LOS ANGELES — Following the success of his major label debut, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” in 2012, Kendrick Lamar did not indulge in earthly luxuries. Instead, he got baptized.
That album was the story of his redemption, not just from street gangs through rapping but from a life of sin by embracing Jesus Christ. His long-awaited follow-up, “To Pimp a Butterfly” (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope), which was made available online Sunday night, ahead of a planned March 23 release, is about carrying the weight of that clarity: What happens when you speak out, spiritually and politically, and people actually start to listen? And what of the world you left behind?
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.”
Whereas “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” zoomed in on a day in the old life of Mr. Lamar, a gifted but wayward high schooler in a neighborhood filled with death and temptation, “To Pimp a Butterfly” brings listeners up to his present day, from world tours to the B.E.T. Awards, and the separation he feels from his past. Rather than relief, his escape from Compton has brought only more opportunities for sin and self-doubt, an internal chaos reflected not only in Mr. Lamar’s intricate stories but also in vigorous jazz- and funk-inflected production that builds on the smoother West Coast sounds of his debut.
A wider vantage has made Mr. Lamar more outwardly political, as he confronts race, police violence and his attempts to navigate new cultures — and to bring what he’s learned back to his neighborhood. “You take a kid out of Compton, and he has to meet these different types of people that are not black,” Mr. Lamar said. With this challenging 75-minute story of “survivor’s guilt,” he has also doubled down on the concept album format, forgoing obvious radio singles and daring fans to invest in close readings at the risk of commercial success.
Though “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” was similarly dense, critics called it a triumph comparable to classic rap debuts like Jay Z’s “Reasonable Doubt” and Nas’s “Illmatic,” and the album was certified platinum. The hit single “Swimming Pools (Drank)” warned about the dangers of alcohol, while “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” begins, “I am a sinner, who’s probably gonna sin again.”
For many fans, “I’m the closest thing to a preacher that they have,” Mr. Lamar, 27, said from the couch of a Santa Monica studio where he recorded much of the new album. “I know that from being on tour — kids are living by my music.” However, he added: “My word will never be as strong as God’s word. All I am is just a vessel, doing his work.”
Mr. Lamar is working to purify hip-hop, a genre he hopes to ground in his true experiences of growing up poor, the son of a former gangbanger. He offers a corrective, or at least an alternative, to the opulent fabulism of some mainstream rap. “You know the songs that are out — we all love these songs,” he said. “They sell a lot of singles and make these record labels a lot of money.”
But those “really living” in the streets don’t want to hear boasts about murder and drug dealing, he continued. “They want to get away from that,” Mr. Lamar said. “If it comes across as just a game all the time, the kids are going to think it’s just a game.”
“From my perspective, I can only give you the good with the bad,” he said. “It’s bigger than a responsibility, it’s a calling.”
While some may question Kanye West’s conflicted materialism and ego or Drake’s emotional insularity — or, even the outlaw wisdom of Tupac, who cameos posthumously on “To Pimp a Butterfly” as a guardian angel — Mr. Lamar represents, for some, a more digestible rap messenger. In addition to being religious, he rarely drinks or smokes, eschews fancy clothes and jewelry and has reportedly been in a quiet, decade-long relationship with his high school sweetheart. (“I don’t want to put somebody else in the spotlight and make them a celebrity when they don’t want to be a celebrity,” he said.)
Mr. Lamar, who rarely appears on TMZ or MediaTakeout, failed to name a single vice, other than constantly recording music, watching the TV show “Martin” and eating his beloved Fruity Pebbles.
But at the start of Mr. Lamar’s new album, George Clinton intones over a Flying Lotus beat: “Gather your wind, take a deep look inside, are you really who they idolize? To pimp a butterfly.” In repeated spoken word sections, each telling more of the story than the last, Mr. Lamar acknowledges the risk of “misusing your influence” and in song aims criticism at himself as well as the powers that be.
Kiese Laymon, who has taught Mr. Lamar’s music as a professor of English at Vassar College, said the rapper recalls singers like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield — “artists who have positioned themselves as prophetic witnesses.” While Mr. Lamar is “reckoning with violence, race, police power and white supremacy,” Mr. Laymon said, “he’s implicating himself in what he’s witnessing.”
On “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” interstitial phone calls re-enacted by Mr. Lamar’s parents went to voice mail because he was a teenager getting into girls and home invasions; this time around, the chasm is fame. “Where was your presence? Where was your support that you pretend?” he raps to himself in character on “u” after a friend is shot. “You ain’t no brother, you ain’t no disciple, you ain’t no friend/A friend would never leave Compton for profit.”
“You even FaceTimed instead of a hospital visit,” he adds tearfully over a slow, unsteady saxophone plea, his voice cracking.
Mr. Lamar, who now lives in a condo not far from his old neighborhood, said he was not prepared for the uncertainty and depression that came with being accepted as a voice of his community. “You can tell a person about fame and fortune all you want, but until you’re really in it and you know the person that you can become …” he said, trailing off.
