Marcus J. Moore first had the idea to write a book about Kendrick Lamar on the way to lunch in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. As an avid fan of the Compton-based rapper’s critically heralded 2015 effort To Pimp A Butterfly, and a self-proclaimed sucker for fly-on-the-wall stories, it dawned on Moore, who at the time was working as a Senior Editor for Bandcamp, that bringing the album to life in the form of a not-so-typical biography only made sense. “There’s a book in here,” Moore remembers thinking as he mused over the project track-by-track that day.
Same book, new cover.
Preorder: https://t.co/g8kpbzsFej pic.twitter.com/aZxp0gxcBP
— Marcus J. Moore (@MarcusJMoore) March 16, 2020
Moore is not wrong in describing the album as story-like. In 16 songs and 79 minutes, TPAB unfolds more like a work of calculated improvisation than just a rap or hip-hop record. Tracks like the album opener “Wesley’s Theory,” and standout single “King Kunta” hear Lamar toying effortlessly with sensibilities of funk, jazz and gospel, while “Alright” and “The Blacker The Berry” combine poetry with 808s to showcase his consistency as one of the most heavy-hitting lyricists to date. Where the seams of these genre explorations meet with jarring American historical and political metaphors and stream-of-consciousness runs, is where TPAB most comes alive.
Inspired by the likes of Miles Davis and Sly Stone, TPAB was recorded after a monumental trip to South Africa where Lamar visited historical sites like Nelson Mandela’s jail cell, after which he scrapped all previous work on the album. He recruited a cast of all-star producers, singers, songwriters and instrumentalists, including GRAMMY-nominated artists Anna Wise, Bilal, Flying Lotus, Rapsody, Robert Glasper, Thundercat, SZA and Terrace Martin, among others, to help put his new insights on Black history and the contemporary Black experience in America. The sessions were said to be sacred, fruitful and sometimes even “uncomfortable,” according to Lamar’s engineer/mixer Derek “MixedbyAli” Ali. In an interview with Hot 97, Top Dawg Entertainment signee SZA noted an intense musical bond that strengthened among the artists over time, resulting in the lengthy and fully layered arrangements that appear on the album. If there were ever an album to come together in the fashion of an avant-garde chapter book, it’s this one.
Following its 2015 release, To Pimp A Butterfly won a GRAMMY in the Rap Album of the Year category at the 58th Annual GRAMMYs. That night, Lamar walked away with five trophies including awards received for his hit single “Alright” in the Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song categories, as well as a Best Rap/Sung Collaboration nod for “These Walls.” In less than a decade, Kendrick Lamar has collected 13 GRAMMYs and 37 total nominations.
Following TPAB‘s five-year anniversary, the Recording Academy caught up with Moore to discuss the book writing process, the multi-dimensionality of K Dot, unearthed stories about To Pimp A Butterfly’s recording and the album’s long-term cultural impact.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you ended up working on a book about Kendrick Lamar and To Pimp A Butterfly?
My byline is Marcus J. Moore and by trade, I’m a music journalist. Right now, I work as the contributing editor at Bandcamp Daily, and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, but I also freelance for a bunch of different places. Over the past 10 years, I’ve covered soul, jazz, electronica, hip-hop and other subgenres for Pitchfork, NPR Music and I’ve written a piece for The Atlantic, Billboard, SPIN, MTV and BBC Music.
I thought [To Pimp A Butterfly] was amazing just like everyone else. I’m just listening like, man there’s a book in here because I’m a sucker for fly-on-the-wall stories. I wonder what it was like when Thundercat walked in and when Robert Glasper showed up or when Terrace Martin is playing, I wonder what that’s like? I’m just curious. I ran the idea past a good buddy of mine who is also an author and he thought there was something there. He was like, “Welp, okay cool, that’s a good idea. You need to talk to my friend,” who at the time was a senior editor at Simon and Schuster. I ran it past him and he, too, thought it was a good idea and was going to help me bring the idea to fruition.
I didn’t want to write the typical celebrity bio that everyone would anticipate. I was influenced to broaden it out a little bit and write about TPAB, and also write about DAMN., good kid, m.A.A.d city, Section.80, Black Panther and all of that. I went home and I started seriously working on a book proposal, got it done by early 2018 and we got it locked in by March of 2018.
What was it like figuring out how to write a book, since up until that point you had mostly been doing journalistic writing? How were you able to scale Kendrick’s story in relation to social and popular culture within those confines?
