At just 28 years of age, Compton-born rapper Kendrick Lamar has been hailed as one of the most important cultural figures of the modern era. But where did he come from? Who inspired him musically? And what is the creative background to the Hot Press Album of the Year 2015, To Pimp A Butterfly? As we prepare to welcome him to Ireland for Longitude this summer, Paul Nolan explains the global importance of this extraordinary phenomenon...
Kendrick Lamar is unquestionably one of the most important musical voices to have emerged from the US in the 21st century.
His 2015 masterpiece, To Pimp A Butterfly – which incorporated elements of funk, soul, jazz and spoken word into its hip-hop template – offered a penetrating insight into contemporary American urban life, pulsing with the same electrifyingly subversive spirit possessed by Public Enemy in their heyday.
The radical nature of the album was flagged by its instantly classic cover, featuring a black-and-white shot of a group of Lamar’s friends from his home, the notorious LA suburb of Compton, on the White House Lawn, throwing poses while a white judge lies dead beneath them. In an era when racial tensions in America are higher than at any point since the 1992 LA Riots, and the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is in full flow, the symbolism could not have been more potent.
Barack Obama, whose White House residence also features on the cover, took the sleeve in good spirits, and indeed named ‘How Much A Dollar Cost’ – the centrepiece of How To Pimp A Butterfly and one of the most memorable songs of recent years – as his favourite track of 2015. In the process, the President once again put blue water between himself and predecessor George W. Bush, whose iPod favourites included country artist Kenny Chesney, singer of hits such as ‘She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy’. What’s more, Lamar was recently invited to the White House to meet Obama and discuss the Pay It Forward programme, which encourages the mentoring of inner-city youth.
For all its innate weirdness, even pop music rarely produces scenes as strange as the one-time teen gangster discussing social policy with the leader of the free world. Although on one level a straightforward photo-op for both parties, it was hard not to attach further weight to the meeting. “Can you believe,” Obama asked his 28-year-old guest, “that we’re both sitting in this Oval Office?”
For Barack and Kendrick alike, it was surely one of those moments...
For Kendrick Lamar, it all started twenty years ago, in 1995. The promo video for Tupac Shakur’s ‘California Love’ was being shot in Compton and an impressionable young Kendrick watched what was going on in awe. It would be difficult to overestimate the impact it had on him: he has spoken several times of the inspiration the experience provided, in particular in the way it suggested a route out of ghetto life.
Even at that early stage, Kendrick was aware of the harsh realities of living in the inner city. In 1984, his parents had moved west from Chicago’s south side – where Barack Obama was shortly to commence work as a community leader – in order to escape gang violence. The move was, unfortunately, to be in vain. Kendrick saw his first murder victim aged five and was soon to become familiar with the regular outbursts of violence between the rival ghetto gangs, the Bloods and the Crips.
However, witnessing the making of ‘California Love’ had planted a different kind of seed and, as a teenager, Lamar set about trying to emulate his idol Tupac. An accomplished student at Compton’s Centennial High School, he began rapping on street corners, which as well as sharpening his musical and MC-ing skills, had the added benefit of curing his stutter. As he struggled to extricate himself from the gang lifestyle to which many of his peers had fallen prey, there were a number of landmark moments.
Aged just 16, Lamar – under the stage-name K Dot – released his first mixtape, entitled Youngest Head Nigga In Charge (Hub City Threat: Minor Of The Year), and signed with Californian indie label Top Dawg Entertainment. Having got his foot in the industry door, another mixtape, Training Day, followed in ’05, and there was a notable stint supporting West Coast rapper The Game, with whom Lamar, as K Dot, would also collaborate on a couple of tracks.
Another early admirer was Lil Wayne, whose classic album Tha Carter III was the inspiration for Lamar’s third mixtape, 2009’s C4. Commercially, progress was slow. But that only seemed to stiffen Lamar’s resolve. At no stage did he deem deterred.
Another mixtape, Overly Dedicated, followed in 2010 and contained one of Lamar’s first classic tracks, ‘Ignorance Is Bliss’, a virtuoso piece of MC-ing that might have been dismissed as just another slice of gangster rap bravado, were it not for the taut feeling of anxiety that underpinned the whole song.
The video for the track caught the attention of Dr Dre, who invited Lamar to collaborate on new material. It was, as Lou Reed put it, the beginning of a great adventure... Having dropped the K Dot moniker and taken to performing under his own name, Lamar – who now counted some of the biggest names in rap amongst his fans – was ready to unleash his debut album, the independently released Section.80.
