Released just a week ago, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is already in contention to be one of the best albums of the year. “Wesley’s Theory,” the opening track, serves as a microcosm for the entire album. It is incredibly complex and multi-faceted in terms of themes and sounds, and I cannot get enough of it. Although I am a huge fan of the album, this song hits particularly hard. It has been my personal favorite from the album so far.
Purely from a sonic standpoint, “Wesley’s Theory” sets the tone for the record. It brings the funk and the energy, while including an excellent usage of sampling. In another aspect, the George Clinton feature signifies the importance of funk in the album. Perhaps more importantly, his feature stresses the cultural relevance of To Pimp A Butterfly. Funk music’s roots in African American pride and individualism reveal why George Clinton’s feature is so significant. So, it is clear that the presence of funk on the record emphasizes the importance of African American pride.
Interestingly enough, George Clinton (and Parliament Funkadelic) songs were used extensively by Dr. Dre for sampling, particularly on The Chronic. Both artists were featured on this track, which brings the relationship between each other full circle.
Back to content of the song itself – the track utilizes a sample that correlates with a greater theme of pride, which is highlighted in “i,” a track near the end of the album. It also examines the caterpillar/butterfly metaphor for which the album is named. There is some explanation to the metaphor in the last track “Mortal Man,” if you are interested in looking more into it.
George Clinton then introduces us to the album: “When the four corners of this cocoon collide, You’ll slip through the cracks hoping that you’ll survive; Gather your wind, Are you really who they idolize?, To pimp a butterfly.” Although there are infinite interpretations of what this metaphor means, I think there is one fundamental idea behind it. This is the thought that we need to examine ourselves as people to see if our unique skills and qualities are being “pimped.” Kendrick uses this metaphor to examine himself to see if he is simply being used by the music industry. good kid, m.A.A.d city was filled with deep tracks that ended up being radio and party hits (“Swimming Pools” comes to mind). In a way, some of his songs that had a lot of meaning were watered down to just another song on the radio. This may be a reason why he took such a different direction with To Pimp A Butterfly.
All of the above occurs before the first verse even hits! The first verse looks back at the time before Kendrick was signed to a major label and really made it big. Before good kid, m.A.A.d city. Not long after, Dre comes in and hits Kendrick with a reality check regarding the difficulty to stay relevant. Here he acknowledges that everyone is expecting something big from him to follow up GKMC. To do this, he crafted an album that is nearly impossible to compare good kid, m.A.A.d city.
Perhaps the most significant part of the second verse is this line, which is seemingly coming from Uncle Sam: “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 Snipes your ass before 35.”
Clearly, this is where the title of the song comes from. For those unaware, Wesley Snipes is an African American actor who has become much more known for his tax evasion. This line examines a greater theme in Kendrick’s music: the lack of education and generally harsh living conditions of African Americans still permeate their lives, despite being successful.
Another important factor is that Uncle Sam, a symbol of patriotism, independence, and America, is the one reciting the second verse. This factor introduces a harsh reality about the United States. We have a perception that we live in a country that offers anyone the opportunity to succeed, but certain living conditions make this American Dream impossible for many, many people. Even someone who manages to be successful, such as Wesley Snipes, still end ups in financial trouble ultimately because of initial living conditions.
I feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of this song, let alone all of To Pimp A Butterfly. Regardless of the record’s place in the grand scheme of music or hip-hop, at the very least it poses questions about who we are as people and the kind of world in which we live. This song in particular reminds us to examine ourselves to see if we are being “pimped” and that the American Dream is not attainable just because you live in the United States.