The Evolution of Kendrick Lamar

(My cohort from Silver Screen & Roll–SS&R Editor-in-Chief Drew Garrison–put together something of a different flavor: a deep dive into the world of music. Certainly something different than we usually post at MAMBINO, but I threw in a Giannis Antetokounmpo reference just to keep us in the sports stream. Enjoy!)
KOBEsh: In late September, Kendrick Lamar suddenly released “i” into the digital ether, a mysterious new single off his mysterious new album with a mysterious release date. No one quite knew when the world would see the rest of the material from the highly anticipated follow up to the critically acclaimed debut record but one thing was for sure—”i” let us know that at the very least, Kendrick wasn’t going to just put out Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, Part 2.
After months of speculation, one of music’s worst kept secrets is finally out: a couple of weeks ago, hip-hop’s hottest act Kendrick Lamar released his highly anticipated sophmore album To Pimp a Butterfly overnight. The clandestine album has almost become a prerequisite these days for artists of Lamar’s stature–after all, haven’t we gotten to the point where if Jay Z or Beyonce or Kanye West released an album with a four month run-up, wouldn’t that just feel out of the ordinary?
Let’s start off here: what were you expecting this album to be, even before you heard “i”? Did you have expectations? And then when you finally heard To Pimp a Butterfly, what was you instant reaction?
Drew Garrison: I didn’t have any expectations for Kendrick after really digging GKMC and swinging down to embrace Section.80. It definitely felt like Kendrick’s next album was going to be a significant release for music, and certainly feel like it’s an album of that magnitude. I think the instant thought once the final time yelled “PAC” cut out was just how dense the release is. This album isn’t a slice of cheesecake, it’s the whole thing. In one sitting. Game on. 

It’s evident TPAB is a labor of love. Every second of it feels meticulously produced and curated, which is an achievement for everyone that had their hands on the album. I think, more than anything, I walked away with way more respect for Kendrick Lamar as an artist than I did for him as a rapper. He has that luxury after he ripped the game to shreds since GKMC, which I think he fully took advantage of on this album.

The heavy hand he uses across the entire album, though, is overwhelming at times. This is his evolution into a transcendent artist with the tools to accomplish anything he could ever dream of musically. Compton’s Kanye West, in a sense. It’s an exhaustive experience in every musical-calorie laden bite.

KOBEsh: I co-sign on everything you said there, especially the component about this making Kendrick more of an artist rather than just another rapper. I didn’t share your sentiments though on your expectations for the second record. While I though GKMC was a brilliant piece of carefully constructed music, I didn’t quite know if that meant he had room to grow or would continue to play on the same themes. What the album showed me was his ability to flex his creative muscles within the constraints of what hip-hop is—I’m not sure it pushed the genre forward or made a splash, in same way that The Chronic or It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot (or Nevermind, if I may go cross-genre) made waves and changed the direction of hip-hop at the time. That being said, I’m not at all surprised that he made a record of this magnitude because I always believed he was capable.

In many ways, it’s like watching a young gifted player, take Giannis Antetokumpo for example, blossom over time. Now, I don’t know if Giannis is going to turn into Kevin Durant, Kevin Garnett or Kevin Love, but none would surprise me—nor would it surprise me if he was something entirely different. His ceiling is high and his future is what he makes it. Kendrick had and has the same type of ceiling. His talents always suggested greatness, but it was a matter of waiting and watching. Now that we’re witnessing it, it’s all the more impressive because to me, he went in an unexpected direction and furthermore, played up on themes both within the record and revolving around his career trajectory.

However, I feel that while TPAB is a great work on its own merit, talking about that album means nothing without the context of the first. How do you feel the two are different and do you feel that one feeds off another?

Drew Garrison: The two are substantially different but exist within one another. GKMC is a sprawling story of what Kendrick wanted to tell us about where he came from. It’s a rap album that’s raw and digestible. He flexes lyrically throughout the album, dropping bar after bar and flow after flow. It’s been a long time since that perspective was Kendrick dropping “Backseat Freestyle,” and the stakes and choices are different now. This quote Kendrick blessed the NY Times with seems to hint at that:

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.”