Well, it’s going to sound crazy but I found the transition to be easier. The thing with music journalism, even though I feel like I’m always going to be a music journalist or the guy who wants to shout out some “underground” record and people get to hear about it. That whole process can be a bit draining because the record comes out Friday, you have to have your review up by Tuesday for people to even care about it. I found this to be a lot more refreshing because it allowed me to get lost in the story, to calmly walk through Kendrick’s coming up and his music and how his music has influenced Black people. And, as a Black American male, it gave me an opportunity to dive into how it made me feel personally. He and I aren’t the same, but writing the book taught me that we’re not that dissimilar in terms of having fears about what you’re writing and anxieties about the world, things of that nature.
Because Kendrick is such a complex character, it’s not easy to try and pack everything into a 2,000-word article. Writing about Kendrick in book form is more conducive to his career in that regard because it allows you to talk to other people and get into why he would feel survivor’s guilt, why he was depressed being on the road away from his family. And it allowed me to talk to these Compton OGs who had seen him come up but also remembered Compton before…
When we write about Compton, we’ve always heard about the danger, red and blue. But, it’s also important to remember that Compton wasn’t always that. How did it become that? So, writing this book allowed me to really go heavy on the context, you know going into Compton in the ’60s, ’70s, even though we have unarmed Black men being killed by police in 2014, 2015 and today, the city of Los Angeles has its history. This wasn’t anything new. That I thought, was indeed helpful because it gave me more time to explore what I wanted to write about him and what his music meant. I didn’t realize until I dove in just how forthright [Lamar] is. He layers it under so many different facets, it’s so much poetry. That’s why he doesn’t give interviews anymore. It’s all on the record.
“He and I aren’t the same, but writing the book taught me that we’re not that dissimilar in terms of having fears about what you’re writing and anxieties about the world.”
You talked about the complexity of Kendrick the artist and the person. What’s your insight on Kendrick being a bridge between different generations of rap/hip-hop fans? What’s so compelling about Kendrick that allows him to reach so many different people?
The thing that connects him to everybody is that he’s incredibly honest and the music is resonant. The music industry always goes through waves where this is the new thing, the new artist, the new mainstream single, the song we’re going to stream over and over, or the artist we’re going to put on all the magazine covers. But, I’ve seen it happen time and time again where no matter who that person is, good music is always going to last.
I think the thing that makes Kendrick stand out is that he’s a new classic. He’s an album’s artist. Granted, he has songs that you can pluck out of a record and it’ll still work as a single, but at the same time, he’s creating these different sort of paintings, very intricate pieces of work that will take years to dissect. That’s what caters to everybody. The intentionality behind it is always very brilliant because, you’re dancing to this song with 808s or this club song, but then when you dive into the lyrics he’s talking about survivor’s guilt, taking you through prison mentality. All of this really deep stuff, but he’s able to reel it within something that still makes you move.
Robert Glasper told me during the interview process that Kendrick caters to the music nerds and the OGs. Dr. Dre, Snoop, all these people from his city totally respect him, but at the same time, he can jump on tracks with Travis Scott or whoever and it works each way. It’s these different generations, but also not giving as much of himself publicly to create this mystique which then extends his lifeline. Anything with his name attached to it is automatically going to blow up because now there’s such a level of intrigue around anything that we just want to see what he’s doing next. He’s like D’Angelo in that way. “I gave you guys VooDoo, now I’m going to disappear, and then when I drop Black Messiah by surprise it’s still going to be a hit.” Frank Ocean is the same way. I think that’s what helps him connect to so many different people.
You mentioned the word “intentionality.” Based on your conversations with people like Robert Glasper and others about the recording of the album, how do you view Kendrick’s ability to blend different genres; jazz, gospel, soul, etc., into TPAB? What were you able to learn about the album?
Well, the main thing that I learned from the recordings of To Pimp A Butterfly is, even though I mention the word “intentionality,” they were intentional about not saying “Oh hey, we’re creating this thing.” They worked so much that everyone was like, “Yo, they’re forming together like Voltron” after a while. You know, they were taking the same lunch breaks, eating the same food, doing everything. There’s never this intent to be like here’s the jazz track, here’s the gospel track. They just spent night and day in the studio, throwing things against the wall to see what would work. It was around the clock.
What I learned about those sessions and from Kendrick’s ability to put things together—and I’ve heard this from a few different people—is that Kendrick essentially is a jazz musician. When we think of the tradition of jazz music, we think of a person with a trumpet or a saxophone, and since it’s all based on improv essentially, they’re trying to come in and feel their way through the music with their notes. They say, whether from Glasper or Terrace Martin, that Kendrick does the exact same thing. He’s not going to just jump on an instrumental, and he didn’t for that album. He wasn’t going to jump on just anything in the room and just suffocate it with words, he was going to kind of dip in, dip out. He was going to tweak his voice a certain way so that it would hit the drum snare in a different sort of way. He was going to breathe differently, or back up and let the instrumental take shape and breathe until it expands.
