Kendrick Lamar Shares His Testimony With “Butterfly” Album Release

Kendrick Lamar is working to purify hip-hop, a genre he hopes to ground in his true experiences growing up poor in Compton, Calif.,  the son of a former gangbanger. (John Francis Peters for The New York Times)
Kendrick Lamar is working to purify hip-hop, a genre he hopes to ground in his true experiences growing up poor in Compton, Calif., the son of a former gangbanger. (John Francis Peters for The New York Times)

Following the success of his major label debut, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” in 2012, the rapper Kendrick Lamar did not indulge in earthly luxuries. Instead, he got baptized.

That album was the story of his redemption, not just from street gangs through rapping but from a life of sin by embracing Jesus Christ. His long-awaited follow-up, “To Pimp a Butterfly” (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope) is about carrying the weight of that clarity: What happens when you speak out, spiritually and politically, and people actually start to listen? And what of the world you left behind?

Mr. Lamar, who grew up in Compton, Calif., had previously been saved as a teenager in the parking lot of a Food 4 Less, he said, when the grandmother of a friend approached him after a tragedy, asking if he had accepted God. “One of my homeboys got smoked,” Mr. Lamar recalled. “She had seen that we weren’t right in the head. That was her being an angel for us.”

Nearly a decade later, having found that fame and riches did not offer additional salvation, or happiness, he “wanted to take it to the next level — being underwater,” he said. “I felt like it was something I had to do.”

Whereas “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” zoomed in on a day in the old life of Mr. Lamar, a gifted but wayward high schooler in a neighborhood filled with death and temptation, “To Pimp a Butterfly” brings listeners up to his present day, from world tours to the B.E.T. Awards, and the separation he feels from his past. Rather than relief, his escape from Compton has brought only more opportunities for sin and self-doubt, an internal chaos reflected not only in Mr. Lamar’s intricate stories but also in vigorous jazz- and funk-inflected production that builds on the smoother West Coast sounds of his debut.

A wider vantage has made Mr. Lamar more outwardly political, as he confronts race, police violence and his attempts to navigate new cultures — and to bring what he’s learned back to his neighborhood. “You take a kid out of Compton, and he has to meet these different types of people that are not black,” Mr. Lamar said. With this challenging 75-minute story of “survivor’s guilt,” he has also doubled down on the concept album format, forgoing obvious radio singles and daring fans to invest in close readings at the risk of commercial success.

Though “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” was similarly dense, critics called it a triumph comparable to classic rap debuts like Jay Z’s “Reasonable Doubt” and Nas’s “Illmatic,” and the album was certified platinum. The hit single “Swimming Pools (Drank)” warned about the dangers of alcohol, while “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” begins, “I am a sinner, who’s probably gonna sin again.”

For many fans, “I’m the closest thing to a preacher that they have,” Mr. Lamar, 27, said from the couch of a Santa Monica studio where he recorded much of the new album. “I know that from being on tour — kids are living by my music.” However, he added: “My word will never be as strong as God’s word. All I am is just a vessel, doing his work.”

Mr. Lamar is working to purify hip-hop, a genre he hopes to ground in his true experiences of growing up poor, the son of a former gangbanger. He offers a corrective, or at least an alternative, to the opulent fabulism of some mainstream rap. “You know the songs that are out — we all love these songs,” he said. “They sell a lot of singles and make these record labels a lot of money.”

But those “really living” in the streets don’t want to hear boasts about murder and drug dealing, he continued. “They want to get away from that,” Mr. Lamar said. “If it comes across as just a game all the time, the kids are going to think it’s just a game.

“From my perspective, I can only give you the good with the bad,” he said. “It’s bigger than a responsibility, it’s a calling.”

While some may question Kanye West’s conflicted materialism and ego or Drake’s emotional insularity — or, even the outlaw wisdom of Tupac, who cameos posthumously on “To Pimp a Butterfly” as a guardian angel — Mr. Lamar could be viewed as a more digestible rap messenger. In addition to being religious, he rarely drinks or smokes, eschews fancy clothes and jewelry and has reportedly been in a quiet, decade-long relationship with his high school sweetheart. (“I don’t want to put somebody else in the spotlight and make them a celebrity when they don’t want to be a celebrity,” he said.)

Mr. Lamar, who rarely appears on TMZ or MediaTakeout, failed to name a single vice, other than constantly recording music, watching the TV show “Martin” and eating his beloved Fruity Pebbles.

But at the start of Mr. Lamar’s new album, George Clinton intones over a Flying Lotus beat: “Gather your wind, take a deep look inside, are you really who they idolize? To pimp a butterfly.” In repeated spoken word sections, each telling more of the story than the last, Mr. Lamar acknowledges the risk of “misusing your influence” and in song aims criticism at himself as well as the powers that be.

Kiese Laymon, who has taught Mr. Lamar’s music as a professor of English at Vassar College, said the rapper recalls singers like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield — “artists who have positioned themselves as prophetic witnesses.” While Mr. Lamar is “reckoning with violence, race, police power and white supremacy,” Mr. Laymon said, “he’s implicating himself in what he’s witnessing.”

On “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” interstitial phone calls re-enacted by Mr. Lamar’s parents went to voice mail because he was a teenager getting into girls and home invasions; this time around, the chasm is fame. “Where was your presence? Where was your support that you pretend?” he raps to himself in character on “u” after a friend is shot. “You ain’t no brother, you ain’t no disciple, you ain’t no friend/A friend would never leave Compton for profit.”

“You even FaceTimed instead of a hospital visit,” he adds tearfully over a slow, unsteady saxophone plea, his voice cracking.

Mr. Lamar, who now lives in a condo not far from his old neighborhood, said he was not prepared for the uncertainty and depression that came with being accepted as a voice of his community. “You can tell a person about fame and fortune all you want, but until you’re really in it and you know the person that you can become …” he said, trailing off.

“I know every artist feels this way, but in order for it to come across on record for your average 9-to-5-er is the tricky part,” he said. “I have to make it where you truly understand: This is me pouring out my soul on the record. You’re gonna feel it because you too have pain. It might not be like mine, but you’re gonna feel it.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Joe Coscarelli

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