Everyone is susceptible to consumerism, from college students to famous rappers. Kendrick explores this issue in “Wesley’s Theory,” noticing the feeling of slipping into the hands of Uncle Sam. This can be overly tempting given the ease of access to avenues of consumption, especially when shopping online can be done between (or during) classes. With such easy access and after being bred into a culture of consumption, we basically “can live at the mall,” as he puts it on “Alright.”
In “How Much Does A Dollar Cost,” Kendrick examines what a dollar means, and emphasizes that we are often selfish and too attached to these physical things we own, whether its what we’ve bought or the money itself. As he puts it later in “Alright,” there isn’t “a profit big enough to feed you.” Sure, it looks nice, but don’t think that buying that tenth beanie is going to fulfill you.
Your past, including where you come from, is a part of who you are. Kendrick struggles with this on “Institutionalized” as he realizes even with his major success, he would still be able to go back to the hood and kill someone. He knows even if he were president, he would still want to "get high." Listeners can see how he thought that maybe he’d be able to leave that past behind. But there is no erasing the past, so it’s better to accept it and grow stronger.
No matter where you came from before Boston College, don't try to shove your past or where you came from into the recesses of your mind. Recognize how your past influences and past experiences are a part of what makes you who you are.
Misusing your power will not bring you happiness. Kendrick begins “These Walls” saying a poem that he pieces together as the album goes on. “I remember you was conflicted, abusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same.”
Kendrick then recites a story of being able to utilize his fame to get with a woman who was once with the man who killed Kendrick’s close friend. Essentially, he abused his influences as a famous person to incite revenge. Kendrick knows it is debatable, and he probably doesn’t actually feel much better afterwards.
As they say, with great power comes great responsibility. And after misusing his power, he was “full of resentment” and “resentment turned into a deep depression.” As we become more involved in clubs on campus, and then in internships, and jobs or careers soon enough, it is good to keep in mind that there are consequences to abusing power.
Alcohol is an unhealthy way to deal with your problems. Partying and drinking are fun, and going to the Mods with your friends can be a blast, but next time you go out and drink because you had a bad day, rethink whether you actually want to rely on that substance to deal with your issues.
Kendrick’s drunken stupor on "U" shows us how it never ends well, and ultimately leads him to search for answers elsewhere. We must find a healthy way to deal with our internal struggles and find inner peace, and that will not come from liquor.
Life is full of temptations. On “For Sale,” Kendrick raps as if from the perspective of “Lucy” (Lucifer/the devil). He demonstrates how temptations affect us all but, while we will sometimes give in to them, it is best to try not to do so. Based on the state of craze that Kendrick enters around this point in the album, giving in to these vices and temptations don’t bring him happiness, but instead give him worse, more intense internal struggles. When we do give in to temptations, it is important to learn from those mistakes and become better, just as Kendrick attempts to do.
Don’t choose your actions based on the hopes of fitting in. On “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said),” Kendrick tells us all that “you ain’t gotta lie to kick it… you ain’t gotta try so hard.” If you are doing things in your day to day life that are simply done to receive acceptance in the hopes of fitting in, it's worth reexamining what you’re doing and why you’re trying to impress someone. Maybe it sounds cliché, but if they are actually worth getting to know, they will accept you for who you are.
Racial issues still exist, and they are enormously complicated. Kendrick paints a complex picture of race, from the debt Kendrick says America owes to him on “For Free?” to the acknowledgement that Kendrick and others “hate po-po” because the police “wanna kill us dead in the street for sure” on his track “Alright.” On "King Kunta," he contrasts slavery with kingship and shows how, in some ways, his rise to fame can be seen in that way.
“Complexion” and “Blacker the Berry” both demonstrate how racism isn’t as simple as one race versus another, but it also manifests itself in an intraracial way. In “Blacker the Berry,” he questions how there can be such a conflict between ideas, where he could weep for Trayvon Martin’s death, but then kill a black man himself. In the album version of "I," he discusses the complexity of the n-word, how it’s “infamous” and “sensitive,” and it’s more than simply a wholly good or bad thing.
The main takeaway is that racial issues still very much exist, both within and outside of the BC bubble. Sometimes it is easy to get sucked into the BC life and shy away from issues that make us uncomfortable--that make us feel like maybe everything isn’t actually alright in the world.
As students, we should learn more about these issues, whether that means taking the time to listen to Kendrick’s verses and think them over, staying informed on current events relating to the topic or even taking action in some form. Ultimately, we must realize that race is complex, significant and relevant to our lives.
If you want to achieve something and actually change society, it will take hard work. As Drake wisely once said, when it comes down to it, "More is always said than done." Not to overgeneralize, but our generation does seem to abandon a cause if it takes more work than posting about it online or sharing a viral video.
For years we've heard that we should "be all [we] can be" and follow our dreams, but Kendrick challenges that, saying, "True. But the problem is a dream's only a dream if work don't follow it." The song then goes on to say (perhaps a tad crudely), "shit don't change until you get up and wash your ass." If we want things to change, we have to clean up our acts and work for it.
We will always be students. Technically, after we're done with higher education, we are done learning in a formal setting. But how much do we actually know after a mere four years of college? Kendrick speaks to this fact in "Momma," where he begins a verse by telling you everything he knows, which he believes to be everything--morality, spirituality, himself.
At the end, however, he realizes he actually knows nothing, much like Socrates did. That doesn't mean he literally thinks he knows nothing (and his intellectually stimulating album would prove otherwise), but he overcompensates in the hopes of getting across an important message--there is always more to learn. Just because you aren't living in a dorm and worrying about a test next Monday doesn't mean you aren't a student.
Music is more than just a form of entertainment. Let's be honest: pre-games and off-campus parties wouldn't be the same without Bruno Mars and Chris Brown, without Iggy Azalea and Meghan Trainor. And there is something extremely valuable in a musician's ability to create that much happiness for a group of people. But sometimes music is more than that. It challenges us; it asks us to question not only what is around us, but also ourselves.
Kendrick's new album is more daunting than Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City specifically because of this fact. Some might dismiss the album's new style and wish for the "old Kendrick," the one who has songs that someone can pull out from the bunch and bump, like with "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" or "Swimming Pools (Drank)."
But while that album was amazing in its own respect, To Pimp A Butterfly finds Kendrick giving us a thesis in the form of a poem that recurs throughout the album, one that builds with each passing song, until we finally hear the full version in the final track.
This creates an album that works best as an album, building from start to finish. And although the songs are beautiful and entertaining, they are not meant to hype us up for a night out; they are not meant to "bump." They are meant to present thoughts and ideas in a way that all great literature does--giving multiple points of view, sometimes in contradictory ways, and not necessarily handing the audience clear-cut answers to the questions he poses. Ultimately, this album is meant to make us think. And isn't that what being a student is all about?