“Having said this, she [Mary Magdalene] turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus” (John 20:14).
When it comes to hip-hop music too many people pull a Mary Magdalene. Jesus is right in front of them, but they do not see it. Where they look for death, there is life. Where they see vulgarity, cursing, and profanity there is struggle, love, and holiness. I am not denying that death exists within hip-hop, but just like Jesus uses the tomb as his cocoon, Kendrick Lamar, in his recently released album To Pimp a Butterfly, uses the metaphorical death that he experienced in Compton to explore his transformation from death to life and to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Here’s the last quote on Kendrick’s final song of the album, “Mortal Man”:
The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it
Its only job is to eat or consume everything around it, in order to protect itself from this mad city
While consuming its environment the caterpillar begins to notice ways to survive
One thing it noticed is how much the world shuns him, but praises the butterfly
The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar
But having a harsh outlook on life the caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak and figures out a way to pimp it to his own benefits
Already surrounded by this mad city the caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon which institutionalizes him
He can no longer see past his own thoughts
When trapped inside these walls certain ideas take roots, such as going home, and bringing back new concepts to this mad city
Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant
Finally free, 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
This quote makes clear the theme and purpose of the entire album. Keeping this quote in mind, in this post I will go through and break down all of the Christian themes throughout his album in an attempt to show that God’s word can shine in the darkest places.
Kendrick starts off To Pimp a Butterfly with two songs (“Wesley’s Theory” and “For Free?”) commenting on how America, fame, and society all try to “pimp” a butterfly. The butterfly is an image for a being that is already beautiful, and the fact that society wants to “pimp” the butterfly means they want to try and make it more than it is meant to be. This idea is repulsive to the listener because the butterfly, as God designed it, is already beautiful, and if we added anything to it that was not meant to be there, we would end up destroying the beauty of the butterfly. The theme we see here is one of the fallen fruit. By humans desiring to amend God’s divine creation order we end up destroying it.
By the third song, “King Kunta,” Kendrick realizes that he is a caterpillar. He is a prisoner to the streets that conceived him and he finds himself consumed with vanity. By desiring to be king of the hood, he ignores the advice of the battle-hardened beautiful butterflies, and seeks to make himself God of the streets. However, just like Adam and Eve, Kendrick’s vanity turns into vice. As he falls into the evils of abusing money and women he becomes more introspective in the songs “Institutionalized” and “These Walls.” In these two songs he enters into the cocoon phase of his life after exhausting the resources of the world. In “Institutionalized” he realizes that wealth corrupts and brainwashes people. And in “These Walls” he explores the human mind’s propensity for both good and evil. He uses birth imagery in this song in a way that is parallel to the doctrine of original sin. These walls of society, prison, and the womb for Kendrick all seem to say, “it’s too late” to be forgiven of your sins. This is the conclusion Kendrick is forced to come to in a world without God.
Then he turns to my favorite song, “u.” This manically depressed, alcohol infused, introspective rant represents the bottom of Kendrick’s life. He covers the death of one of his best friends, the pain of watching his little sister struggle, and how he his attempts to be God of the streets have failed him over and over again. He realizes that no matter how much money, power, and influence he has he still is not the ultimate authority. It is at this low that he begins to defer to the authority of God: “God himself would say ‘you f***in’ failed, you ain’t try.’” This song ends with the powerful claim “the world’ll know money can’t stop a suicidal weakness.” At this point, the light of the gospel is beginning to spark in this album. This is a reference to Matthew 6:24, which claims, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” After the realization of the powerlessness of wealth and fame, Kendrick begins to explore ideas of God in “Alright.”
“But if God got us, Then we gon’ be alright.” As Kendrick starts contemplating God’s divine grace, he accepts that in life you reap what you sow. He knows he has sown a great deal of evil, but he trusts that God can forgive him for the weaknesses of his flesh. However, as every Christian knows, as soon as you try to turn back to God, the devil tries to halt your progress. Thus in the second verse the devil comes into the song, personified under the name “Lucy.” Lucy tempts him by offering him money, fame, and the world, which Lucy claims would make him forget his sins, but Kendrick responds by claiming he cannot right his wrongs until he gets right with God. In a manner similar to the temptations of Jesus in the desert, Kendrick responds to the devil’s lavish temptations by simply stating he will only serve the Lord.
This idea of the devil’s temptation is continued more extensively in the song “For Sale? (Interlude).” The devil tempts the Kendrick by offering him money and a mansion for his mother. Kendrick admits that the devil is working hard to cause him to fall, but Kendrick’s metamorphosis has begun and cannot be reversed. At the end of “Alright” he reverses the hook in “i” from “loving you is complicated” to “loving me is complicated.” In “i” he used the pronoun you as a means of disowning himself, because he could not bear the weight of his sins on his own. However, in “Alright” he changes the pronoun to me because with Jesus he has the strength to deal with himself even through this self-love remains complicated.
“Thank God for rap, I would say it got me a plaque, but what’s better than that? The fact it brought me back home. [Chorus of Angelic like voices] We’ve been waiting for you, waiting for you, waiting for you,” Kendrick sings on the next song, “Momma.” In this song, Kendrick makes it out of this phase of self-hate and temptation by the devil as he returns home to Compton. For him, Compton is symbolically his Garden of Eden/Heaven. Not only do the angels rejoice at his return like the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but also he through his trials and tribulations has gained a new vision and understanding of life. “Momma” is his rebirth. This is the song in which the angels rejoice at the return of a lost one. This is the song in which Kendrick breaks out of the cocoon and spreads his wings of love. He is now a butterfly, he is now a Son of God, and he is now a Christian.
