Kendrick Lamar has the spotlight in the music industry for now — and for good reason.
Known as “K-Dot” before choosing to go by his birth name, Lamar proved his lyrical insight early in his career in 2011 debut studio album Section.80. He then gained a larger fanbase with its acclaimed 2012 follow-up, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, and then last March with his release To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB) — an album that fans and critics alike adored.
Within days of its release, celebrated music critics and acclaimed musicians also praised Kendrick on the profundity of his poetic lyrics, with many immediately breaking out the honored label of “instant classic.” The appeal of TPAB even crossed over into the literary world — Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) offered his interpretations of Lamar’s lyrics by annotating TPAB’s “The Blacker the Berry” on genius.com.
The most popular TPAB songs, which have persevered for weeks on music charts like The Billboard Top 100 and Spotify’s Popular, are distinctly known: “Alright,” “King Kunta” and “i.”
This trifecta frequents hip hop radio channels and college party playlists, bearing similarity to each other in feel-good vibes, uplifting messages and head-banger beats. And though these are certainly desirable qualities at a party, their lyrics are objectively simpler and shorter than many of the more hard-hitting, emotionally bulldozing tracks on TPAB.
The self-assuring mantra “We gon’ be alright” that comprises over half of the hook in “Alright” is a testament to the aforementioned straightforward lyrics.
Lamar himself pointed out “King Kunta”’s clear-cut lyrics in a recent interview with MTV, saying, “I wanted to make [King Kunta] real simplistic in a boastful way.”
Similarly, the message behind “i,” Lamar’s Grammy-winning single from TPAB, is clearly expressed in its uplifting chorus: “I love myself.”
But if Lamar has already earned a Grammy from what is arguably the most lyrically simple track from TPAB, then the poetic genius in some of the album’s other prodigious raps is certainly worth exploring.
Take, for instance, the album’s opening track, “Wesley’s Theory.” Early on, he echoes the lyrics that set the overarching message of TPAB: “Gather your wind, take a deep look inside / Are they really who you idolize? To pimp a butterfly”.
For Lamar, the lyrics to “Wesley’s Theory” are personal and resonant; he even names it as his favorite track from TPAB in an interview by radio show The Breakfast Club on Power 105.1 FM. In the lyrics, the rapper recounts his immature and idealistic aspirations for money, fame and power as a then-unsigned artist.
Lamar also hits on the corrupt political and social infrastructure that he feels drags youth in his native city of Compton, California into inevitable situations of violence, jail and even death. He attributes his young hunger for wealth to the way in which the entertainment industry tempts impoverished teens to indulge themselves with material items, just so that the government can sweep it all away by failing to properly inform them about how to lawfully handle money and taxes.
Despite the insightful meaning behind the catchy funk beats (courtesy of a collaboration with music producer Flying Lotus), “Wesley’s Theory” flies silently under the radar.
“Institutionalized” is another track with a message so personally connected to Lamar that the listener becomes immersed in the raw emotions of his past. The lyrics candidly and transparently convey Lamar’s internal struggle with the overwhelming responsibilities and power attached to money and fame. He’s conflicted — there’s the tempting option to abandon his poor background and humble roots, and instead, bask in all the pleasures being offered to him.
But the choice to do so is both a source of unparallel hope and guilt for Lamar. He feels “trapped inside the ghetto and I ain’t proud to admit it / Institutionalized, I keep running’ back for a visit.” Indeed, anyone whose past haunts them can relate to Lamar’s pain.
Perhaps the greatest example of a song from TPAB that is exhilaratingly truthful and relatable, yet rarely played on mainstream TV and radio music channels, is “u.” A foil to the self-affirming “i,” “u” is a less traditional song in that its deliverance relies on frantic, jagged breaths rather than a continuous, smooth flow.
“u” describes some of Lamar’s darkest moments and thoughts of self-hatred, apparent from the desperate “loving you is complicated” to the gritty guilt trip that is “to leave Compton for profit or leave his best friend.”
The tone of “u” is vicious, accusative, angry, frustrated, fearful and despondent. Its dismal demeanor remains inconsolable throughout the song, a heartbreaking self-reflection of Lamar.
But the rapid-fire deliverance of “Wesley’s Theory,” the gentle voice of encouragement in “You Ain’t Gotta Lie” and the 12 minute elaboration on TPAB’s major themes in “Mortal Man” are rarely given the time of day on most music channels.
The more popular tracks of the aforementioned TPAB “trifecta” are hopeful and relay confidence. In a sense, they are the once upstanding and now villainous Harvey Dent to TPAB’s beloved Gotham. But as popular as they are, many of TPAB’s most gritty and introspective tracks lay hidden and without the magnitude of recognition as their more mainstream counterparts … a collective “Dark Knight,” if you will.
These sideliners challenge the audience to understand Lamar on a deeper level than merely processing those words written with a catchy beat. Their hard messages are interwoven with a broad spectrum of human emotion and serve as channels into his past and present. Rather than taking the listeners’ hand and bringing them along for a ride, Lamar asks each to take a moment to self-reflect in TPAB.
Come closer toward the portal into Kendrick Lamar’s mind. Perhaps the majority of tracks on TPAB aren’t heard as often as “Alright,” but their lyrical poetry is still as profound and meaningful as the most crowd-pleasing songs on the album.
Long live King Kendrick, a most humble poet and lyrical genius.