Context: On Kendick Lamar's "How much a Dollar Cost"

"How Much a Dollar Cost" is perhaps the emotional exclamation point to Kendrick Lamar's 2015 magnum opus To Pimp A Butterfly. This gem of a track encapsulates nicely Kendrick's strengths as an artist. Something about Kendrick's cadence is moving- the pitch of his voice and his phrasing carry a certain intensity. Here, that intensity is paired with Kendrick's masterful flow (and poetic phrasing) -"deep water-powder blue skies that split open"- and narrative structure. 

It is also worth noting that Kendrick has always had a sharply tuned ear for great samples. It's these samples that effectively set the mood and tone of the song as if it was an interactive short story. 

First, few notes on the samples:

"How Much a Dollar Cost" makes heavy use of a Sweedish Jazz trio's song "Seven Days of Falling", where sharp, simple drums meet a reflective piano that has a flair for the dramatic at all the right moments. 

. . . additionally, in "How Much a Dollar Cost", one can definitely hear echoes of Radiohead's "Pyramid Song". Like "7 Days of Falling", a simple piano, drum, and strings combo shoots the song into the emotional stratosphere. 

Lyrically, the song tells the (somewhat) true story of Kendrick as he travels South Africa. In this case, he stops at a gas station and is "bothered" by a homeless panhandler, gets defensive, and then realizes that the panhandler is God himself.

Here, Kendrick looks for sacred humanity in forgotten quarters, recognizes his own ignorance, and reaches a dramatic conclusion-but not before presenting a grand thesis on the emptiness of materialism. The process is part self-indictment, part self-epiphany, as the music and Kendrick's pace pick up intensity as the song moves along, building up the drama to arrive at a deeply theological endpoint. Sharp strings, vivid imagery, and steady but-slow drums drive this slow burner down the trail of time. It'll leave you breathless. 

How much does a dollar really cost? 

What is the price on our souls, on our humanity, when our blind search for happiness focuses just on material possessions?

What is the true cost of greed?

These are all questions that Kendrick Lamar boldly asks of both himself and listeners in "How Much a Dollar Cost". 

It's clear that Kendrick has been chasing a spiritual connection with humanity ever since he had a religious epiphany in a California grocery store parking lot. 

For Kendrick, just like Rabbi Harold Kushner, the goal is always to find the sacred and spiritual in the every day- even when filling up 20 bucks on pump 6. 


How much a dollar really cost?
The question is detrimental, paralyzin' my thoughts
Parasites in my stomach keep me with a gut feeling, y'all
Gotta see how I’m chillin' once I park this luxury car
Hopping out feeling big as Mutombo
"20 on pump 6" - dirty Marcellus called me Dumbo
20 years ago - can't forget
Now I can lend all my ear or two how to stack these residuals
Tenfold; the liberal concept of what men'll do
"20 on 6" - he didn't hear me
Indigenous African only spoke Zulu
My American tongue was slurry
Walked out the gas station
A homeless man with a semi-tan complexion
Asked me for ten rand, stressin' about dry land
Deep water, powder blue skies that crack open
A piece of crack that he wanted, I knew he was smokin'
He begged and pleaded
Asked me to feed him twice, I didn't believe it
Told him, "Beat it"
Contributin' money just for his pipe, I couldn't see it
He said, "My son, temptation is one thing that I've defeated
Listen to me, I want a single bill from you
Nothin' less, nothin' more"
I told him I ain't have it and closed my door
Tell me how much a dollar cost

Water, sun and love, the one you love
All you need, the air you breathe

My temper is buildin', he's starin' at me, I grab my key
He's starin' at me, I started the car, then I tried to leave
And somethin' told me to keep it in park until I could see
The reason why he was mad at a stranger
Like I was supposed to save him
Like I'm the reason he's homeless and askin' me for a favor
He's starin' at me, his eyes followed me with no laser
He's starin' at me, I notice that his stare is contagious
Cause now I'm starin' back at him, feelin' some type of disrespect
If I could throw a bat at him, it'd be aimin' at his neck
I never understood someone beggin' for goods
Askin' for handouts, takin' it if they could
And this particular person just had it down pat
Starin' at me for the longest until he finally asked
Have you ever opened up Exodus 14?
A humble man is all that we ever need
Tell me how much a dollar cost

Water, sun and love, the one you love
All you need, the air you breathe

I never met a transient that demanded attention
They got me frustrated, indecisive and power trippin'
Sour emotions got me lookin' at the universe different I should distance myself, I should keep it relentless
My selfishness is what got me here, who the fuck I'm kiddin'? So I'mma tell you like I told the last bum
Crumbs and pennies, I need all of mines
And I recognize this type of panhandlin' all the time
I got better judgement, I know when nigga's hustlin', keep in mind
When I was strugglin', I did compromise, now I comprehend
I smell grandpa's old medicine, reekin' from your skin
Moonshine and gin, nigga you're babblin', your words ain't flatterin'
I'm imaginin' Denzel but lookin' at O'Neal
Kazaam is sad thrills, your gimmick is mediocre
The jig is up, I seen you from a mile away losin' focus
And I'm insensitive, and I lack empathy
He looked at me and said, "Your potential is bittersweet"
I looked at him and said, "Every nickel is mines to keep"
He looked at me and said, "Know the truth, it'll set you free
You're lookin' at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, the higher power
The choir that spoke the word, the Holy Spirit
The nerve of Nazareth, and I'll tell you just how much a dollar cost
The price of having a spot in Heaven, embrace your loss, I am God"

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