Kendrick Lamar had made quite a name for himself in 2013 when he released his major label debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. The album was unanimously praised by critics for its production, songwriting, and Kendrick’s impressive ability to compose both catchy and thought-provoking lyrics. The album also proved to be a commercial success, propelling him into the mainstream with the help of singles like “Swimming Pools” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.” The acclaim wouldn’t end here. Fast forward two years and America has increasingly become more racially, sexually, and morally seperated. Events such as the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the Ferguson County riots were inspiring protesters everywhere to fight for change. These callings were also reaching musicians as well, of all genres and races. In looking at Kendrick’s second major-label album, To Pimp a Butterfly, it is important to keep in mind that this exactly where he is drawing most of his lyrics from. Kendrick has put himself out in the spotlight at this point in his career. He has shook the hand of success, and he has seen how it destroyed others of his kind. On track eleven of this album, “How Much a Dollar Cost,” Kendrick recites an anecdote on his account of a homeless beggar. His control of rhetorical strategies such as foreshadowing, repetition, and significant use of imagery forces us to rewind the song and want to truly understand his message on human compassion, selfishness, and greed.
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“How much a dollar really cost?” Kendrick asks us in the first line. Already we are placed in Kendrick’s shoes. We are asked to ask ourselves a question that cannot literally be answered. We are rhetorically asked to think. “The question is detrimental, paralyzin’ my thoughts” he says, as he walks out of the gas station, putting in “20 on pump 6.” This setting is already established in the first few lines, and it is very crucial to the message. Kendrick is reciting this story from a gas station, which means he is pumping his own gas, in his own car, like any “average” person. He is putting himself down to our level, and not where he would be with all of the fame and money he has recently accumulated
Shortly after establishing the setting, Kendrick walks out of the gas station and spots a “homeless man with semi-tan complexion, asking for ten rand
While foreshadowing plays a great role in developing the beggar’s character, repetition does the same for Kendrick. As the song progresses, particularly in verse two, Kendrick becomes increasingly aware that the beggar isn’t just asking him for a dollar, or a “piece of crack that he wanted…” The constant repetition of “He’s starin’ at me” shows the listener Kendrick is dwelling in more thought. He is witnessing all that is now below him, but there’s something about this particular man that keeps pulling him back. “He’s starin at me in disbelief…He’s starin at me, his eyes followed me with no laser…he’s starin at me, I noticed that his stare is contagious” Kendrick notes, as he admits to the listener — the human inside him wants to give in to this man. He knows it would be the right thing to do, but his selfishness controls him yet again, and he still refuses. Kendrick does not know that this man is in fact God.
Perhaps the most important use of repetition is featured at the end of all verses. Kendrick insistently asks, “Tell me how much a dollar cost.”
As mentioned with the setting, another rhetorical strategy Kendrick uses is imagery, and he uses it in a way to paint a picture of his encounter at the gas station. He wants us to put ourselves in his position in this exact moment. He writes very specific features of this station, mentioning the “indigenous African” man at the counter and his parked “luxury car” (which showcases his wealth). We get a sense of how he is physically, and emotionally feeling while talking to the beggar when he explains things like “my temper is buildin’… feelin’ some type of disrespect…” and “If I could throw a bat at him, it’d be aimin’ at his neck.” There is even some olfactory imagery mixed in, “I smell Grandpa’s old medicine reekin’ from brickandmortarphilly.comr skin, Moonshine and gin.” All these descriptions are meant to put us in this exact situation and make us answer for ourselves if we would honestly give this man what he wants. Kendrick admits that his “…selfishness is what got me here, who the fuck I’m kiddin’” but he also admits that these “Sour emotions got me looking at the universe different.” We get the sense that Kendrick is conflicted in this particular scenario, and in many of the other stories told on the album. Which is why it is important to recognize why he has written this album, and why exactly he denied this man a dollar. It is because he believes he is representing the human race here. When we know that we are not being tested, and we think we know everything about a certain someone just by the way we look (Kendrick thought the beggar was a crack addict), that is exactly when we are wrong.
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When the homeless man comes out to Kendrick as Jesus, he says “I’ll tell brickandmortarphilly.com just how much a dollar cost, the price of having a spot in heaven, embrace brickandmortarphilly.comr loss…” And here, the repeated question is finally answered. Kendrick’s genuine confusion and betrayal of his own thoughts and morals is just a part meant to represent the human race as a whole. What he is ultimately stating here is: when brickandmortarphilly.com make it to the top, brickandmortarphilly.com’ve never really made it to the top. Sure, everyone wants to be successful, purchase the “luxury car” of their dreams, and be able to say that they made it. But what not everyone realizes is that we are all tested in some way. Putting religion aside, brickandmortarphilly.com may not be tested by a God or Gods, but by someone who might think nothing of. Here, the Son of God is portrayed as a homeless man to Jesus, because why would Kendrick Lamar want to give a dollar to a homeless man, after his album just went multi-platinum? Through Kendrick’s brilliant storytelling, and effective use of these rhetorical strategies, he is able to make us all remember the meaning of empathy, and selflessness above all.