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Too Political a Butterfly - Cover Art Visual Analysis

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Too Political a Butterfly

a visual analysis of the cover art to Kendrick Lamar's album To Pimp a Butterfly. Covering political topics and touching on the simple idea of a vacation photo.

The world of hip-hop has grown profoundly over the last decade. Where fans of old school hip-hop believe that the prime, culturally enriched era of the genre belongs to the 1990s, rappers of this generation prove to show their activism, especially towards injustices served to the black community within the last year. Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, proves to be a driving force in re-emerging political awareness within the hip-hop community. With his album To Pimp a Butterfly, an album he dropped on March 15, 2015, he brings light to political inequality in America of course through lyrics but uniquely, through the cover art of this project. The photo Lamar chooses suggests political activism through its symbolism and photo realism.

The photo contains 6 specific features:

  • A handful of shirtless African American men holding cash. The man in the middle, which seems to be Kendrick Lamar, is holding a baby. Some of the men are holding what seems to be bottles of champagne, wearing necklaces, and have cash in their hands and mouths.

  • There are 2 children at the bottom right corner. You can tell they are children because they are significantly smaller than the rest of the people in the photo. One of the little boys is posing similar to the men and the other boy is raising his hands in celebration.

  • There is a judge on the floor and the African American men are positioned behind the judge and posing. The judge is portrayed as dead because of the Xs that are marked on his eyes. In addition, he is holding a gavel in his hands and wearing garments similar to that of a judge.

  • The men are all standing in front of the White House which is evident through the structure, especially the railing at on the roof of the building. In addition, you can see the flag raised on top of the building.

  • The whole photo is framed by a gray border.

  • They are very much aware that they are posing for a picture because all of their faces are looking in the same direction which is to the camera, or audience.

These features in the visual field are all signs that lead to a political story behind the lives of the black community today.

The group of men posing for the camera seems to give off a prideful demeanor. The money they obtain, the jewelry they are wearing, and the bottles of champagne in their hands run parallels to what gold and silver symbolize in Renaissance era. Because these men are posing with these lavish items it suggests that they are successful and capable not only of obtaining wealth but the ability to thrive in society. Because the group of people shares what seems to be the same ethnicity the audience has the power to assume they all know one another and have accomplished something together.

Significantly, alongside the men there are two children at the bottom right corner of the photo. One of the boys is posing similar to the majority of men, perhaps in order to suggest that he too, has accomplished something with them. The little boy on the farthest right adds to the celebratory vibe but in an appropriate childlike way. Ironically, right below the children is the parental advisory explicit content sign, which suggests that the album is not suitable for children.

There are two very political symbols shown in this photo: the judge and the White House. The judge has X marks on his eyes, which insinuates that he is dead. In addition, the judge is in front of all the group of people who are proudly posing for the camera. One can easily assume that the men are celebrating the death of the judge. Behind the group of men is the White House, another symbol that is undeniably political. Though the two symbols can at first glance stand for the same thing, the two symbols hold two significantly different places in the government. The White House is a symbol belonging to the Executive branch, a form of government carrying out federal law headed by the President. Conversely, the judge could stand for the Judicial Branch, a form of government that interprets the constitution in order to decide the rights of a given case. When interpreting the culture code of both of these symbols it at first doesn’t really make sense. However, as we dive deeper into the meaning behind the men posing behind a dead judge it gives light to the character of the people. As they pose in for the camera, their demeanors communicate an impression the society can interpret as intimidating, or scary. When perhaps the judge is portrayed as dead because there should not be an existential being determining whether or not the character of the group of men is good or bad. The symbol of the judge being dead encourages the idea that the only judgment that matters is of a greater being.

A simple yet important feature of the photo is that it is framed by a gray border. This could symbolize that this moment is important and is meant to be celebrated. In an interview with Kendrick Lamar, he explains to MTV that the reason why the men are posing in front of the White House is because he believes that the people he has grown up with and around deserve to see different parts of the world, “whether it be the White House...or London” (Kendrick Lamar Breaks Down Tracks From 'To Pimp A Butterfly). As Kendrick Lamar states, this cover art although political and complicated in political symbols it proves to be an innocent photo taken in the reasoning of an everyday tourist. Although the group of men is posing in a way that could potentially scare society, Kendrick directs the men in front of this structure to celebrate a moment of simple triumph.

One can assume that this photo is not actually taken in front of the White House and is indeed a form of photorealism. Although complex and clearly political, it is unlikely that the group of men is really posing in front of the white house with a dead judge. Moreover, this photo serves as the cover art for the album To Pimp a Butterfly. In an article entitled, “Why Cover Art is More Important than Ever” by Eric Skelton, he explains that cover art holds a significantly different meaning in today’s society where music streaming is at its peak. Skelton brings light to cover art no longer standing as a symbol to distinguish physical copies of an album, rather it predominantly becomes a way for music artists to brand themselves to their audience. With all these elements included in the cover art of To Pimp a Butterfly it has the ability to communicate to the audience that the triumph of the African American community is not possible when a figure, such as a judge, is serving its purpose as a regulator of the law. Because Kendrick Lamar loads his album with a potently political image, he brands himself as a politically aware music artist and a hero to the African American community.

Kendrick Lamar provides for the audience an intriguing political image that speaks volume toward his branding as a music artist. Through his use of his peers, and prominent political figures he ultimately leaves the political story left for the audience to interpret. In a time in which African American injustices are served, Kendrick Lamar gives light to the personal community that deserves to triumph above its oppressor.