The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.
On August 11, 1965, the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles was turned upside down by rioting and civil unrest for six days. The melee broke out after an African-American motorist was pulled over for reckless driving. An argument between the driver, the driver’s family and the police escalated to a fight, which later led to unrest. The event became known as the Watts Riots and left $40 million worth of property damage, and 34 people dead.
Over 40 years later, the same ills continued to plague America. Police brutality, particularly at the expense of African Americans, continued to fester after the shooting deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, among many others. In response to the injustices following their deaths, the Black Lives Matter movement was born.
The Watts Riots and other similar incidents during that era inspired Motown’s Marvin Gaye to create the seminal album What’s Going On? Comparably, Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly nearly a half century later at the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, five years after the project’s release, it remains a timestamp for the movement and moreover, one of the most important albums for African Americans in recent history.
To Pimp a Butterfly was a stark contrast to Lamar’s major label debut, good Kid, m.A.A.d city. While the latter was an autobiographical concept album laden with radio hits such as “Swimming Pools,” “Poetic Justice,” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” the Compton emcee’s follow-up effort was heavier, and cryptically covered an amalgam of topics like systemic racism, depression, fame, colorism, politics, gang violence and survivor’s guilt.
But, the album’s subject matter wasn’t the only abstract attribute. Lamar revealed to MTV in 2015 that the title To Pimp a Butterfly has several meanings — one of them being his refusal to let the music industry pimp him.
Over the course of the album, Lamar builds on a poem that covers the aforementioned subject matter. Listeners later find that he had been reciting the poem to Tupac all along. The slain rapper’s vocals, which were from an old interview, were incorporated into a song.
The project’s varied subject matter is also parallel to its style and production. Hip hop is only one of the black genres covered on the album, while other tracks incorporate elements of jazz, gospel, R&B, and Funk. Its unique production was provided by the likes of Terrace Martin, Flying Lotus, and Boi-1da, and various others inspired a host of artists including David Bowie to incorporate similar styles in their music.
But, instrumentation aside, To Pimp A Butterfly’s takes on race and the issues plaguing black people became the most impactful aspects of the album following its release.
The motivational “Alright,” produced by Pharrell Williams and Top Dawg Entertainment’s in-house producer Sounwave, offers black people assurance that they’ll make it through hard times. He touches on police brutality and injustice in the song’s pre-chorus:
“Wouldn’t you know, we been hurt, been down before. N*gga, when our pride was low, lookin’ at the world like, ‘Where do we go?’ N*gga, and we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho.”
The track later went on to become a rally cry for Black Lives Matter protests across the country with crowds chanting the song’s hook: “We gon’ be alright!”
On “The Blacker the Berry,” Lamar ferociously calls out black citizens’ struggles in America over hard-hitting drums. While he calls out all of the ills the country has bestowed upon us as a people over time, he turns an accusatory pointer finger around at the end of the song and calls committers of black-on-black violence hypocrites for protesting when the same act is committed by whites. That single line, which has long been a counter argument for Black Lives Matter critics, sparked widespread debate on social media.
In the months following its release, To Pimp A Butterfly also became the catalyst to pushing black plight into the faces of mainstream audiences. Though D’Angelo may have been the first to call attention to Black Lives Matter on the track “Charades” from his 2014 album Black Messiah, Lamar’s project furthered the message that other artists ally-ooped. Beyoncé delivered her noteworthy 2016 Super Bowl performance that featured her back-up dancers in black panther uniforms. The performance followed the release of the visual for her single “Formation,” which dropped the day prior. The video was politically charged and had scenes that showed the singer on top of a sinking cop car and riot cops.
To Pimp A Butterfly’s heavy messages didn’t fall on deaf ears. It was lauded by critics after its release and was also commercially successful, selling 324,000 copies in its first week and debuting at No. 1 on the record charts in the U.S. and abroad. Lamar also won five Grammys at the 2016 ceremony for it, as well as one Grammy for the song “i” the previous year.
But, beyond the critical and commercial success, the album was important because it came at a critical moment in American history. It’s the masterpiece that modern generations of black people needed. The “Boomers” had Marvin to tell their story. Millennials have Kendrick Lamar.