Kendrick Lamar. Tupac Amaru Shakur. Two complicated poets disguised as rappers in two different eras. Kendrick, who originally went by the stage name K-Dot, started to gain buzz on the Billboard Charts in 2010 – fourteen years after Pac’s death. He was 9 years old when the legendary California rapper was gunned down in a drive-by shooting. The murder mystery has remained a cold case since then. Who killed Pac? Who killed the conflicted ‘concrete rose’ who could quote Shakespeare and Mandela in the same conversation? Well, we’ve all read the speculations, but still no arrest.
No doubt about it, Kendrick constantly credits Pac as his biggest influence. Okay, everyone else does too… but this is different. They both represent Cali like a badge of honor. Any search engine can easily verify that. If Pac was still alive, he WOULD be proud of Kendrick’s efforts. “Overly dedicating” his career to revitalizing the West Coast hip-hop scene we first fell in love with in the early 90’s. The golden era when low-riders were steady bumpin’ to funky melodic beats with dirty lyrics your grandma wouldn’t want you playin’. If you know why I put “overly dedicating” in quotation marks, you may be a bigger hip-hop fan than you think.
Here’s why this blog post is titled: “How Tupac’s concrete rose became Kendrick Lamar’s pimped butterfly.” Let me give you a breakdown.
K-Dot and Pac both realized early on in their careers that young hip-hop fans “never do listen unless it comes with an 808.” That’s a direct quote from an old Kendrick song. An 808 is a drum machine that can create powerful rhythmic beats. The machine breaks genre barriers – heavily embraced in EDM, pop, along with Miami bass music and the Atlanta trap sound. What Kendrick means is if a message comes with an 808, the message may actually get HEARD by the youth. After all, music has an ability to make people listen. This is what I meant by ‘poets disguised as rappers.’ They both ingeniously lace beats with rhyme schemes and powerful messages that challenge the status quo.
Both poets introduced two metaphors with striking similarities. “The concrete rose” and “the butterfly.” In Tupac’s poem about the concrete rose, he describes a rose that grew from a crack in a concrete. A seed that wasn’t expected to blossom sprouted to the surface with damaged petals. The rose is Tupac. The concrete is the rough environment he survived. The damaged petals are his battle scars. He wasn’t expected to sprout and blossom the way he did.
Before he was even born, Pac was in prison. His mother sat behind bars while she was pregnant. He would spend the rest of his life feeling imprisoned by societal limitations. This poem represents Tupac the optimist.
As we all know, there are different versions of Pac. This analysis focuses on the man who encouraged people to reach their goals despite their circumstances. While society may wonder why your petals are damaged, Tupac wanted you to see the beauty in your resilience. In order for a rose to grow from a crack in the concrete, it had to adapt to it’s environment. Adaptation is a common theme between Pac’s rose and K-Dot’s butterfly.
Kendrick Lamar’s butterfly metaphor unintentionally appears as a continuation of the concrete rose storyline. The title of his 2015 album “To Pimp A Butterfly” tells the story of a caterpillar that represents his inner demons. We are all caterpillars hoping and praying to one day spread our wings and reach our potential.
Kendrick describes a thought-provoking analysis of the caterpillars he knows in Compton. Those growing up in a black culture emotionally distressed by poverty, gun violence, gang activity and distrust for law enforcement. Will they ever become butterflies? Will their wings be clipped? Will they settle for being a caterpillar for the rest of their life? Talking about how they coulda-woulda-shoulda took the time to invest in themselves (cocoon phase).
Kendrick says the caterpillar can feel institutionalized by the cocoon, same way the seed can feel limited by the crack in the concrete. Both have to endure the challenging process of being confined to find their own unique beauty. Their own individual identity. The reason why Kendrick’s butterfly metaphor is a continuation of the concrete… is because of his remarkable posthumous conversation with the late California rapper.
In the last song on “To Pimp a Butterfly,” K-Dot uses a 20-year-old audio recording of Pac to chat with the legend. You could consider this the unofficial passing of the baton between two Cali artists who never crossed paths. Kendrick tells Pac about how the caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets and how it must protect itself. This is the “to-be-continued” version of the concrete rose twenty-five years after the poem was written.
Because of his tragic death, Tupac will forever be frozen in time as a 25-year-old MC who could have accomplished so much more. Remembered in time as a bright-eyed, gifted, unapologetically black and a socially-conscious optimist.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Both artists have survived living in violent environments. Their humble beginnings made them tempered, woke and untamed in their music. Let that sink in. Tempered. Woke. Untamed. Spiritually enlightened and informed like Mandela. Passionate like Malcolm. Mainstream like RUN DMC. Edgy like Easy-E. And enough successful radio hits to make Taylor Swift fans rap along to the not-so-clean lyrics.
Tupac would be proud of Kendrick. Tupac Amaru Shakur. A conflicted legend who disguised himself as a gangster rapper. Misusing his influence every now and then to live up to a dangerous hype he helped create. (you know, the infamous feud with Biggie Smalls).
I’ll end this post with what Kendrick would tell Pac if he was still alive today. An excerpt from his song Mortal Man:
“I remember you was conflicted. Misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same. Abusing my power, full of resentment. Resentment that turned into a deep depression. Found myself screaming in the hotel room. I didn’t wanna self destruct. The evils of Lucy was all around me. So I went running for answers. Until I came home. But that didn’t stop survivor’s guilt. Going back and forth trying to convince myself the stripes I earned. Or maybe how A-1 my foundation was. But while my loved ones was fighting the continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one. A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination. Made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned.The word was respect. Just because you wore a different gang color than mine’s. Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man. Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets. If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us. But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man, maybe I’m just another…”