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Like the most challenging art, the music of Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly teaches you how to listen to it. Its production is dense and layered, drawing in strains of jazz, funk, blues, and hip-hop, and though squishing genres together is not new, per se, other fusionists tended to reduce the elements of each sound to, more times than not, populist beats and smooth melodies. TPAB, on the other hand, throws the boldest, loudest, and brashest elements of each genre against one another. It can be jarring and even disorienting.
It’s an appropriate backdrop for Kendrick’s lyrics, which are knotty, neurotic, and, ultimately, transcendent. Those elements—anger, despair, empathy, and hope—have been present in protest anthems from “We Shall Overcome” to Beyoncé’s “Formation,” but they generally don’t converge in one song or one album. And, even less frequently, do the songs implicate their author, or blur the line between subject and the object.
This is a new form of protest music, one where (to borrow a phrase from second-wave feminism) the personal is political, and the political is personal. In this new strain of agitprop, Kendrick is our most reliable narrator; he acknowledges the ambiguity, and he inhabits his stories rather than tells them to us. The moments of uplift—the chorus of “Alright,” or the first half of “i”—feel hard-won and authentic. He sounds like a savior, but, sometimes, he talks like a killer.
Contradiction is a byproduct of this era. Our lives are endlessly complex, but we reject nuance. We’re globally interconnected, but locally isolated. We reject the weight of history, but still live in its shadow and play by its unspoken (and often unacknowledged) rules. All of us negotiate these things, in small and large ways, and Kendrick is no different. He’s just more talented than most of us, and perhaps a bit more honest.
To Pimp a Butterfly resonated with so many of us because not only was it such a frank negotiation of these conflicted themes—identity, allegiance, history, and duty—but also because it’s a personal testimony, grounded in a very specific set of circumstances. Some of the catalysts for the album are obvious—the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown; Kendrick’s well-documented hardscrabble upbringing in Compton; the continual spectre of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and police brutality—but there are also largely hidden stories that explain the context and headspace that birthed TPAB.
The process for creating TPAB was familiar to anyone who’s worked with Kendrick: endless ideation, constant revision, and precise execution. “We did good kid [m.A.A.d City] about three, four times before the world got to it… new songs, new everything. I wanted to tell that story, but I had to execute it,” Kendrick recalls. “My whole thing is about execution. The songs can be great, the hooks can be great, but if it’s not executed well, then it’s not a great album.”
The process for TPAB was similarly painstaking, and had begun even before the release of its predecessor. “Good kid, m.A.A.d city wasn’t even printed up, and already he’s doing brainstorms for the new album,” Sounwave remembers.
“We recorded 60 to 80 tracks for this album over the three years, and Kendrick tried many different concepts and approaches,” go-to TDE engineer Derek Ali shared in June 2015. “The final direction began to emerge in the last year and a half or so, with most of the tracks written and played from the ground up.”
One of the earlier sessions for the recording took place during Kendrick’s 2013 stint as opener on Kanye’s Yeezus tour. Kendrick had enlisted L.A. producer, DJ, and multimedia artist Flying Lotus to help out with his light show, and, during the process, FlyLo had slipped him a “folder of beats.” As the producer recalls, “Later that night he told me he had the concept for the album.”
While FlyLo speculates that Kendrick rapped over every one of his beats, most of the recordings never made it to the album, and he only ended up with one production credit, albeit a very significant one with album opener “Wesley’s Theory.” That song begins with an invocation of sorts, a sample of the chorus from Boris Gardiner’s smooth jazz track “Every Nigger is a Star.” Afterwards, Kendrick assumes the stereotype of a newly minted rap star—“Ima buy a brand new Caddy on fours/ Trunk the hood up, two times, deuce-four/ Platinum on everything, platinum on wedding ring”—before transitioning to the persona of Uncle Sam, a familiar symbol who’s transformed here from an icon of oppression to a consumerist pimp: “What you want? You a house or a car?/ Forty acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar?/ Anything, see, my name is Uncle Sam, I’m your dog/ Motherfucker, you can live at the mall.”
From the inception of the album, Kendrick knew that the struggle he articulated would be a personal one, and would reflect his own battles with temptation and identity. “One thing I learned, from when you in the limelight: Anything that you have a vice for is at your demand, times 10 and it can kill you,” Kendrick said in 2012.
But the album’s creation would be halted as Kendrick wrestled with a set of personal tragedies. In 2013, three close friends were gunned down in Los Angeles, seemingly one after another. Kendrick remembers being on tour, leaving the stage, where he “faced the madness, and gets these calls … three of my homeboys that summertime was murdered, close ones. Psychologically, it messes your brain up. I got to get off this tour bus and go to funerals.”
On one hand, Kendrick was touring behind one of the best-received hip-hop albums of the decade in good kid, m.A.A.d city, but he was also tasked with going back to Compton to attend the funerals of loved ones. Kendrick captured this turmoil on the YG song “Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin)” from 2014: “I’m on this tour bus and I’m fucked up, I got a bad call/ They killed Braze, they killed Chad, my big homie Pup/ Puppy eyes in my face, bruh, and I’ve really been drinkin’/ Muthafucka, I really been smokin’, what the fuck? I’m the sober one/ Man, I’m so stressed out, I can’t focus.”
Chad Keaton’s loss, in particular, was difficult for Kendrick to handle. “He was like my little brother; we grew up in the same community,” he says. “I was actually best friends with his older brother, who is incarcerated right now. And him just always telling me to make sure that Chad is on the right path. And, you know, he was on the right path. But, you know, things happen where sometimes the good are in the wrong places, and that’s exactly what happened. He got shot … when Chad was killed, I can’t disregard the emotion of me relapsing and feeling the same anger that I felt when I was 16, 17—when I wanted the next family to hurt, because you made my family hurt. Them emotions were still running in me, thinking about him being slain like that. Whether I’m a rap star or not, if I still feel like that, then I’m part of the problem rather than the solution.”
