The Marvin Gaye masterpiece Whats Going On opened the floodgates for concept album social commentary in the spring of 1971allowing Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton and more the latitude to interpret the post-Civil Rights era in ways never heard before. With It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy did the same in summertime 1988 for the crack age, with production as notoriously agitated as the aftereffects of freebase cocaine. In just the past six months, this modern #BlackLivesMatter moment has birthed two instant classics: DAngelos long-awaited Black Messiah and To Pimp a Butterfly, the major label sophomore album of Comptons own Kendrick Lamar.
Poised for all types of greatness, the 27-year-old MC had already won two Grammys (Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song for last years i), posted the critically acclaimed platinum triumph good kid, m.A.A.d city to number two on the Billboard 200 chart three years ago, and been crowned the new king of west coast hip-hop by Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. Even with all that, the jazz- and funk-flavored To Pimp a Butterfly was still an incredibly pleasant surprise: a statement album full of references to yams, Roots, Richard Pryor, racism, colorism, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and more. Its African-America on wax, and its unapologetically Black.
Kendrick Lamar recently sat behind the control boards at UMG Iovine Studio in Santa Monica and spoke comfortably for little over an hour. In these unpublished outtakes from the June cover story of EBONY magazine, Lamar explains what makes him tick.
EBONY: The iTunes era is a singles medium for music. What makes you pay such attention to detail on full-blown statement albums like To Pimp a Butterfly?
Kendrick Lamar: To be real with you, this is the type of record I wanted to put out on [good kid, m.A.A.d city]. Its so intricate, theres layers upon layers. With my first album, you have those singles, those catchy catchphrases and things like that. Which is cool; I made it work to the best of my ability with the storyline and everything around that. And you cant have people listen to you unless you come to their world and then bring them to yours. So with this second project, now that I got my feet wet, I said Im going to define my own rules. It had to feel organically right. That was my approach, and it came out the way it came out.
EBONY: From a music fan standpoint, Black Messiah dropped a bomb. Everyone was listening, and then To Pimp a Butterfly dropped and had the same effect. Both records speak to the times were living through, reminiscent of 1970s concept albums like Sly Stones Theres a Riot Goin On. Can you make a parallel between that time and now? Things are hectic right now for Black folks, and thats bleeding through your music.
KL: First, that is an incredible album, DAngelos Black Messiah. And its a trip, because it took me nearly two years to create this record, without even knowing that [he] was on the same wavelength. For DAngelo to drop out the blue and make a record like that, it was confirmation for me. Cause I was just wrapping up my project, and for him to do that, that was just confirmation. Of course it takes an incredible artist to do that anyway. Hes been on that wave. But to hear that, for my generation it was definitely confirmation.
And its only right, man. The times that we are in, its something that you can only feel in the air. You dont even have to talk about it. You dont need the news or the Internet to watch it. You can walk outside and just feel it. And these are the same times that I believe Marvin Gaye and them felt, just in a whole other generational perspective. Hes been on that wave. And for me to know hes been on that wave, Marvin Gaye, and to carry on that type of legacy is only right. I am from Compton. I am from the inner city, the ghetto. And if I can use my platform to carry on a legacy and talk about something thats real, I have to do that, period.
EBONY: Your recent Rolling Stone cover was a problem, people feeling like the woman doing your braids was too light-skinned or wondering if she was White.
KL: Were brainwashed. I dont know what happened, but colorism is not a good thing, especially when youre Black. Yes, it was a Black girl. And I wasnt raised like that, because its lighter tones and darker tones in my family. We look so much on color that we forget about the soul. Color dont tell if people Black. Its the soul. Once these words come up out my mouth, and these yams come up out my mouth, you know Im not faking. [laughter] You gonna get that instantly. Being where you from is a strong genetic. You cant run from it.
EBONY: James Baldwin, Richard Wright and others left the U.S. because of Blacks treatment in the pre-Civil Rights era. KRS-One even said, We helped to make America great, so why cant we help to make another country great? How do you feel about that?
KL: Bro, definitely. We can make it anywhere. Because its in our DNA. Were built strong like that as individuals, to figure out a way. My grandma always said, Where theres a will, theres a way. I think its just naturally in our DNA to be able to survive. We was always taught that: to survive. When you talking about slavery, its to survive.
EBONY: Your album is both political and spiritual. Where did you get your spiritual foundation?
KL: I think the foundation was planted by my grandma, to my mother. I mean, my moms didnt raise us in the church like that.
EBONY: Were you baptized, or?
KL: I was baptized recently actually. I was baptized not more than like three or four years ago. I was saved. I got saved in the [Food 4 Less] parking lot, like I said on good kid, m.A.A.d city. But we was always taught to have faith. We was brought up like that. Whether we was inside a church or not, my mother always kept that faith inside of us. The more I started going through my own things in life, my faith got put to the test, and I had to believe that God is real in my heart, my lord and savior Jesus Christ, and I cant run from that. Ill always put that in my music or it just wouldnt be right. People can take it or leave it, I really dont care, because its for me to put it on records. And I will continue to put more of a spiritual nature in my music.
EBONY: Songs on the new album are so layered. Which was the quickest to record?
KL: Id say the hardest song to write, but also the fastest to write, was u. Loving you is complicated Because its so personal, and basically pulling emotions out that Ive probably been harboring since the release of my [first] album. And thats therapy for me. No matter how much good things are going on around you, you still have them little negative things that just wanna come out in front. But you bottle them in because you have so many other great things, but they still there.
I didnt have to write anything. Id just go in the booth and pull it out. Getting the thoughts there and being vulnerable enough to say these things, thats the tough part. Because you dont want people questioning you, your feelings and stuff like that. But in the end, those are the records that connect with people. Its not for me anymore, I can get out my own way. Its for the kid thats really on the edge [who] can feel like they have nothing to lose.
EBONY: What initially made you want to emcee, to take a chance on becoming an artist and breaking out of that box we talked about earlier?
KL: Music was just played all around me, and I couldnt run from it. My pops, he never learned to sing, but hed have his little drink on the side, and hed put on the best of his hitsgangster rap or oldiesand hed sing all day on his mic plugged up to the wall set-up. Its a trip. Ive just seen that my whole life, so Ive always just had a love for music. By the time I was 13, I really just jumped in it. And its something I took on to have as a hobby.
I said, I want to get in the studio and record. Once I heard my voice played back, it was a wrap. Man, I aint think I sounded like that. A lot of people dont know how you sound until you hear yourself played back on speakers. It just tripped me out and I wanted
- d black
- nelson mandela