Following in the footsteps of his previous work, good kid, m.A.A.d city, and in contrast to Lamars previous projects, To Pimp a Butterfly took more heavily from jazz, soul, and funk influences, with such contributors as Thundercat, Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, and Flying Lotus providing instrumentation and production. Other noteworthy credits include vocals from Anna Wise, Bilal, George Clinton, James Fauntleroy, Rapsody, Ronald Isley of the The Isley Brothers, Snoop Dogg, and a posthumous appearance from 2Pac.
This albums concept explores themes of self-love and hate, fame, depression, violence, race, and politics through a spoken-word poem that interweaves between songs, leading up to the climax. The poem is wrapped up on the final track, "Mortal Man," where it is revealed that Kendrick was reading the poem to 2Pac all along.
The album was heavily inspired by Lamars trip to South Africa in 2014, where he visited historical sites such as Nelson Mandelas jail cell, birthing recurring motifs like Apartheid, distinctions between African and American culture, or institutionalization, among many others. Kendrick creates many allegorical comparisons between Compton and South Africa, especially on the song "Momma."
To Pimp a Butterfly was met with widespread critical acclaim. It was named the best album of 2015 by music critics, and was named one of the greatest album of the 2010s. In 2020, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it at #19 on their most recent list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, having the second highest-placing album of the 21st century, behind Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at #17. The album was an influence on David Bowie's final studio album, ★. As its producer Tony Visconti recalled, he and Bowie were "listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar [...] we loved the fact Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn't do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that's exactly what we wanted to do."
- Wesleys Theory
- For Free? (Interlude)
- King Kunta
- These Walls
- For Sale? (Interlude)
- Hood Politics
- How Much a Dollar Cost?
- Complexion (A Zulu Love)
- The Blacker the Berry
- You Aint Gotta Lie (Mama Said)
- Mortal Man
The Troper the Berry
- Angel Unaware: The old beggar Kendrick insults in "How Much a Dollar Cost" reveals at the end of the song that He is the son of Jehovah, the Holy Spirit, the higher power, or most simply, God. Kendrick's greed and lack of humility has cost him his spot in Heaven, all for a single dollar.
- Arc Words: Every song from "King Kunta" onwards on the album ends with an expanding monologue that begins with "I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence."
- As the Good Book Says...: The old man in "How Much a Dollar Cost" cites Exodus 14 to remind Kendrick about the value of humility. In addition to foreshadowing that the old man is God, mentioning Exodus 14 implicitly compares Kendrick to the opulent Pharaoh, who was killed in an action of divine justice.
- Concept Album: While not a story like GKMC, it still has a unified concept, as it follows Kendrick after he becomes successful and starts dealing with depression, institutional racial inequality, and the various facets of black culture in America.
- Darkest Hour: "u" is this for To Pimp a Butterfly, as it's a song that deals with depression and aggressive self-hatred.
- Deliberately Monochrome: The album cover, and the music video for "Alright".
- Doing It for the Art: Explicitly spelled out in "King Kunta":Something's in the waterAnd if I gotta brown-nose for some goldThen I'd rather be a bum than a motherfuckin' baller
- Fun with Acronyms: A working title for the album was To Pimp A Caterpillar, because if you change "to" into "2", then initialize the rest, you get 2PAC.
- Genre Throwback: The video for "King Kunta", to classic West Coast hip-hop videos, right down to the aspect ratio.
- Longest Song Goes Last: The 12:07 album closer "Mortal Man". Worth nothing, though, that it features multiple minutes of spoken word.
- Madness Mantra: In "u", the hook consists of the phrase "loving you is complicated" ten times with huge jumps in volume and pitch to heighten how unstable Kendrick's self-hatred is making him, culminating in a bridge where he can't even finish the phrase "loving you."
- Mind Screw: It's definitely about something, but nobody's quite sure what. There's a general message about black violence in there, but it doesn't seem to be the only one.
- No Ending: To Pimp a Butterfly ends rather darkly with Kendrick reciting a secondary poem to Tupac Shakur that relates to how the Butterfly and Caterpillar are not so different and when asking for Pac's perspective, he gets no reply, tying to the theme of breaking the cycle, with Tupac unable to do so due to his death.
- N-Word Privileges: Discussed at the end of "i".
- Once More, with Clarity!: Throughout the album, Kendrick progressively recites more and more of a poem, adding lines after the end of each song. The album concludes with The Reveal that the whole poem is being recited to Tupac Shakur.
- Protagonist-Centered Morality: Averting this trope was the point of "The Blacker the Berry".
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: From the "For Free? (Interlude)": "THIS. DICK. AIN'T. FREEEEEEEE!"
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: "u" is a self-directed diatribe by Kendrick denying that he's ever done anything worthwhile in his life. His music, his fame, and his compassion are all called into question until the final verse climaxes as Kendrick admits his money can't overcome his "suicidal weakness."
- The Reveal:
- "How Much a Dollar Cost" ends with the old man who keeps asking Kendrick for a dollar (only for Kendrick to refuse to help each time) revealing that he is God, and Kendrick's greed has cost him his spot in heaven.
- The whole album ends with Kendrick reciting a poem and getting a little bit further each time. The final track, "Mortal Man", reveals that Kendrick is reciting the full poem to Tupac Shakur.
- Self Empowerment Anthem: "i", which is especially powerful considering its heavy contrast with "u".
- Survivor Guilt: As detailed in "u", Kendrick went through a depression that was onset by personal guilt from making it out of Compton and seemingly abandoning his roots, and watching a lot of his Compton friends get killed.A friend never leave Compton for profit
Or leave his best friend, little brother
You promised youd watch him before they shot him.
- Take That!: "King Kunta" takes shots at rappers who use ghostwriters, rappers who didn't actually earn their success and just hopped on the latest trend, and people who blindly follow the next big thing (i.e., Kendrick) just because they're popular.
- Textless Album Cover: The album's title is nowhere to be found.
- Wham Line:
- The Reveal of the identity of the old man in "How Much a Dollar Cost" changes the entirety of the song before it."You're lookin' at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, 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."
- In "The Blacker the Berry," Kendrick repeatedly tells the listener that he's "the biggest hypocrite of 2015" and hints that "once [he] finish[es] this," it will be clear to the listener why he saying this. The song ends with the following lines:So don't matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers
Or tell Georgia State "Marcus Garvey got all the answers"
Or try to celebrate February like it's my B-Day
Or eat watermelon, chicken, and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements
Or watch BET cause urban support is important
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street
When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?
- At the end of "Mortal Man";
- The Reveal of the identity of the old man in "How Much a Dollar Cost" changes the entirety of the song before it.
- What the Hell, Hero?: "How Much a Dollar Cost" is essentially God sending this message to Kendrick in the midst of his fame-induced greed.