The song “How Much a Dollar Cost” is featured on Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy award winning album, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” This album dives deep into the recesses of racial oppression and materialism as well as serving as an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. Songs such as “Alright” and “Hood Politics” are both notable examples of the powerful message Lamar sends, but “How Much a Dollar Cost” stands out amongst the rest.
The song focuses on a specific incident that Lamar, the speaker, found himself in at a gas station in South Africa. The song is a combination of Lamar’s internal thoughts and conflicts and an interaction with a persistent homeless man, who asked him for 10 rand (one US dollar). Throughout the song, Lamar ponders the true value of money and why people such as himself make such a big deal out of it. His questions and wonderings all contribute to a bigger, deeper question: Can money cost someone their place in heaven? The song begins with a description of the environment Lamar is in and how he feels in this specific instance. In order to convey the sense that Lamar has a feeling in his gut that something is wrong, he uses the metaphor of a parasite in his stomach.
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
Parasites are well known for their detrimental effects on their hosts, who gain nothing from the parasites being attached to them. The parasites in this case are Kendrick’s sins that are feeding off of his soul, which is described as his stomach. This line very creatively and powerfully demonstrates the feeling of guilt that people get when they are aware of any wrong doing on their part. The reference to Mutombo shows the vain attitude that Lamar has at the beginning of the song, even though he was driving past many homeless and poor people. This excerpt foreshadows the following verses to come, which includes Kendrick facing the homeless man that sparks a profound internal realization.
He’s starin’ at me in disbelief
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?
In this verse, Lamar pours effort into the details of the interaction he has and sets the final verse up for a climactic ending. The repetition of the phrase “he’s starin’ at me” emphasizes the power that the homeless man had over him in that moment. Kendrick could have easily ignored this man, but something urges him to stay. He becomes intrigued and angry and expresses his desire to make the man stop what he was doing. Lamar’s thoughts are interrupted by the homeless man asking him if he has ever read Exodus 14, a biblical story that includes God choosing Moses to lead his people through the Red Sea. This describes the power that one man in an influential position can have on people that look up to them. Kendrick knows that he is a man in that position and is reminded of the importance of staying humble. This line is also the first clue that the homeless man represents God. From this point on, Kendrick starts to have the realization that seems to be a divine intervention.
Guilt trippin’ and feelin’ resentment
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’ma 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 judgment, I know when n***a’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, n***a you’re babblin’, your words ain’t flatterin’
I’m imaginin’ Denzel but lookin’ at O’Neal
In this section of the final verse, Lamar starts to have a realization that he is wrong in his thinking and begins to ask himself why he is getting so angry over something so small. Nevertheless, he continues to come up with excuses and recognizes that his selfishness caused him to become wealthy. At the end of this excerpt, he ironically alludes to the fact that when he was struggling himself, he would have given the man some money, which exemplifies the effect being rich has had on him. He uses another excuse of alcoholism and tries to validate his claims by remembering when his grandpa had a drinking problem. He mentions Denzel (Washington) and O’Neil (Shaquille), which is a reference to the 1998 film “He Got Game”, a film in which Denzel Washington did not take Shaquille O’Neil seriously as an actor just as Kendrick isn’t taking this homeless man seriously either. The song ends with a climactic ending that reveals the true identity of the homeless man.
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”
Lamar’s ego takes a hit at the beginning of the excerpt when the homeless man calls his potential bittersweet. Kendrick is provided with a global platform that can affect people in many positive ways, but that is tainted by his greed and lack of humility. The dialogue also alludes to another biblical verse in which Jesus decides who will enter the gates of Heaven. Kendrick has a revelation that causes a rebirth within him. He refused to lend the man a dollar before he realized that he was God incarnate. Kendrick’s unwillingness to give the man (God) a dollar costs him his spot in Heaven.
There are many possibilities as to how much a dollar truly costs. For the homeless man, a dollar meant everything. To Kendrick, a dollar meant nothing. This was a test to see whether or not Kendrick would give anything that God gave him back to those who truly needed it. This song took a situation that many people reading this are familiar with and, through the use of many powerful metaphors, made the listener contemplate how they choose to act and evaluate their true level of selflessness.