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.
To understand this poem, in all it’s worth and greatness, one must have a firm grasp of the context surrounding it. It was written by Kendrick Lamar, a young rapper from Compton, California and was first introduced throughout his Grammy winning album titled “To Pimp a Butterfly”, widely regarded as his magnum opus. The album discusses Kendrick’s struggle through his growth as an artist and the price of fame. His fall into depression, loss of spirituality and contact with God coupled with an identity crisis and a pursuit of materialism led to a downward spiral that culminated in one of the most rich and soulful albums of the decade, establishing Lamar’s reputation as a pioneer.
The first time I heard the poem above, I felt like I’d just crossed a finish line or free-handedly drawn a perfect circle. To be more specific I felt complete. Although the metaphor above used to describe Kendrick’s life as well as other minorities was slightly complicated and I didn’t fully comprehend what the butterfly and the caterpillar stood for, the words made sense. I had no questions, I simply knew.
From my perspective, the caterpillar represents Kendrick before the fame and wealth. His life growing up in Compton, one of the most infamous cities in California, notorious for its high crime and murder rate left him to grow up contained in a box. He lives the rat race. “Its only job is to eat or consume everything around it, in order to protect itself from this mad city” shows a survivalist mentality because his environment has led him to see life in shades of gray.
The butterfly on the other hand represents the American Dream version of Kendrick. Money, power, fame, women etc. any and all things Kendrick and half of the nation aspires to have when they’re young and poor. To him this comes in the form of a life as a rapper such as the ones on TV. “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”
So he becomes a rapper. Not as a chance to pour his heart out. Not to use his words as the colors on the canvas that is a 16 track mixtape but as a tool. To him music is an accessory. A mean rather than a goal. And so he “figures out a way to pimp (the butterfly) to (his) own benefit”. He mimics the style of other rappers in the beginning of his career and is criticized for it. The cocoon representing the music industry swallows him whole and institutionalizes him.
It then dawns on him that he’s stuck in the same loop. Cornered and alone in the same position he started in, he enters a phase of self-reflection where he realizes the importance of respect. To yourself and others. This is what he hopes to bring back to his community. To the black youth of Compton in order to unify it and break the vicious cycle. This level of self-awareness is displayed in albums that followed such as Section 80 and Good Kid m.A.A.d City which was Grammy nominated.
And that is the point of the album. By showing us his growth and pains, by having us bleed like he did through the use of soulful samples layered over the roundness of a low bass synth and the deliberate distortion of his voice, we learn the truth like he did and we pay it forward. We sprout wings and leave the cocoon. We become butterflies.