This is the third part of a multi-part release exclusively on this page. (link to the first part here, second here)  My friend Dan Glennon (@ZiggyStarscream) on Twitter and Instagram has been working tirelessly for many weeks to write these entries for my readers. I hope you all enjoy, and I present to you Saint Kendrick: The Cinematic Nature of Kendrick Lamar Part III. If you like and enjoy the content that I have to offer please consider liking, following, and/or commenting on my posts. It really means a lot. Thanks for your continued support!

To Pimp A Butterfly: The Culture and the Cross

Okay now this is the part where things get interesting. Let’s set the stage. Kendrick Lamar is a now established artist who is getting praised as the next Tupac. His conscious rhymes and storytelling is unparalleled to everyone out there today. With all of that, Kendrick had the mantle placed on him as he was pushed to the podium. Mic check, mic check, this is the new face of black culture in America; Kendrick Lamar. Now think about it this way. A young man in his early 20’s gets a huge influx of money, notoriety, prosperity and of course more responsibility. Kendrick reminds us frequently that is his merely a human being. These same stressors that ‘we’ deal with on a daily basis, Kendrick deals with too. Shoved into the spotlight and asked to hold the world, he retreated. This is an album of internal struggle inside the real Kendrick Lamar as he deals with being asked to be the champion. He was introduced to be hip-hop’s savior. ‘Savior’ is a lot to ask of one man.

To Pimp a Butterfly is an extremely dense album full of themes, style, and ideology. From the production aspect, Kendrick brings sounds from all across the African-American culture. With jazz, funk, soul, r&b and various eras of hip-hop all being brought together, sonically it sounds like an opus to the black culture. Using situations in the political and social atmosphere during the release of the album in 2015, Kendrick creates the wasteland of circumstance that he leads the listener through on a journey of self-reflection as he, himself, wrestles with the weight of responsibility that he has been forced to bear.

Reflecting the world around him of police brutality, institutionalized racism, and social marginalization, Kendrick chronicles the aftermath of his success from his first album. He stole the crown as the greatest rapper in the world and the focus of the world turned onto him. Kendrick was the good kid that came out of Compton who made it out. The album is structured around a poem that is progressively revealed as the album continues. We are brought through multiple different arcs of how Kendrick dealt with the changes in his life and how he was seen as someone to vault forward the culture as the next great voice.

“I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence…”

The first stage takes place during the first three songs; ‘Wesley’s Theory’, ‘For Free? – Interlude’, and ‘King Kunta’. This is essentially the id response for Kendrick. His first thoughts are the glamorous benefits of his success. He could now get the cars and clothes he never could. VIP trips around the world with award shows. Kendrick could bring all the ones he met along the way. The good kid made it out of Compton and can lead the city with him to the promised land. Did I mention the money? Conversely weaved throughout those same songs is the institutional and social structures put in place through the pressure of those around him, bureaucratic influence or unspoken sociological rules that have been in American culture for generations that place black Americans in a position to fail.

“I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence

Sometimes I did the same…”

With his newfound success, Kendrick could come back to Compton as the king of hip-hop but he has yet to experience the backlash of his actions. This is where the second arc of the story is introduced. Kendrick realizes that he not only has fame and fortune but he now has influence socially and most dangerously, power. He tells us the story of how he brought his friends from back home to an award show only to have one of them attempt to rob some of the high profile events. The friend explains himself by saying how else would he respond? Never had he been around that type of wealth while he sees people in his immediate world struggling because of factors that are largely beyond their control? The other story we are told is one of Kendrick and a girl and her baby daddy.. Beautifully told through metaphors, Kendrick tells us of his sexual relationship with this young woman. Towards the end of the song, Kendrick reveals that this woman has a child with the man who killed Kendrick’s friend during the song ‘Sing About Me’ on Good Kid mAAd City and Kendrick is the reason that that man is now serving life in prison.

“I remember you was conflicted, misusing your infuence

Sometimes I did the same

Abusing my power full of resentment

Resentment that turned into a deep depression

I found myself screaming in the hotel room…”

Struggling with the weight of his responsibility and how easily he could abuse his newfound power, Kendrick contemplates how the world perceives him as opposed to how he is as a human being. Is he the voice that they think he is? Kendrick finds himself in moments of weakness where his actions produce real and tangible consequences.. Kendrick turns inward on his own consciousness to open up the past events that put him where he is today, mainly on the death of his friend during the story arc of Good Kid mAAd City. Despite this depression, Kendrick reminds himself of the world he comes from is one where the struggle was the environment. With a natural survival instinct and the tools to fight back, Kendrick really back.

