“Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes,” James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985
Anything visual evokes mental stimulation and revolves around emotions. How did it make you feel? What did it make you think? When Kendrick Lamar let visual interpretation lead the promotion for To Pimp A Butterfly, music videos “i,” “King Kunta” and “Alright” all walked down similar paths. The three singles, none of which have made any major dent on terrestrial radio, all are unified by themes of self: appreciation, actualization and reliance.
The initial sentiment behind To Pimp A Butterfly was that it was so dense, so layered as if Lamar wanted to express a million thoughts in 80 minutes. As time has passed since its March 15 release, it becomes more apparent that To Pimp A Butterfly wasn’t singularly about being black and weary of fame and position in today’s America. It is more about the realization that sanity can only be found if one happens to realize the power of self.
While the videos for “i,” “King Kunta,” and “Alright” all represented different strains of smiling in the face of adversity — in some ways subtle and other ways brash — the fourth video from TPAB, “For Free? (Interlude),” offers a bit of comedy. Lamar, in many forms, antagonizes a woman to the point where she’ll forever have to deal with him. The spastic, jazzy nature of the song rides right into the video where Lamar goes into multiplicity mode, taking over the mansion by declaring his own self-worth in more ways than one.
Critics didn’t exactly know what to do last September when Lamar presented “i” as a lead single — The Isley Brothers sample that was way too easy to point out, the complete departure from anything as hard as “m.A.A.d city” or the “Control” verse. “i” was a moment of a man reaching for identity. In the buildup to To Pimp A Butterfly, Lamar identified himself as a voice, someone with nappy hair, a dark complexion and a firmer grasp on who he wanted to be as an artist. He was looser, joyful, with half of his body out of Ron Isley‘s big Cadillac in a nod to Heath Ledger’s The Joker role. “i” was about acceptance to Lamar and the video matched it. The tones of a smoked out jam session stood out, not to mention K-Dot leading the people like a Pied Piper, one jerk of his body in a groove at a time.
If the sentiment of being a leader seemed subtle in “i,” it was more than apparent in the song and visual for “King Kunta.” He took the throne, untouchable and recognized from coast to coast. Lamar used the warm hues and colors of “King Kunta” as a parade through Compton as his version of Dr. Dre‘s “Still D.R.E.,” a West Coast visual hallmark in its own right. He stood atop the famous Swap Meet sign, strolled through convenience stores and neighborhoods as if he were in a West Coast motorcade. The Director X clip played upon history, one the Toronto based videographer was quick to recognize.
“I’d heard [the story about a young Kendrick seeing ‘Pac at the swap meet], but I don’t know anything definitively,” X told Complex in April. “We went there really just to keep with the West vibe. I mean we knew that Wal-Mart bought it, but once we got there and saw it’s actually closed it became this kind of big going away party.”
Self-actualization recalls the desire to give to society. “Alright” is the sum of what “King Kunta” and “i” started to tell as a story. Lamar, much like Baldwin’s The Price Of The Ticket, continues to peel layers to make himself and his message more defined. What viewers get from “Alright” is stark, yet beautiful: The police carrying Black Hippy like a float in a parade, Kendrick walking on air throughout the Bay and Los Angeles, a superhero perched high above who was willing to stand with the locals. Images roll out of the Compton emcee as a unifier of positivity.
Director Colin Tilley wanted to run with the vision that Lamar and Lamar’s manager Dave Free had given him, one that matched the current events of the day. The final result was breathtaking, a six-minute escape into a scenario where the world finds solace in the movement and words of Kendrick Lamar, before he himself is shot down.
“The whole world we created is like a fantasy, a dream world,” Tilley said of the “Alright” clip in an interview with MTV. “When Kendrick’s floating through the city, that’s him being like a superhero to these kids, him being something these kids can aspire towards. So, when they look up, it’s almost like it’s Superman, but it’s this world we created.”
Every video from To Pimp A Butterfly has wanted to identify with something. Whether it be battling mental health by the realization that the body has power, or that said body can be inspiring to friends and also strangers. The first story Kendrick Lamar wanted to tell can be found in his lyrics. The cinematic yarn where four non-radio singles have been given major spotlights to speak to issues is the latest story. He admits sinking into a deep depression in the blend of “u” into “Alright” but pulls himself out, and with every video wants to pull a new listener out as well.