Rock and Roll Book Club: 'The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America'

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Marcus J. Moore's 'The Butterfly Effect.'
Marcus J. Moore's 'The Butterfly Effect.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Marcus J. Moore's new book comes billed as "the first cultural biography" of Kendrick Lamar. It's certain The Butterfly Effect (buy now) won't be the last.

The book is subtitled How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America, and the key word is "ignited." With four studio albums under his belt, the extraordinarily talented rapper is still just 33 years old: his story has just begun.

Aptly, Moore doesn't set out to make a definitive statement about Lamar. Instead, the author's goal is to track the artist's journey from the sidewalks of Compton to the highest halls of American culture — and, crucially, to put it in context of the historical events and musical evolution surrounding Lamar during his rise to fame in the 2010s.

Moore points out that Lamar came of age musically during a transitional moment in hip-hop. By the early 2000s, the tropes that had driven the genre from its Bronx birth to Top 40 ubiquity had essentially run their course: gangsta rap had made its point, while other artists had explored more musically and lyrically adventurous veins. An entire generation had come of age not knowing a world where rap wasn't a dominant musical force, and they were ready to party.

While the pop hip-hop — increasingly blended with R&B songcraft — that fills today's throwback stations played on, Kanye West became the genre's active visionary, releasing a remarkable string of albums culminating in 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the Pet Sounds for a genius whose continuing flashes of brilliance would thereafter illuminate a man whose determined nonconformity would meet mental health struggles, with West trading his role as hip-hop hero for that of quixotic presidential candidate.

Enter Kendrick Lamar Duckworth. A child of Compton, Lamar grew up in a setting that was no less harrowing for having become iconic as the home turf of the game-changing group N.W.A. Lamar personally witnessed multiple homicides, and at one point narrowly escaped being jumped merely for walking home from school through the turf of a gang that rivaled the gang claiming control of Lamar's neighborhood. He was thus intimately familiar with the work systemic racism had wrought, but unlike many gangsta rappers he wouldn't tell street stories from behind the façade of a malevolent character: he'd speak in his own voice, capturing the anguished internal conflict of a "good kid" in a "m.A.A.d city."

To get to that 2012 breakthrough LP, Lamar would hone his skills coming up as a preternaturally gifted lyricist under the auspices of Anthony Tiffith's Top Dawg Entertainment, based in nearby Carson, California. At first he rapped under the name K-Dot, before pointedly settling on his real name (sans the "Duckworth"). His vision, talent, and dedication were immediately apparent; touring slots with Jay Rock and other artists honed his stage presence. (As well as his costuming: Tech N9ne tells Moore that when Lamar toured with him in 2010 as Jay Rock's hype man, he cultivated a "hippie" look that involved knitted hoodies, frayed jean shorts, and Crocs sandals.

The author wasn't able to interview Lamar himself, but conversations with many of the artist's friends and collaborators paint a picture of a charismatic but quiet emcee who wasn't averse to some of the excesses that often attend music stardom, but who was all business in the studio. He clicked immediately with Dr. Dre when the legendary artist brought Lamar into his studio: the two shared a dedication to bottling the lightning of virtuoso rapping and turning it into enduring recordings.

Much of The Butterfly Effect is dedicated to the making of Lamar's three instant-classic albums, following his promising debut full-length Section.80. Anticipation for Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was through the roof: Lamar had the hip-hop credibility the Dre co-sign attested, a rapidly rising profile in the critical establishment (as marked by his participation in the 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival), and a growing footprint in popular culture (as marked by Lady Gaga's appearance to watch from sidestage as Lamar performed at Pitchfork).

The album lived up to the hype. Hip-hop heads recognized and respected how deeply versed Lamar was in the genre's history and heritage, and how uniquely poised he was to move hip-hop forward. MC Eiht, a rapper revered as a Compton old head, tells Moore that in the studio, Lamar showed his respect both through his humility and through the fact that he had a vision he could and would articulate, meaning his guests' time and talent wasn't wasted.

Moore points out that the album's cover photo was carefully chosen: it depicts an innocent-eyed young Lamar sitting on the lap of an uncle who's flashing a gang sign and drinking a 40-ounce bottle of beer, sitting on the table right next to the child's milk bottle. The album is a song cycle hewing close to Lamar's actual experiences, driving through his neighborhood's dangerous social landscape and watching lives wasted, wondering where his place in all of it is. The album ends with a Dr. Dre collaboration on a song simply called "Compton," solidifying Lamar's place as the new king of West Coast hip-hop.