“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

I found myself screaming in the hotel room

I didn’t want to self-destruct, the evils of Lucy was all around me

So I went running for answers…”

This is probably the most important portion of the poem as far as the underlying plot of Kendrick’s work as this piece is written to highlight. This is where we are introduced to the villain in Kendrick’s story; “Lucy.” She is personified as a wealthy, connected and beautiful woman who has taken an interest to Kendrick.

What’s wrong nigga?
I thought you was keeping it gangsta?
I thought this what you wanted?
They say if you scared go to church
But remember
He knows the bible too…

…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 I came after when they was boring
Lucy gone fill your pockets
Lucy gone move your mama out of Compton
Inside the gi-gantic mansion like I promised
Lucy just want your trust and loyalty
Avoiding me?
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’m Lucy
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 then sign this contract if that’s possible”

-’For Sale? – Interlude’

The bolded lines are the portion of the intro and Lucy’s monologue that reveals who she really is. Kendrick Lamar is not surprisingly a devout Christian as well as faith being a central piece of black culture. The first part is a reminder that ‘He’ knows the bible as well. This is referencing Satan or in this case, ‘Lucifer’. Clearly, Lucy was not talking about Kendrick’s biological father but God. The final part to unpack is the last line where Lucy asks Kendrick to sign a contract. The classic myth in American folklore is there is a crossroads down in the Mississippi River delta where you can go to meet with the devil who will grant you one wish in exchange for you signing away your soul. This legend has been around for well over a century (at least) and has been retold or paraphrased in countless ways. Borrowing the idea from this myth, Kendrick creates the character of ‘Lucy’ to be the embodiment of the devil himself.

“I remembered 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 screamin’ in the hotel room
I didn’t wanna self destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went runnin’ for answers
Until I came home…”

Kendrick watches his his hometown struggle from his vaulted pedestal and knows that he can do something. He speaks during ‘Momma’ a verse that echoes the idea he spoke back on Section 80 but with the added idea that his distance has started to isolate him from the world that he called home:

“I know everything, I know myself
I know morality, spirituality, good and bad health
I know fatality might haunt you
I know everything, I know Compton
I know street shit, I know shit that’s conscious, I know everything
I know lawyers, advertisement and sponsors
I know wisdom, I know bad religion, I know good karma
I know everything, I know history
I know the universe works mentally
I know the perks of bullshit isn’t meant for me
I know everything, I know cars, clothes, hoes and money
I know loyalty, I know respect, I know those that’s Ornery
I know everything, the highs to lows to groupies and junkies
I know if I’m generous at heart, I don’t need recognition
The way I’m rewarded, well, that’s God’s decision
I know you know that lines from Compton School District
Just give it to the kids, don’t gossip about how it was distributed
I know how people work, I know the price of life
I know how much it’s worth, I know what I know and I know it well
Not to ever forget until I realized I didn’t know shit
The day I came home”

‘Momma’

While he helps his hometown as much as he can, Kendrick realizes that there is little he can do to change it for the better unless he takes a stand against the systems in place that poison the water in Compton and prevent it from blooming into what Kendrick believes it can be. He sees the people who want ‘realness’ from hip-hop but don’t look for it. He sees the political deadlock that he compares to nothing more than a gang war that plagues his hometown. Kendrick now sees everything and more importantly after seeing the pitfalls of those who came before him and the wasteland that his city has become as a result he sees the work of Lucy.

“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 a hotel room
I didn’t want to 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 survivors guilt
Going back and forth
Trying to convince my self the stripes I earned
Or maybe how A-1 my foundation was
But while my loved ones was fighting
A continuous war back in the city
I was entering a new one…”

Kendrick became increasingly angry as he saw more and more things eating away at his city from the inside. He became cynical and jaded. One night as he was leaving a gas station Kendrick was approached by a homeless man who asked for a single dollar. Kendrick went to his car and closed the door but he did not leave as for some reason these two men had their eyes locked and could not look away. The homeless man spoke to Kendrick with a pointed and prophetic choice of words.