“I know every artist feels this way, but in order for it to come across on record for your average 9-to-5-er is the tricky part,” he said. “I have to make it where you truly understand: This is me pouring out my soul on the record. You’re gonna feel it because you too have pain. It might not be like mine, but you’re gonna feel it.”
This hurt and insecurity is noticeable only in song. Dave Free, the president of Top Dawg Entertainment, Mr. Lamar’s label, and a friend since ninth grade, said the rapper is “the most sane person around” and compared him to Gandhi. “He’s so calm,” Mr. Free said. “You’ll never get a crazy reaction out of him.”
He added that he was not stressed about the new album’s place in the market. “Of course I’m concerned about it commercially, because it’s my job to be concerned about it,” said Mr. Free, who also manages Mr. Lamar. “But am I worried? No. Because I know what we have.”
In the flesh, Mr. Lamar is barely 5-foot-6, inconspicuous in a gray T-shirt, plain jeans and a baseball hat, but he carries himself like a much taller man. He can be solemn and soft-spoken, although he lights up when challenged, his voice approaching his recorded growl. He often smiles knowingly and laughs to emphasize the obviousness of a point he has made.
On “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Mr. Lamar’s other mode — after guilt — is as an evangelist for black power. The first music heard on the record is a clip of Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger Is a Star,” the theme from a 1970s Jamaican film. From then on, in lyrical content and sound, it is a fierce album, incorporating live jazz horns, soul grooves and vocals by Lalah Hathaway and Ronald Isley.
Mark Spears, an in-house producer at Top Dawg Entertainment known as Sounwave, said there is “a whole lot of anger, a whole lot of frustration” in the music, which was influenced in equal parts by Miles Davis and Dr. Dre. “The world today has a bunch of problems. That rubbed off,” he said, referencing the unrest in Ferguson, Mo.
On “King Kunta,” a funk stomp, Mr. Lamar compares himself to the main character in Alex Haley’s “Roots” before declaring: “Black man taking no losses!”
That pride is present on the album’s lead singles, too. The Isley Brothers-sampling “i,” with its “I love myself!” chant, is intended as a raucous, uplifting homecoming to Compton. In the jaw-dropping “The Blacker the Berry,” Mr. Lamar barks, “I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village.” He adds: “You hate me, don’t you? Your plan is to terminate my culture,” before again looking in the mirror. “Hypocrite!” he concludes.
While “i” represented a softer pop sound and won Mr. Lamar two Grammy Awards in February, critical reception was lukewarm and the song peaked at No. 39 on the Billboard singles chart.
“The Blacker the Berry” was the confrontational opposite of a palate cleanser, invigorating and raw, but its reference to black-on-black crime came in for political scrutiny, along with earlier comments Mr. Lamar made to Billboard about the killing of Michael Brown. That shooting of an unarmed teenager by a police officer “never should’ve happened,” he said. “When we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us?”
“When I speak, I speak for self first — this is my experience,” Mr. Lamar said in response to critics who said he was ignoring institutional racism. “I know where I come from. I know the hurt that I’ve caused families,” he added. “These are my demons.”
As for police brutality and political disenfranchisement, “I know the history,” he said. “Black and brown pride have been taught in my household for a long time.”
At 15, Mr. Lamar said, he experienced his first of two Los Angeles Police Department house raids. “I’ve been stomped in the back,” he said. “I’m not talking to people from the suburbs. I’m talking as somebody who’s been snatched out of cars and had rifles pointed at me.”
But, he added, “Playing the victim only works so long.”
On the album, after some “soul-searching,” including visits not only back to Compton but also to Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, Mr. Lamar preaches black unity in the face of oppression. Self-pity turns to on-the-ground action and consciousness-raising.
On “Hood Politics,” over a foreboding Sufjan Stevens sample, Mr. Lamar bridges the gap “from Compton to Congress,” comparing politicians to gang members: “Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-icans.”
The cover of “To Pimp a Butterfly” addresses that juxtaposition in a striking image by the French photographer Denis Rouvre: shirtless black men of all ages, gripping 40-ounce bottles and stacks of cash, posing in front of a White House backdrop.
Mr. Lamar said the cover represents “taking the same things that people call bad and bringing them with me to the next level, whether it’s around the world or to the Grammys or the White House. You can’t change where I come from or who I care about.”
While material possessions failed to move him, Mr. Lamar said, “what gives me inspiration is giving thought and game to people who don’t have it.” Compton, he said, is “where we’re putting in the real work with these kids and these ex-convicts.”
The album ends with “Mortal Man,” Mr. Lamar’s attempt to own his role as hip-hop prophet while maintaining his defenses. “As I lead this army, make room for mistakes and depression,” he raps, invoking the ghosts of Mandela, Huey Newton, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Michael Jackson. “Do you believe in me?” he asks, before challenging the listener: “How many leaders you said you needed then left them for dead?”
But to call “To Pimp a Butterfly” a political record “would be shortchanging it,” Mr. Lamar said. “It’s a record full of strength and courage and honesty” but also “growth and acknowledgment and denial.”
“I want you to get angry — I want you to get happy,” he said. “I want you to feel disgusted. I want you to feel uncomfortable.”
article by Joe Coscarelli via nytimes.com