You’ll slip through the cracks hopin' that you’ll survive
Gather your wit, take a deep look inside
Are you really who they idolize?
To pimp a butterfly
Following in the footsteps of his previous work, good kid, m.A.A.d city, and in contrast to Lamar’s previous projects, To Pimp a Butterfly took more heavily from jazz, avant-garde, 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 album’s 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 a climax in the album's final track, "Mortal Man".
The album was heavily inspired by a trip Lamar took to South Africa in 2014, where he visited historical sites such as Nelson Mandela’s jail cell, birthing recurring motifs like Apartheid, distinctions between African and American culture, or institutionalization, among many others. As a result, Kendrick creates many allegorical comparisons between Compton and South Africa in the album's lyrics, especially on the song "Momma."
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."
- Wesley’s Theory (4:47)
- For Free? (Interlude) (2:10)
- King Kunta (3:54)
- Institutionalized (4:31)
- These Walls (5:00)
- u (4:28)
- Alright (3:39)
- For Sale? (Interlude) (4:51)
- Momma (4:43)
- Hood Politics (4:52)
- How Much a Dollar Cost? (4:21)
- Complexion (A Zulu Love) (4:23)
- The Blacker the Berry (5:28)
- You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Mama Said) (4:01)
- i (5:36)
- Mortal Man (12:07)
You was deserted, where was your tropes again?
- Album Title Drop: The page quote, which is from the opening track "Wesley's Theory".
- 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.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Uncle Sam in "Wesley's Theory", who offers Kendrick a life of luxury at the beginning of his verse, goading into indulging in expensive excesses, and ending with this passage:And when you hit the White House, do you
But remember, you ain't pass economics in school
And everything you buy, taxes will deny
I'll Wesley Snipe your ass before thirty-five
- 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.
- Darker and Edgier: Much darker and more introspective than good kid, m.A.A.d city, as it explores a variety of political and personal themes related to race, culture, and discrimination.
- 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 water
And if I gotta brown-nose for some gold
Then I'd rather be a bum than a motherfuckin' baller
- Fading into the Next Song: The whole album.
- 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.
- Humble Hero: In "Mortal Man", Kendrick describes himself as such:I'm no mortal man; maybe I'm just another nigga.
- Jazz Rap: Thanks to the experimental production of the album, jazz rap has a significant influence on many of the tracks.
- Longest Song Goes Last: The 12:07 album closer "Mortal Man". Worth nothing, though, that only the first 5 minutes are music, while the rest of it features Kendrick talking to no other than 2Pac in regards to political awareness.
- 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.
- New Sound Album: While it is still considered rap, the album is also heavily influenced from jazz, avant-garde, soul, and funk.
- Never Got to Say Goodbye: In "u", Kendrick tears into himself for never visiting his dying friend in person to the hospital.
- 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.
- "Not So Different" Remark: The end of "The Blacker The Berry", where Kendrick compares himself to Trayvon Martin's killer, as they've both participated in the general violence against Black people.
- N-Word Privileges: Discussed at the end of "i".
- Old Beggar Test: In "How Much A Dollar Cost".
- 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 you’d 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.