Given his harrowing childhood, there’s a good chance that Kendrick suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s not alone. According to Howard Spivak M.D, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Violence Prevention, PTSD is rampant among inner-city youth. Some studies have cited that one in three youth live with it. “Youth living in inner cities show a higher prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder than soldiers,” Spivak commented. And, unlike war zones, most children in these areas are never able to escape. Those that do, carry their own scars.
One related condition that Kendrick has been very outspoken about is the idea of survivor’s guilt, a complex that occurs when a person believes they are at fault for surviving a traumatic event. It was first identified in Holocaust survivors who didn’t understand how they escaped when so many of their friends and family members died in the gas chambers. “How can I be a voice for all these people around the world, and not reach them that are closest to me?,” Kendrick wondered.
In addition to the problems at home, Kendrick was having issues adjusting to his newfound fame and wealth. Throughout 2013, Kendrick’s feelings of isolation and displacement intensified, and his unease with the space he now occupied was nearly crippling. The transition was jarring and cannot be understated. “I’m going to be 100 per cent real with you,” Kendrick shares. “In all my days of schooling, from preschool all the way up to 12th grade, there was not one white person in my class. Literally zero… You’re around people you don’t know how to communicate with. You don’t speak the same lingo. It brings confusion and insecurity. Questioning how did I get here, what am I doing?”
And his interactions with the black kids that were bused in from other areas more affluent than Compton were jarring. “I went over to some of their houses … and it was a whole ‘nother world,” Kendrick says. “Family pictures of them in suits and church clothes up everywhere. Family-oriented. Eatin’ together at the table. We ate around the TV. Stuff like that—I didn’t know nothin’ about. Eatin’ without your elbows on the table? I’m lookin’ around like, ‘What is goin’ on?!’ I came home and asked my mama, ‘Why we don’t eat ’round the table?’ Then I just keep goin’, always askin’ questions. I think that’s when I started to see the lifestyle around us.
“You always think that everybody live like you do, because you locked in the neighborhood, you don’t see no way else … You can’t change where you from. You can’t take a person out of their zone and expect them to be somebody else now that they in the record industry. It’s gonna take years. Years of traveling. Years of meeting people. Years of seeing the world.”
Luckily, Kendrick would soon get to see a very important part of the world for him. In late 2013, he did a brief tour of Africa, an experience that changed his life. It helped him understand himself—where he’s from and even where he was going. “I felt like I belonged in Africa,” says Lamar. “I saw all the things that I wasn’t taught. Probably one of the hardest things to do is put [together] a concept on how beautiful a place can be, and tell a person this while they’re still in the ghettos of Compton. I wanted to put that experience in the music.”
He traveled the Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban, among other places. This had huge implications for his music. According to his go-to engineer, Derek Ali, Kendrick scrapped “two or three albums worth of material.” But more than being just about subtraction, the excursion inspired a whole new suite of songs. The iconic track “Alright” has its roots in that trip. The song’s chant, “we gonna be alright,” was sparked from witnessing people’s struggles in the country.
Traveling in a black-dominated continent brought into stark relief many of the symptoms of American oppression. “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” deals with the idea of colorism—that people within the same race or ethnicity can discriminate based on the shading of the skin. “There’s a separation between the light and the dark skin because it’s just in our nature to do so, but we’re all black,” Kendrick says. “This concept came from South Africa and I saw all these different colors speaking a beautiful language.”
But even beyond the lyrics, the idea of unity informed the sound of the album. Just as Western culture draws lines between skin types, it also needlessly segments black music. Lead producer for TPAB, Terrace Martin, explains the approach: “I kinda don’t like saying jazz no more when it comes to TPAB. It’s throwing everybody off because we haven’t had a real black record in about 20 years with real black music and real black people doing the music, and people who understand that we’re under attack everyday who show up to do the music… that album is just black, it’s not funk. It’s not jazz. It’s black.”
But more than being the birthplace of any given song, the Africa trip helped heal Kendrick and gave TPAB a focus. “The overall theme of [TPAB] is leadership,” Kendrick later said, “[and] using my celebrity for good.” This came into focus when Kendrick visited the jail cell in Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was locked away for 18 of his 27 years behind bars. The experience taught him the value of resistance and resilience, and it helped him understand his role as a leader in his community as well as in the larger world.
“I’m not speaking to the community,” Kendrick says. “I’m not speaking of the community. I am the community.”
It’s difficult to overstate the impact of the album that came from these two very different experiences. TPAB debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and would go platinum. It received nearly unanimous critical acclaim—Rolling Stone, Billboard, Pitchfork, Spin, The Guardian, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Vice all named it their album of the year—and it would go on to win the Best Rap album at the GRAMMYS. (It was nominated for Album of the Year, though GRAMMY voters felt that Taylor Swift’s 1999 was a more worthy recipient.) The Harvard University Library archived it alongside Nas’ Illmatic, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
It certainly wasn’t the first “woke” album, but it set the stage for the budding social consciousness of an entire generation. It also established Kendrick as a generational spokesman, and earned him a visit to the White House, where he met another African American who was also wrestling with issues of identity, experience, and power.
“I was talking to Obama,” Kendrick says, “and the craziest thing he said was, ‘Wow, how did we both get here?’ Blew my mind away. I mean, it’s just a surreal moment when you have two black individuals, knowledgeable individuals, but who also come from these backgrounds where they say we’ll never touch ground inside these floors.”
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