The album was both a critical and a commercial hit, setting the stage for even greater triumphs to come. Moore devotes generous portions of his 278-page book to setting the scene for To Pimp a Butterfly: the Black Lives Matter movement was rising as a series of police killings of young Black men inspired widespread, rising outrage. Lamar would become one of the movement's most trenchant voices, and provide its signature anthem with the song "Alright," but initially, Moore notes, he disappointed some of his fans with songs and statements that didn't seem to address the situation with the clear-voiced resolve it demanded.

The defiant joy of "i," for example, is clearly contextualized on the album, but when the song dropped as a single when New York was full of protests over the lack of consequences for the killer of Mike Brown, it "felt like a misfire," writes Moore. D'Angelo's Black Messiah and Kamasi Washington's The Epic seemed to be more in order for the moment.

Washington, though, was part of the new wave of jazz talent Lamar would marshal for Butterfly, which was initially titled To Pimp a Caterpillar — making "Tupac" a near-acronym. Terrace Martin, Thundercat, and Flying Lotus were also key collaborators on the album, which Lamar saw as a bridge to earlier generations of urgent Black music. "Alright," with a beat from the perpetually golden-eared Pharrell, became the "Life Ev'ry Voice and Sing" of the Black Lives Matter movement, Moore writes, when a crowd chanted the chorus in celebration after the release of a jailed protester in Cleveland in summer 2015, providing the subject of a video that went viral.

The sprawling, unprecedented, probing, and manifestly brilliant To Pimp a Butterfly vaulted Lamar to yet another level: a second consecutive album you could (and some teachers did) structure an entire academic course around. The album was accessible yet ambiguous, "the sound of Kendrick battling his demons in front of his biggest audience," writes Moore.

Jazz pianist Robert Glasper, one of the album's many contributors, tells Moore, "Kendrick had so much respect from everybody. He spoke to the jazz cats, to the music nerds, to the backpack rappers, the gangsters. That album touched everybody." As Moore points out, the release of Butterfly in 2015 seemed to open a mental space for other artists' epics: Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Solange's A Seat at the Table, Blood Orange's Freetown Sound.

"Kendrick's album made it okay for his peers to go in," writes Moore, "to create and release whatever their vision desired regardless of what the public and critics expected."

Whereas Lamar had deliberately spurned hip-hop conventions for Butterfly, the succeeding DAMN. would return to what the artist called "the raw elements of hip-hop." Like all of Lamar's work, the 2017 album wasn't anything as simple as a response to a single event, but it landed in the wake of Donald Trump's ascent to the presidency — after circulating racist conspiracy theories about Barack Obama, a fan of Lamar's who invited the artist to the White House. What could a Black man say in this climate of rising bigotry? DAMN.

The album, which finds Lamar turning to God even as a culture turns to him, mixed rage and vulnerability and returned to the themes of self-mastery that animated Good Kid. By this time, Lamar was a consistent show-stopper with raw, theatrical performances on national award shows (for example, his Grammys performance that featured cut-ins by Dave Chappelle making meta-commentary about what viewers were seeing): whether he was entrancingly rapping over jazz piano figures or guesting on a Taylor Swift remix, Lamar's talent and integrity made him an essential presence...well, just about everywhere.

It was that album that won Lamar the Pulitzer Prize for Music, the first honoree not to be a classical or jazz artist. It was belated recognition for a genre that had been leading the musical conversation for a decade, but it was still sweet, and solidified Lamar's status as a generational talent.

That journey is more than enough for a relatively concise single volume, and Moore spends a mere page covering Lamar's curation of the epochal Black Panther soundtrack. That page of Lamar's career has turned, with many more to be written.

In a back-cover blurb, writer Hanif Abdurraqib praises Moore's willingness to start writing Lamar's story even as the artist is still living it; Abdurraqib writes that he hopes The Butterfly Effect will "set a blueprint for how we honor the brilliant and living." At what's also a moment of transition of the country, this is indeed an apt time to pause and consider Kendrick Lamar's achievements; all the better to appreciate those that are to come.

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November 26: Thanksgiving

December 3: Dolly Parton, Songteller by Dolly Parton (buy now); and She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs by Sarah Smarsh (buy now)

December 10: Can't Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop's Blockbuster Year by Michelangelo Matos (buy now)

December 17: This Isn't Happening: Radiohead's Kid A and the Beginning of the 20th Century by Steven Hyden (buy now)


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