Teaching Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” in the Music Classroom
When social and political tensions flare, musicians and artists are typically some of the first, as well as some of the most vocal respondents. Whether it was the Greenwich Village folk artists’ musical response to the Vietnam War or Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, we have seen musicians, composers and performers respond to social, political and economic situations with incredible pieces of music.
Given our current racial climate in America, we are experiencing this type of response once again. Following the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, the death of Michael Brown and the tension in Ferguson this past year, as well as other occurrences, Kendrick Lamar released his most recent record and his personal response to the recent racial tension, To Pimp a Butterfly. With powerful, thought-provoking lyrics that reflect upon the perpetuation of violence within his own culture, Lamar points the finger back at himself in “The Blacker the Berry” and comments on Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012. In “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”, Lamar addresses the role of gang activity and its affect on the youth of his native Compton. To Pimp a Butterfly offers a new lens through which to view current events and unique opportunities for the music classroom.
Considerations for the Music Classroom
If you are considering this music for your classroom, make sure to accept that the language within this record could be inappropriate depending on where and whom you teach. You may want to send home a parental consent form. It is within reason to say that this material could be appropriate at the middle school level and if handled correctly, it could be a positive experience for all, but this type of content is likely more at home in a high school setting. Your students should be more aware of the racial atmosphere in the nation at the high school age, as well as more properly equipped to have mature discussions on the material.
Once permission is granted, we can begin to unpack the language that is being used and what it means in the context. Many words have different connotations in the context of hip hop culture. This alone can be very important to discuss in a music classroom. The exercise opens our students’ minds to the role of words in music as well as the meaning that these words hold in a specific context and culture.
Musical themes, elements, and genres
To Pimp a Butterfly carries lyrical and musical themes throughout the the work that can help us apply popular music, something that may be more relevant to your student’s daily musical lives. By using the verbal theme of “I remember you was conflicted”, we can discuss form and track the development of this theme as it recurs throughout the album on songs such as “These Walls” and “King Kunta”. This verbal theme slowly unfolds throughout the album and eventually becomes an entire poem that is recited at the end of the album.
We can use this to relate To Pimp a Butterfly to the development of a musical theme throughout a piece of classical music. This simple connection can be a way to open the doors to furthering student understanding of musical themes and forms, as well as fostering their own creativity and compositional ideas.
You can also discuss this phrase in the context of hip hop and American culture as a whole. “I remember you was conflicted” becomes one of the main themes of the record, unraveling into a full poem that acts as a discussion on the role of influence and addresses Lamar’s role as an influencer. This allows us to have many different discussions on the role of influence in America from multiple sources but, specifically, within hip hop culture.
Beyond the lyrical content, consider the use of predominantly acoustic instruments, intricate harmonies, solos and rich melodies of Lamar’s record. Billboard’s Natalie Weiner even refers to Lamar as the “John Coltrane of hip hop,” a comparison that may not be that great of a stretch. Consider Lamar’s sometimes disjunct, yet somehow still smooth flow and compare it to jazz soloists’ work. Miles Davis’ signature, “broken” phrases may be a great foil. By discussing the flow of different rappers and musicians, we can teach students about individual style and expression in multiple genres.
“i” is a great entry point:
This song contains Lamar’s unmistakable flow, discussions of cultural and racial issues, as well as inventive use of electronic and acoustic instruments, including instrumental solos.
A springboard for composition
Why not have your students deal with hip hop directly through composition? Lamar’s record features beats, such as the one found in “Alright”, that could be used as an exceptional example for a Logic or Garageband composition project making hip hop beats. This may be an especially appealing option if the record’s language is deemed inappropriate for classroom use; instrumental tracks of To Pimp a Butterfly can be easily found with a quick YouTube search.
The record also makes great use of samples and could thus be used as a means to discussing and practicing the topic of sampling in hip hop.
In “Mortal Man” above, Lamar creates a twist on the traditional sample by incorporating material from an interview with Tupac Shakur. He then replaces the original questions with his own and provides an incredible outro to his record. This could serve as a fantastic introduction to the art of sampling as students sample different words and sentences and create new uses for them. This also doubles as a great way to familiarize students with software that will be used in class.
This record can offer a way to open an interdisciplinary discussion on the racial climate in America and hip hop culture — and open the doors to many exciting discussions and projects. With Lamar’s critical dissection of the role of his culture in recent events, To Pimp a Butterfly operates as a fantastic gateway to discussion. Paired with the fact that this record is filled with rich musical elements and ground-breaking techniques, it nearly demands to be discussed in a music classroom. I encourage you to try to bring this fantastic piece of music into your classrooms and to unpack it with your students. It is truly a gift to us as educators.
Special thanks to Dr. Adam Kruse for his helpful insight while I was grappling with these issues.
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