Reportedly inspired by a trip Lamar took to Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island during a visit to South Africa in 2014, this song finds the Compton native hoping that he continues the legacy of the South African icon. Lamar explained to MTV News: "We're so confined with hatred and want to point out people's flaws that we don't see the big picture in what they're doing. And it's been done with leaders way before my time. They did it to Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior, feel me? So who am I? I'm just a man, that's why we call it 'Mortal Man.'"
The song features excerpts from Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti's "I No Get Eye for Back," the B-side to his 1974 cut "Alagbon Close."
Lamar interviews on the outro his hero Tupac Shakur, asking him questions about how he dealt with fame and success as well as what is in store for his generation. The late rapper's answers are cut from a interview with the Swedish radio show P3 Soul, recorded in November 1994. "It was Kendrick's idea," Tom Whalley, who signed Tupac to Interscope in 1991 and is working on the rapper's estate, told Billboard magazine. "I thought it was a brilliant idea, and they sent me portions of what he was thinking of doing creatively around it, and I supported it. I knew Kendrick was a fan and influenced by Tupac, and I always do what I think Tupac would do."
"Complexion (A Zulu Love)
" rapper Rapsody remembered to NME
a dream Lamar told her about in which he spoke to Tupac. "I recall him speaking of a dream he had about talking to Pac," she said. "When I heard it, that's what I thought about. It was the Big Homie giving the next one game, to keep the message and fight going for the people. Passing down the knowledge for the new Leader to survive."
To Pimp A Butterfly has a loose concept of a caterpillar and a butterfly. Lamar was a caterpillar during his upbringing in the Compton hood. However, by discovering his rap abilities he made himself into a butterfly, the evolved form of the caterpillar that's admired for its beauty. The Compton rapper ends this track with a spoken-word poem in which he questions why he is now so attractive to all the 'caterpillars' back in his hood, now he has found success and how they can break free of the hood cycle. "Although the caterpillar and butterfly are completely different, they're one and the same," Lamar concludes.
Kendrick Lamar nearly named the album in honor of Tupac Shakur, considering "Tu Pimp A Caterpillar" for the title. "They caught it because the abbreviation was Tupac, Tu-P-A-C," he explained to MTV News. "Me changing it to Butterfly, I just really wanted to show the brightness of life and the word 'pimp' has so much aggression, and that represents several things. For me, it represents using my celebrity for good. Another reason is, not being pimped by the industry through my celebrity."
The Swedish radio host behind the Tupac Shakur interview sampled on this track was Mats Nileskär. Speaking with NME after the release of To Pimp a Butterfly, he described how he was awoken by a phone call from Lamar's label whilst asleep at his Malmo apartment. "I pick up and it's a man from Top Dawg Entertainment," he recalled. "[He tells me that Kendrick] wants to use audio from an old interview of mine. He says only that he has an idea for an art piece."
"Kendrick's version puts subtle variations on my original interview," Nileskär continued. "['To Pimp A Butterfly'] is a wonderful album that I feel so grateful to be involved in, in an indirect way. The way Kendrick changes his voice in his music to create characters in his songs, he's like a virtuoso jazz instrumentalist."
Kendrick Lamar's verses flowed naturally. "He had that song done in probably about an hour," co-producer Sounwave recalled to Revolt. "It was just flowing out of him. He probably had it held in from Africa. It came out so naturally, that it felt like he was just waiting for this track, so I can express this."
Kendrick Lamar raps here: "As I lead this army make room for mistakes and depression." For Lamar, the role of leading an army isn't optional. "You got it whether you want it or not because you have thousands of people singing your songs every night," he told The Guardian. "Your friends at the side of the stage, they're looking at you as somebody who made it. They're following you. And every mistake that you make, they're going to make the same mistakes."
Describing what he felt when he wrote the line, "Found myself screaming in the hotel room," Lamar told NPR: "The feeling was missing home. The feeling was, I should be with my family right now when they're going through hardships, with the loss of my dear friends that's constantly passing while I'm out on this road. The feeling was, 'How am I influencing so many people on this stage rather than influencing the ones that I have back home?' That's the feeling: being inside the hotel room, and these thoughts I'm just pondering back and forth while I look at the ceiling all night."