly, I was missing the point. So I gave her some change. Did she use it for drugs? Maybe. But who am I to judge? What if I was poor and didn’t have money to eat? What would I do?
In essence, this is the butterfly experience – a small, metaphysical but rudimentary shift in perspective from judgment and complacency to understanding, honesty and self-examination. To Pimp a Butterfly fundamentally challenged me. As I matured, it forced me to evaluate my own life. Am I stuck in mediocrity, pointing the finger, or am I enacting the change I want to see on a broader level? How am I rectifying my own vices and sins? For this life-changing perspective, I sincerely thank Kendrick Lamar as I celebrate the five-year anniversary of this transcendental composition.
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