Released in July 2011, the record was a conspicuously impressive first effort. It opened with the sound of a crackling fire and a man urging listeners to gather round. You didn’t have to listen too long to realise that it was a powerful dispatch from America’s socio-cultural frontline. The hard-hitting nature of his material also confirmed that Lamar is a closer kindred spirit to the leading lights among Generation X artists than to many of his own contemporaries.
Certainly, the subjects Lamar first tackled on Section.80, and which he would explore in greater depth on his next two albums – including sex, drugs, violence, alienation and urban decay – are not mainstays of the millennial syllabus. Indeed, in hip-hop, superstars like Kanye West and Jay-Z have of late been struggling to meaningfully tackle subject matter which doesn’t revolve around them loudly declaring their belief in their own genius. Kendrick Lamar, you might observe, has shown them the way...
In rock and pop, meanwhile, whatever the likes of Coldplay, Ed Sheeran and Mumford & Sons may offer, it’s most assuredly not a lyrical walk on the wild side. In such a climate, a record like Section.80 proved to be a welcome breath of fresh air, as it masterfully arrayed vignettes of contemporary US life against a backdrop of cutting edge beats.
Another unfashionable issue of the day – class politics – raised its head on one of Section.80’s standout tracks, ‘Ronald Reagan Era’, in which the rapper detailed how inner cities were left to rot during the ’80s, a theme which hit home deeply with many listeners, in the midst of the worst economic crash in living memory.
Though not a commercial smash, Section.80 was nonetheless a critical hit, and with its release, Lamar – who at a summer 2011 concert was declared “the New King of the West Coast” by Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg and The Game – had announced himself as one of hip-hop’s most promising young artists.
Throughout the late noughties, and into the early years of this decade, something special was brewing in Los Angeles. That much was clear from the constant stream of brilliant and groundbreaking records emanating from Flying Lotus and his Brainfeeder label, as well as the Odd Future crew and sundry associated artists.
It was telling that a songwriter of outstanding originality like Thom Yorke, of Radiohead, had developed a virtual fixation with the scene. It wasn’t difficult to see why: rock music had grown hopelessly dull in comparison with the work of the LA rappers. Musically, lyrically and aesthetically, these artists had a maverick punk spirit of a kind which had all but deserted guitar music.
So when a spanking new album by a highly-touted LA rapper arrived in late 2012, executive produced by Dr Dre and featuring production input from Pharrell Williams, it was time to sit up and pay very close attention. Released on Interscope Records, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was Kendrick Lamar’s major label debut – and it was another magnificent, and even more finely-judged, trip through the darker recesses of American urban life.
The musical mix of hip-hop, funk, ambient, gangsta rap and the customary jazz flourishes was inspired. Meanwhile, lyrically, Lamar was fast establishing himself as one of the leading rappers in the game. The likes of ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’, ‘Backseat Freestyle’ and ‘Poetic Justice’ (featuring the excellent Canadian rapper Drake) were merely brilliant; ‘m.A.A.d. City’, a helter-skelter account of nocturnal gang activity (based on incident from Lamar’s adolescence, when he was most immersed in gang culture), was more than that again, achieving the sort of immediacy and vividness one might more reasonably expect of an episode of a HBO or Showtime TV series. It was that original, that good.
Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City also featured snippets of conversation from Lamar’s parents, interludes which had the intriguing quality of home-recorded Super 8 footage inserted into a movie. Another notable aspect of the album was the focus on spirituality – Lamar is a confirmed Christian – which had the rare quality of being powerful without seeming intrusive, a skill the rapper would increasingly come to master. Though the religious beliefs of many US celebrities aren’t especially remarkable other than for being spectacularly boneheaded, this dimension of Lamar’s output has proven surprisingly affecting, being all the more impactful for its quiet understatement.
For good measure, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was also Kendrick’s commercial breakthrough, reaching the top 40 in Ireland, the UK top 20 and hitting No. 2 on the Billboard charts. The boy from Compton had aired on the international stage.
In many respects, Lamar’s next 12 months followed the established routine of music stardom: TV shows; magazine covers; awards; bust-ups (rival rapper Shyne declared the album “trash”); and feuds with other artists (Lamar issued a track in which he vowed to lyrically slaughter the competition – within a week, half-a-dozen diss tracks had been released in retaliation). One of the more important moments came with Kendrick’s support slot on Kanye West’s wildly popular Yeezus tour, which further confirmed his elevation to hip-hop’s elite.