“He said, “My son, temptation is one thing that I’ve defeated
Listen to me, I want a single bill from you
Nothin’ less, nothin’ more…

 

…Starin’ at me for the longest until he finally asked
Have you ever opened to Exodus 14?
A humble man is all that we ever need
Tell me how much a dollar cost?”

-’How Much A Dollar Cost?’

Now to understand this reference it is necessary to have the prior knowledge of the biblical story of Exodus where Moses leads the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt with a few verses in particular that are especially poignant. This story applies to Kendrick in this particular situation as he is being viewed by the world as someone who is meant to lead the entire culture forward. However, unlike Moses, this is not something he has chosen to do. Beyond the weight of the cross but he walks through the desert with Lucy following closely behind. Kendrick has embraced his selfishness and put his self-preservation into the forefront of his mind. Walking the soft and gradual path into Lucy’s arms, Kendrick is pulled back by something unexpected from this homeless man.

My selfishness is what got me here, who the f*ck I’m kiddin’?

So I’ma tell you like I told the last bum, crumbs and pennies

I need all of mines, and I recognize this type of panhandlin’ all the time

I got better judgement, I know when nigga’s hustlin’

Keep in mind, when I was strugglin’, I did compromise

Now I comprehend, I smell grandpa’s old medicine

Reekin’ from your skin, moonshine and gin

Nigga your babblin’, your words ain’t flatterin’, I’m imaginin’

Denzel be lookin’ at O’Neal

Cause now I’m in sad thrills, your gimmick is mediocre, the jig is up

I seen you from a mile away losin’ focus

And I’m insensitive, and I lack empathy

You looked at me and said, “Your potential is bittersweet”

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 Jehova, 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”


-’How Much A Dollar Cost?’

 

After this incident, Kendrick has a new outlook on his role in the world. He knows that he has power and a voice that can be heard. Taking a strong stand against colorism inside the black community, gang violence, public perception of black people, and police brutality. Kendrick makes an observation that while there are systems in place to hold back the black culture and neighborhoods however he also sees that the culture is not helping itself with the way it currently lives in American society.

“I been wrote off before, I got abandonment issues
I hold grudges like bad judges, don’t let me resent you
That’s not Nelson-like, want you to love me like Nelson
I went to Robben’s Island analysing, that’s where his cell is
So I could find clarity, like how much you cherish me
Is this relationship a fake or real as the heavens be?
See I got to question it all, family, friends, fans, cats, dogs
Trees, plants, grass, how the wind blow
Murphy’s Law, generation X, will I ever be your ex?
Floss off a baby step, mobbed by the mouth a bit
Pause, put me under stress
Crawled under rocks, ducking y’all, it’s respect
But then tomorrow, put my back against the wall
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, shooter you assassin
Is it Jackie, is it Jesse, oh I know, it’s Michael Jackson, oh

When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?
When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?
That nigga gave us Billie Jean, you say he touched those kids?
When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?”
-’Mortal Man’

With little guidance as he stepped into this role, he turned back to his role model and his similar path. In what can only be described as a prayer, Kendrick completes the poem and reads it to Tupac Shakur. Kendrick asks Tupac several questions in some ways to lead the people from the desert. Finding some sense of comfort from this discussion, Kendrick reads one more poem that was written by a friend of his that inspired the album.

“I wanted to read one last thing to you. It’s actually something a good friend had wrote describing my world. It says:

‘The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it
Its only job is to eat or consume everything around it, in order to protect itself from this mad city
While consuming its environment the caterpillar begins to notice ways to survive
One thing it noticed is how much the world shuns him, but praises the butterfly
The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar
But having a harsh outlook on life the caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak and figures out a way to pimp it to his own benefits
Already surrounded by this mad city the caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon which institutionalizes him
He can no longer see past his own thoughts
He’s trapped
When trapped inside these walls certain ideas start to take roots, such as going home, and bringing back new concepts to this mad city
The result?
Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant
Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations that the caterpillar never considered, ending the eternal struggle
Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same.’

What’s your perspective on that?
Pac? Pac…? Pac!”
The interesting thing about this album, planned or not, is that Kendrick was 27 years old when it was released. Tupac was killed when he was 27 years old. In a state of silence afterwards, as the album comes to an end Kendrick realizes that beyond this point, he is alone in walking this path but embraces all that comes with it. At this point, Kendrick is anointed and from here onward he walks as Saint Kendrick.

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