To understand how Kendrick got to a point of submerging himself “underwater,” you have to keep in perspective where he came from. How things really do change with the fame and lifestyle he’s transitioned into. He’s always told us the story of where he’s at. In Section.80 he was an up-and-coming rapper out of Compton who had a message and a dream to write about. In GKMC he wiped the mirage of the dream away and let you ride shotgun through his reality. In TPAB this is what Kendrick has to say through the haze of fame, and these are the tools he has to bring it together as a personal statement.

KOBEsh: I love that there’s such a through line for his records. It’s truly fascinating to see just how his evolution has been captured in his art. While I feel many artists try to portray this growth over time, it’s rare that it’s ever conveyed not only in words, but also the timbre of his music. You spoke about GKMC in the context of dreams leading to reality, which I felt through the jacketed intensity of his words and rhymes through the funnel of laid back beats and somewhat minimalist production. On the flip, you’ve got TPAB, where more we hear those grooves and flows of “Swimming Pools” and “Poetic Justice” give way to more bombastic, big beat production, tinged with a funk-sound we only got tinges of in his previous records.

I do see the comparison between these two records a bit differently. Before I heard one not from GKMC, I’d only heard of Kendrick Lamar as the newest heir to the West Coast rap throne. A Compton kid who would step in line with Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur and The Game as the latest and greatest vanguard of such a rich tradition. But when I heard it? It wasn’t furious in the way that Cube’s booming vocals blew down your door. It wasn’t filled the anger that Pac ripped through the stereo. It didn’t portray the abject hopelessness that The Game painted with such vivid authority. Kendrick was intense, for sure, but in comparison to his West Coast forefathers, he almost sounded meek. Too laid back. He didn’t reach out of my headphones and tear my face off like those other guys. And I was perturbed.

But then I settled in. I kept on listening to GKMC, strapping in and refusing to dislike something that I felt an obligation to love. After a fashion, I found myself becoming lost in the record and ultimately, shifting away from what I thought Kendrick should be and embracing what he is.

So for me, TPAB plays up on these themes for me personally and through the pop culture echochamber of who actually is. Thus far, he’s not a singles artist. He isn’t going to cross over like Dre or Snoop. He is the next great West Coast rapper, but he’s not N.W.A. Part II. He is Kendrick Lamar, and he is making his own way. The phrase “To Pimp a Butterfly” is such an apt metaphor for what he’s going through–we’ve been trying to label him in one way or another for the past five years. But how can you label something when you don’t even know what it’s going to be? When it’s something that’s continually changing? How can you sell an idea that’s morphing by the day?

Drew Garrison: I think that’s where I think Kendrick unquestionably succeeded with TPAB. There is no doubt he crafted the album he wanted to make, expectations be damned, breaking out of that cocoon and spreading his wings. That he was able to still pull so much influence from the West Coast to plug into the equation is both amazing and a testament to how methodical the planning for this album was.

The authenticity in this album is what makes him similar to the rest of the West Coast’s Mt. Rushmore. Kendrick left it all out on the court, so to speak, and he banged on the opposition. The influence of the West Coast in his music, both lyrically and musically, brings it all together to me. The storyelling of Snoop, the rawness of Pac, the “West aura” of Dre, the chops of Kurupt and DJ Quik, topped with the sonic exploration of Flying Lotus. The moment he opened this very important moment in his career with a Flying Lotus produced track featuring both Thundercat and George Clinton it was clear the ride was going to be an experience we talk about.

But what’s really blown me away after close to two weeks with this album is how well it stands not as an all-encompassing piece of music, but in isolated moments. After processing the album, it’s become something I can leave in the background without being completely enveloped in cracking the Da Vinci code. These Walls doesn’t have much of a hook, but it’s damn near impossible not to want to join in when the first two verses funnel down to a single word – *crush*. The way he flips all over the second verse of Alright is the moment Kendrick dumps enough gold bars to fill Fort Knox. When he finally lets it rip on Hood Politics — his reminder that no one’s taken the crown from him since GKMCthe fact he doesn’t spare more than the words “boo boo” to describe his detractors is both hilarious and perfect. The list goes on and on with memorable isolated moments that all deserve a mention.

But the fact stands that he made an even less-accessible album than GKMC that will fall on plenty of ears that have no interest in him exploring who he is with songs that often don’t know what they are, transforming not only song-to-song, but verse-to-verse. As West Coast as Kendrick wants everyone to know he is, he made an album that you can’t cruise the women, weed and weather that is California with this time around. 


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