Kendrick Lamar: Shapeshifter

by Morgan Jerkins

Morgan Jerkins
Morgan Jerkins is an essayist and novelist from New Jersey. Her works have appeared in The Guardian, BuzzFeed, Book Riot, Salon, The Toast, Quartz, and Talking Points Memo among others. She's also the Blog Editor for Side B Magazine.

A little over three months ago, Kendrick Lamar appeared on “The Colbert Report,” where he debuted an untitled song and shared his views on his self-identity in an interview with Colbert. What struck me during Kendrick’s interview was that he identifies as a writer more so than a rapper. This distinction is notable because people generally conjure an image of a writer as one who is most likely a White man. For Black artists especially, rap is considered a subordinate and juvenile art. However, Kendrick’s assertion is that penning his thoughts down on paper is on equal footing with any other novelist or poet with or without music.

Just like a writer, Kendrick is complicated and massive. On the one hand, he is an artist who is promoting self-love amongst Black people so much that media outlets, such as Slate, are debating if his Blackness is “overwhelming.”  On the other hand, this emphasis on spiritual renewal and self-esteem boosting amongst Blacks tends to steer the focus on social issues away from White supremacy and toward Black attitudes. While Kendrick did express regret over Michael Brown’s death,  In his biggest moment of controversy, his words gave many people the impression that he believed it was Brown’s fault more so than Darren Wilson’s.  Although we should hold Kendrick accountable for whatever he says, raps and writes, we mustn’t neglect that the fact that an artist is never a fixed person either in presentation nor through a given body of work. “To Pimp A Butterfly” exemplifies this. The album sees Kendrick in the final form of his singular artistic and literary mode: as a shapeshifter mastering a multitude of voices and perspectives.

It starts with the title. Consider Kendrick’s faith and the fact that butterflies are symbolic of Christ’s resurrection. In Greek myth, the goddess Psyche, representative of the soul, is depicted in ancient mosaics as a butterfly. On the surface level, a butterfly represents metamorphosis in a corporeal sense. With this symbolism in mind, Kendrick’s employ of perspective itself as a character can be seen in  an enhanced light. His soul is changing as he oscillates between what he once was and what he is destined to be, and while the various states of mind are part of his cast along with the concrete characters, the concept of changing focus is given character as well.  I think it was intentional for Kendrick to wait until “Mortal Man,”the last track of the album, to explain the title:

The butterfly represents talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar … the caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak and figures out a way to pimp it to his own benefits…the caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon which institutionalizes him … certain ideas start to take root … The result? Wings begin to emerge … the butterfly sheds light on situations that the caterpillar never considered, ending the internal struggle … Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same. tweet


“To Pimp A Butterfly” is arguably a confession conveyed to the listener that as Kendrick’s star rises, he is traipsing along an Odyssean journey, with the Scylla and Charybdis embodying warring states of his own persona. He is the butterfly and the caterpillar in the midst of a brutal and self-debilitating evolution. He is complicated to us all because his own psyche is confusing. His story is polyphonic.

Polyphony was initially a musical concept that was translated into literary theory in the twentieth century by Mikhail Bakhtin. Polyphony, in the literary sense, means that a single body of work contains different voices that do not necessarily merge into a singular perspective and are not subordinated to the creator’s voice. In a polyphonic work, each piece has its own narrative, validity, and value to the overall work.

“Complexion” is a strong example of the use of polyphony. For the first two verses, Kendrick is speaking to a young woman who is suffering from the impact of colorism.  It’s a sweet-natured advance, but the third verse is where a woman actually speaks. Kendrick is absent and Rapsody, the featuring artist, is rapping about loving one’s self. Although both his or her parts are in alignment, there is one line that makes all the difference: “I love myself, I no longer need cupid.” She doesn’t need another figure to remind her that she’s pretty, unlike in the first two verses where Kendrick is making it known to another how beautiful she is. Both parts complement one another while maintaining their own uniqueness to the narrative.

Kendrick tends to use polyphony, shapeshifting tricks, and a sense of vanishing and reappearing elsewhere in the album as well. In “Institutionalized,” Snoop Dogg becomes  the narrator and inevitably shifts Kendrick into being a character in his own story rather than one being at the center stage. In “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said),” Kendrick invokes his mother’s voice talking and coaxing him to be his true self in addition to his rational side trying to provide encouragement as well. As listeners, we are constantly absorbing different sides of his evolution without being able to ascertain if they are the sum of whole parts just yet.

“i” and “u” demonstrate the identity chasm at the core of the album the strongest and are master classes in the use of polyphony.  In “i”, Kendrick is preaching to others whereas in “u” he spirals into self-loathing. In “u,” Kendrick is separated again for the crowd and falls prey to his own negative thoughts. At the moment that the beat begins, we hear a scream accompanied by a sad and gloomy tone. Upon the first listen, I made the mistake of thinking that perhaps Kendrick was rapping about a difficult woman but “loving u is complicated” is about himself. He thinks he “ain’t shit” and places blame on himself for not remaining loyal to his community. It’s not a cry for help but rather a cathartic piece. The “i” we see as Kendrick the individual is nothing without the community because it boils down to just himself, just as that “u”, he is lonely and stripped of a reference point on which he can always depend.

It’s a classic conflict between the self versus the world, the individual versus the collective. One cannot define himself without the existence of the other. That “other” in “I” is the “cold faces,” those that want him to fail. His self-praise is accentuated by him being in the midst of other like-minded people which is why the song begins with an announcer presenting him. But a strange thing occurs at the end of “u.” A woman is speaking in Spanish saying that she needs to clean the room. Is it a hotel room? Did the Kendrick in this song get so depressed that he committed suicide and the woman is going to find him soon? We don’t know. The skit ends and we hear another man’s mournful voice condemning Kendrick for abandoning him and their loved ones.  It is unclear whether this is still Kendrick speaking in another voice, an actual person speaking to Kendrick, or an imaginary being. We cannot be sure. The entire song seems to have three parts and we hear a multiplicity of voices.

Before “To Pimp A Butterfly” finishes, Kendrick is having an imaginary conversation with Tupac and calls out to him to which no one answers back. Metaphorically speaking, we don’t know if Kendrick was really talking to him or to his own consciousness about his metamorphosis from a caterpillar to a butterfly.  All the voices that took place in this album, from Pharrell to Snoop Dogg to Bilal to Rapsody and all others, yes, we can hear them but were they really there or nothing more than components of Kendrick’s psychology?  

“To Pimp A Butterfly,” for all intents and purposes, is both a radical and natural step in Kendrick’s evolution. In “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City,” he rapped about the harsh realities of his Compton neighborhood in a nonlinear narrative, relaying to the listener that a start and finish is null and void. Temporality is meaningless for an individual’s metamorphosis is not contingent upon how much time has elapsed. In both his freshman and sophomore albums, Kendrick employs multiple voices to demonstrate that this vocal simultaneity is necessary for him to depict the convoluted design of his everyday life.

Kendrick has established himself as a modern-day griot who is shape-shifting in front of our eyes. Throughout the tracks, he is both invisible and multiple simultaneously.  As an artist, he is developing and as a man, he is “unfinal.”  His music is the abstract vehicle through which he acknowledges the world and its oppressive systems and yet reveals himself and his confounding greatness in solitude. As we stream, we’re being taken along on the journey.


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Published by Morgan Jerkins
Morgan Jerkins is an essayist and novelist from New Jersey. Her works have appeared in The Guardian, BuzzFeed, Book Riot, Salon, The Toast, Quartz, and Talking Points Memo among others. She's also the Blog Editor for Side B Magazine. View all posts by Morgan Jerkins

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