When I first played this banger from Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp a Butterfly", I absolutely loved it but had no idea what he was talking about. Like many listeners, I vibed with the instrumentation (especially the funk) and the energy, and that was enough to be a fan.
My mistake was thinking that the song was covering one topic, and I didn't understand where the multiple references that seemed unlinked were coming from.
The more I played the song, the more I began to pick up on the lyrical content, and I discovered that Kendrick was hitting a few different heavy topics with this single using some top-tier lyrical wordplay.
Kendrick and Thundercat co-wrote this funkadelic track, while Terrace Martin, Michael Kuhle, and Sounwave were credited as producers.
It's a very complex track that also takes many different samples and lyrics from other songs and artists, including Michael Jackson, James Brown, Fred Wesley, John Starks, and Ahmad.
While the production is a bit simplistic, an earlier draft of it was much jazzier and included much more guitar, according to producer Sounwave, but Kendrick wanted to simplify it and make it sound more "nasty".
He told Spin in an interview:
"The original version of the song was much jazzier. Me, I was like, 'This is it! We got it right here.' I just knew it. And I was waiting for his reaction as he was listening to it, thinking, 'Yes, this is it.' And he's like, 'It's cool… but… I want it a little more nasty.'"
"I ended up stripping a bunch of stuff off; I took all ten guitars off, and it just left one little bass line, and once I did that, I understood 100 percent exactly where he wanted to go with it. He's a genius, he really should have got credit on it, but he was being modest.
Kendrick was adamant about this being a nasty, funky, and almost rebellious track that would turn heads. Even in the context of the whole project, which had much more jazz and soulful flow, this one was meant to be "Michael Jackson bad".
While neither Kendrick nor the creatives involved break the song down, line by line, they have given fans the overall vision of the song's lyrical content thanks to interviews after the song's release.
In an interview with MTV, Lamar stated:
"I've been called many things growing up. In the state of just being a black man, I've been called many things. From my ancestors, they've been called many things. But it's taking that negativity and being proud of it and making it to your own. Saying I am a king no matter what you call me."
When producer Sounwave was asked about the track in an interview with Rolling Stone, he said the following:
"It's just him expressing how he's feeling at the moment, and right now, he's mad."
And in an interview with NME, Kendrick himself told them, "I was just being the most confident in the things that I wrote and the ideas that I have, going back to the essence of being a true lyricist at heart."
B*tch where you when I was walkin'?Now I run the game got the whole world talkin', King Kunta
The hook line above is the main place where Kendrick tells you that he's the king of the rap game. The song is littered with boastful lyrics about what he's done, the money he's made, and how he came from the bottom.
There is power in the fact that he came from the bottom, and now he runs the music world, and he's putting on for his hometown.
Stuck a flag in my city, everybody's screamin' "Compton"I should probably run for Mayor when I'm done, to be honestAnd I put that on my Mama and my baby boo too
He's wondering where was all the support when he wasn't as big, suggesting that some people close to him didn't have faith in him before he got famous, and now he's taking no losses in his career.
Straight from the bottom, this the belly of the beastFrom a peasant to a prince to a motherf*ckin' king
On top of saying he's the best to ever do it, he's looking down on all the other rappers in the music game. He's not coming at anyone in particular, but he is coming strong with general blows that could make any rapper take offense.
He starts the song straight up by letting us know that he's mad at multiple rappers in the industry.
I got a bone to pickI don't want you monkey mouth motherf*ckers sittin' in my throne again
Others who were at the top of the game, which some rumor to be direct shots at people like Drake and Kanye, did not deserve that spot while Kendrick was taking a small break from releasing his own material.
I can dig rapping, but a rapper with a ghost writer?What the f*ck happened? (Oh no) I swore I wouldn't tellBut most of y'all share bars, like you got the bottom bunk in a two man cell
Once again, he's not calling anyone in particular out, but he's saying that rappers these days have no originality and rely on other writers to make hit songs.
It's a little playful since Kendrick himself was once a ghostwriter in the rap world, so he supports the process and is just taking a fun jab. He also co-writes with others since Thundercat assisted in writing King Kunta.
Although he doesn't go too in-depth with this side of the lyrics, his interviews and the Kunta Kinte reference in the song are meant to juxtapose what it's like to be black and successful.
Kunta Kinte is a popular fictional character that was known for rebelling against slave owners by trying to escape multiple times and not wanting to change his name.
In the 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Kunta Kinte wound up being punished by having a leg cut off of him, which is a reference Kendrick makes in the chorus.
Everybody wanna cut the legs off him, KuntaBlack man taking no losses
Like slaveowners, people are trying to cut his legs off (his success off) now that he runs the game.
Kunta Kinte was no king in the story, but his character is a hero because of how he stood for what he believed in while living in an unjust world.
In a later verse, Kendrick briefly discusses how black men aren't expected to make it to the age of 25 in America, largely due to police violence, incarceration, and crimes committed due to poverty.
Ah yeah, f*ck the judgeI made it past 25 and there I wasA little nappy headed n*gga with the world behind him
The yams mentioned in this track confuse people because it is a deep metaphor for one or more things. "What's the yams?!"
The yam brought it out of Richard PryorManipulated Bill Clinton with desires
In one example, the yams represent the drugs that led Richard Pryor to light himself on fire. In the other reference, the yams are the sexual temptation from the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal.
"Yams" can be slang for many things, the main one being the backside of a woman. So Kendrick is just using some smart wordplay to showcase that those yams can be a few different things.
The yam is the power that beYou can smell it when I'm walking down the street
Yams represent the temptation that comes along with being on top and having it all. In the novel "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe, yams signify wealth.
Kendrick doesn't detail how he's fighting against the problems that can come along with having the yams, and ends the intro track with a poem that gets fleshed out throughout multiple song outros.
The poem tells an overall story about how Kendrick rose to fame, struggled to the point of considering suicide, and found his way back to the light, now wanting to educate others about his experience.
It seems like the yams got to him a bit, but he bounced back in the end.
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