However, this was all a mere warm-up for the rapper’s next album, To Pimp A Butterfly, which would be designed to make him one of the pre-eminent pop culture figures of the moment.
Lamar’s third album arrived in March 2015. You didn’t have to be an aficionado to recognise that, on it, the young rapper had finessed his lyrical and musical techniques to virtual perfection.
Once again executive produced by Dre, and Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, To Pimp A Butterfly featured contributions from an array of renowned producers, including Pharrell Williams, Flying Lotus and Thundercat. Its eclecticism notwithstanding, the album was novelistic in its scope, cataloguing the contemporary black experience in America in all its complexity. In a record whose tonal range deftly moved between good-time funk, brooding meditation and acute social commentary, the aforementioned ‘How Much A Dollar Cost’ (Obama’s favourite) deserves particularly special mention.
Inspired by an incident in Johannesburg, South Africa, in which Lamar ignored a homeless person begging for help, the rapper re-imagines the incident as a moment of grace in which he encountered god. For the power with which it captures a small moment of transcendence amidst a landscape of urban degradation, the song is simply astonishing.
Also threaded throughout the album are spoken word interludes, in which Lamar reflects on the suicidal despair he felt during the Yeezus tour, when the conflict between his newfound success and the realities of life back in Compton -– he spoke of the “survivor’s guilt” he experienced as a result of fame – proved almost too much to bear.
For its artistic invention and the manner in which it captured the zeitgeist (“I am Trayvon Martin. I am all of these kids,” Lamar loudly declared in one interview), To Pimp A Butterfly showed its creator to be out in front of his contemporaries. In the aftermath, Kanye, Jay-Z and the rest started to look decidedly old hat. And Kendrick seemed to rub it in: asked by one interviewer to name the best contemporary rapper, Lamar replied, “Earl Sweatshirt”.
The album was an instant hit, becoming a transatlantic No.1 and hitting the top ten in Ireland. By year’s end, the accolades came flooding in – Lamar was being hailed as one of the most important voices in modern music, and To Pimp A Butterfly became one of the most acclaimed albums in living memory. It was selected as album of the year in numerous publications internationally, including Hot Press.
In the wake of the critical and commercial success of To Pimp A Butterfly, Lamar has graduated to the status of fully-fledged cultural phenomenon. He is set to clean up at this year’s Grammys, having been nominated for 11 awards, one behind the all-time record holder, Michael Jackson, who received 12 nominations in 1984 for Thriller. That, of course, was the bestselling original album of all time.
Lamar’s collaboration with the precociously successful Taylor Swift, ‘Bad Blood’, reached No.1 on the Billboard charts, and even the late David Bowie cited him as an influence on his acclaimed final album, Blackstar. He’s name-checked by Obama, and the Calvin Klein designer label has signed him up to front their latest ad campaign.
Meanwhile, the social consciousness and political awareness in Lamar’s work have seen him receive a series of civic awards, with politicians elbowing one another aside to be associated with his success. He has already received the California State Senate’s Generational Icon Award, while in January 2016, Compton mayor, Aja Brown, announced that he would receive the key to the city, in a special ceremony this month.
With that kind of acclaim ringing in his ears, and sales steadily climbing towards the one million mark, Lamar is preparing to hit the road for a series of live dates through 2016, which will no doubt further increase his global popularity. But no-one should take anything for granted. As he faces into the next stage of his career, he will have to negotiate his way through some intriguing challenges.
Arguably the last time such landmark hip-hop albums were released back-to-back was when Public Enemy unleashed the immortal duo of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Fear Of A Black Planet. Though these records effectively secured the collective’s place amongst the all-time greats, PE subsequently went into steep decline as recording artists. Kendrick Lamar is sure to want to go one better than that – at least.
Another interesting comparison is with Prince, with whom Lamar reportedly worked, briefly, during the recording of To Pimp A Butterfly. By the mid-’90s, Prince Roger Nelson had assembled one of the most formidable catalogues in the history of rock and pop. But he has subsequently found it hard to sustain the output, in the context of a record industry which seems designed to spite a talent as great as his. Which begs the question: can Kendrick Lamar continue to traverse the industry rapids with the assurance he has shown to date?
We will see. Certainly, at the outset of 2016, Kendrick Lamar has the world of rock ’n’ roll at his feet. The Good Kid has achieved genuine greatness. So let’s bring on the live incarnation and feast on it. You never know what the future might hold...
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