The thing about Kendrick during those sessions was honestly that he was no different than Miles Davis working with Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter and all these people or any jazz head where yeah, that’s the band leader, but I’m going to back up and let these people do their thing and then once the music hits me I’m just going to fall in where I can. And he was taking his time. He sat on the “Alright” beat for several months, I want to say like six months.
The whole squad is very methodical about the way that they work because they know that there are a lot of eyes on them. And at the same time, with To Pimp A Butterfly, they knew that they wanted it to be a cross-section of super black music. Just to think of that time, it’s fascinating because when you think about when TPAB came out, months before that in December of 2014 you had D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, March 2015 you get TPAB and then two months after Butterfly you have Kamasi Washington’s The Epic. It very much fits within that pantheon of really grassroots, hardcore black music. I think that’s why it took so many people because it came at a time when we needed it.
Earlier you mentioned that a lot of Kendrick’s material will take people years to unpack. How do you think Kendrick and TPAB‘s legacy will evolve beyond this five-year anniversary point?
The immediate impact of TPAB, especially when it came out in 2015, was that—to me at least as a full-time music journalist—I feel like a lot of records after that were jazz. All of a sudden jazz came back; it was a combination of TPAB’s success and Kamasi’s The Epic. And jazz hadn’t really gone anywhere. It was just that now there was a palette for it among younger listeners. Now, jazz can be at a festival. So, the immediate impact of TPAB I guess was two-fold, one it was this beacon of jazz returning, but at the same time, personally it made my job a lot easier just based on the liner notes. When you’re flipping through and you see Flying Lotus is on here, Thundercat’s all over this, Kamasi is in here, Terrace Martin, all of these people that I had been jumping up and down about as an editor for years, all of a sudden were on this one record and they were now getting stories. It opened up the landscape and it made sonically challenging music acceptable. Now you can do whatever kind of record you want, as long as it comes from the heart and there will be ears for it, there will be coverage for it.
Moving forward I think it’s one of those records that will just keep coming back, and that’s not easy. I feel like with us, those five years flew by very quickly. And I do believe that it doesn’t matter what the thing is five years from now, dance, pop, jazz, whatever—the music on there was so sonically rich that it’s going to find another generation of listeners and will just keep going forever and ever. I look forward to the day when my godson, who’s now two, is 22 in the record store and he’ll find a used TPAB copy and he plays it and he’s like, “What is this? This came out a million years ago but this is crazy!” And then it’s going to be a whole new generation of jazz heads who are just going to keep discovering. And in turn, there’s going to be more books written about it, there’s going to be school curriculum and classes. It’s one of those records. I don’t classify it by genre, as crazy as that may sound. I feel like a lot of critics still, even though hip-hop is how many years old now, they still kind of look at hip-hop as this other thing. To me, and I even wrote this in the book, TPAB is on the same level as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? It resonates the same way as Stevie Wonder‘s Songs In The Key Of Life. You know, take any iconic album in any genre and you can put TPAB beside it and it’s right there with it.
“The book is as much about the evolution of black culture as it is about Kendrick.”
Why do you think telling Kendrick Lamar’s story and cementing his history in this way is so important?
A lot of the criticism that I heard when the book deal got announced was, “Oh it’s too early, Kendrick is still working, Kendrick is still doing this and doing that.” I’m coming from the standpoint of, to be honest, we have to give people their flowers when they’re around to smell them joints, because you just never know. Pop Smoke died when he was 20, we lost Kobe Bryant unexpectedly. I’m really of this mindset of yes, he’s still doing his thing, but why can’t we already acknowledge what he has done for black culture? Yes, he still has a whole life to live and there’s still going to be plenty written about him and I can’t wait to read it. But you also can’t deny this moment in time where from 2010 to now, he essentially changed the world. TDE, his creative community, they’re now superstars. “Alright” is a protest anthem. He had a record that rewrote a whole genre that he’s not even in. They call him a jazz musician, but he’s a rap artist.
I just wanted to make sure that I canonize that because quite frankly it’s just an important story. It’s not about clout chasing or getting famous or anything like that. I just wanted to tell Kendrick’s story because it’s a very impactful story and it inspired me and so many people. I just think it’s important for us. We need more books that celebrate black culture in an unadulterated fashion. We need to celebrate ourselves, not continue to wait to be validated by others. There’s been a lot of hype around the book, but I just hope people like it. I’m thankful that people are interested. The book is as much about the evolution of black culture as it is about Kendrick.
Moore’s book, “The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America,” is due out later this year on Oct. 13 via Atria Books. The title is available for pre-order here.
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