What you have just heard is his testimony, his vulgar, graphic, but unabashedly true testimony. Sure, people may have drawbacks about how Kendrick told his testimony, and it surely is not a church-appropriate testimony, but it is a real testimony. This is an album of his life uncensored and told in the language of hip-hop. Whether or not you like the language, as a Christian you have to like the message.
But the story does not end here! As a Christian who has returned home to share his gospel with his hood, Kendrick now has to deal with the problem of being a butterfly in a land full of caterpillars, or, in other-words, a Christian in the land of dry bones. In “Hood Politics” he deals with the problems of navigating a hood of violence trying to preach a gospel of peace. Racist Police, Gangs, “DemoCrips and ReBloodlicans” are all symbols of the Pandora’s box that has been released in the hood. Kendrick does not offer an answer to these problems in this song, but he makes a great segue into the next song where he meets God.
In “How Much a Dollar Cost.” Kendrick meets a homeless man who asks him for dollar or for some food. (Think Matthew 25:45, “”He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”) After rapping about the audacity of this man to ask him for money the homeless man eventually says “Have you ever looked at Exodus 14? A humble man is all that we ever need.” This powerful reference to Moses parting the Red Sea is God’s way of telling Kendrick that one humble man can lead a nation from slavery to freedom. Kendrick must use his platform to help black America learn to love themselves for the butterflies they are, instead of letting Uncle Sam pimp them. Black people do not need to change from how God already made them, they just need to learn to love themselves and trust God.
Understanding the “bittersweet” potential of Kendrick, God warns Kendrick to avoid greed because a dollar will cost you heaven or in other words the wages of sin are death: “He looked at me and said, “Know the truth, it’ll set you free/ You’re lookin’ at the Messiah… I’ll tell you just how much a dollar cost/ The price of having a spot in Heaven, embrace your loss, I am God!”
After this encounter with God, Kendrick begins to preach love in “Complexion (A Zulu Love).” He talks about loving women respectfully because they are God’s creation. Rhapsody is featured on this track and in the second verse she deals with the necessity of loving yourself so that you may love everyone else. This conveys the theme of loving your neighbor as you love yourself.
This song transitions to the most thematically complex song on his album “The Blacker the Berry.” This song really deserves an entire article and its potent messages go beyond the scope of this post. In short, he is talking about the problems of institutionalized racism and how it makes it hard to love oneself like he stated in the song “Complexion (A Zulu Love).” Implementing the godly ideals of love in a society full of hate is inherently confusing and paradoxical.
In the next song “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” he comments on how those who are evil seem to prosper in this world, but it is merely illusory. He then as the leader of the hood and a butterfly tells the caterpillars that they do not have to engage in drugs, sex, and violence. These are all acts of hate, self-hate and external hate. Kendrick demands that these destructive and sinful actions stop, then he offers and alternative way of action in the next song titled “i.”
Kendrick’s “i” shows what can happen when black people truly learn to love in a way that God would. Even though the entire album of To Pimp a Butterfly is full of themes of depression and hate, this song, like “Momma,” is a beacon of hope. “i” is an upbeat song full of self-love as seen in the chorus that repeats “I love myself!” This song embodies the idea that you cannot love your neighbor if you do not love yourself. In this song Kendrick has his second most important quote in To Pimp a Butterfly (Second to the butterfly analogy in “Mortal Man”). In this intermission to the song, Kendrick enters into a spoken word type flow in which he talks about how the “n word” has been used to cause black people to hate themselves and concomitantly hate everyone else. He offers an alternative word from the Ethiopian dialect that is phonetically similar to the “n word” but its meaning and effects are radically different.
Well this is my explanation straight from Ethiopia
N-E-G-U-S definition: royalty; King royalty – wait listen
N-E-G-U-S description: Black emperor, King, ruler, now let me finish
The history books overlooked the word and hide it
America tried to make it to a house divided
The homies don’t recognize we be using it wrong
So I’mma break it down and put my game in the song
N-E-G-U-S, say it with me
Or say no more
With this claim Kendrick makes it clear that at the core of his message is love. Even though this is targeted towards the black community, its message is true for all races. If you do not love yourself you cannot love anyone else. Kendrick concludes his album with “Mortal Man.” In this song he talks about loyalty. Even though he ask for his fans to be loyal to him, since he roots his faith in God, then by following Kendrick they are following God. The question he asks his fans is when things get tough, are they still going to be fans of the love ethic that he is preaching? When life is hard are they still going to love God? Kendrick wants people to know his message so well that if he never makes another song they would have the gospel in their hearts so they would know where to go. I see this song as his alter call. He is asking them to take Love/Jesus into their hearts so that they will not need Kendrick to guide them, but rather the one and only Immortal Man will guide them for eternity.
In this album Kendrick covers a large amount of ground. We see his walk through the desert, his baptism symbolized by the cocoon, and his commitment to the great commission as seen by his status as a butterfly.
I implore you to listen to his album one more time and instead of looking for death, look for life, because the gospel of Jesus Christ radiates throughout To Pimp a Butterfly. As you listen to this album, I want you to ask yourself: what phase of Christianity are you in? Are you a caterpillar who thinks love is an ethic for the weak? Are you inside an introspective cocoon looking for meaning in life? Or are you a battle-hardened butterfly who goes back to help caterpillars spread their wings and fly? No matter where you are in life I am sure that God is watching over you.
Julian Nunally ’17 lives in Lowell House, and in his spare time throws rocks for sport. He is an aspiring minister and a lover of humanity.