Artistic abilities aside, Kendrick Lamar deserves extreme praise for giving absolutely zero fucks about the perception of his music.
After dropping good kid, m.A.A.d city—an album that garnered regular comparisons to Nas' Illmatic for its pure hip-hop energy and incredible storytelling—Kendrick could have played it safe. He had legions of hardcore hip-hop heads at his feet, even with a legitimate hit single in “Swimming Pools" and a collaborative single with Drake in "Poetic Justice."
The world was his oyster, and he could have very easily churned out another album that seamlessly blended timeless hip-hop and pop crossover potential.
Instead, he made To Pimp a Butterfly.
I imagine Kendrick walking into that meeting with Interscope and telling them he wanted to make an Afrocentric, politically-charged, jazz- and funk-influenced, half-spoken word album that ends with him interviewing Tupac. The executives and A&Rs choke on their lattes, shooting “is this guy fucking serious?” glances across the room and frantically begin calculating how the hell they’re going to market an album called To Pimp a Butterfly.
At the end of the day, Kendrick dropped TPAB and the rest is history. Its performance, both commercially and critically, was a symbol of hope that in 2015, an artist could still make the art that truly spoke to them and be rewarded for it, radio be damned.
On the flip side, however, TPAB also garnered a ton of criticism from those same fans that thought Kendrick was the second coming of Rakim three years earlier. It was disconcerting, but it sure as hell didn’t stop Kendrick from continuing the trend of doing what he pleased, following up TPAB with untitled unmastered., a compilation of unreleased demos and unfinished tracks that continued his political crusade and genre exploration, with track titles like "untitled 02 | 06.23.2014."
Still showing no signs of bowing to consumer pressure, Kendrick discussed his next album in an interview with The New York Times’ T Magazine, saying that it would deal heavily with religious themes.
Here are some choice responses:
Well, damn. I know Twitter is a breeding ground for blind hatred, but this is also misinformed blind hatred. I’m going to address each group of Kendrick haters specifically so there’s no confusion here.
To those that claim Kendrick is riding waves or switching up on us by making music about God... Did y’all listen to good kid, m.A.A.d city? It literally opens up with the Sinner’s Prayer. Religion has been a staple in Kendrick’s music since day one, which also predates Chance The Rapper’s gospel-heavy Coloring Book and Kanye's The Life of Pablo, for all you “riding the wave” naysayers.
Oh, and Kendrick is washed now because he’s not making GKMC Pt. 2? This is a tired old accusation hurled at pretty much every artist that’s ever undergone maturation or evolution in their music, but it was heavily featured in the mounds of Twitter hate we poured over, so I had to address it.
Artists grow, both artistically and, literally, as humans who are getting older. Outgrowing the styles and subject matter of his debut album is the exact thing keeping him from being washed up. Next.
Ah yes, the “trying to be too revolutionary” dig. I have two responses to this, actually. If that is true—which is impossible considering it’s a completely relative and unquantifiable opinion—is trying to be a revolutionary a bad thing? Were Gil Scott-Heron, James Brown, Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix corny?
Last time I checked, all of the names I mentioned were revolutionaries and are still celebrated 50-plus years after their time. Also, Kendrick doesn’t have to “try” to be a revolutionary, he is one; To Pimp a Butterfly solidified that and there is an overwhelming number of fans and critics that would agree with me.
This outpouring of discontent regarding Kendrick’s decision to speak on the topic of religion is pretty ironic considering it’s the entire reason Kendrick wants to make this album. In that respect, I guess these reactions are to be expected, and it goes to show that creating boundary-pushing art comes with a price.
I do take solace, however, in knowing that Kendrick has long since outgrown the kind of base awareness that still permits the influence of internet trollery. Kendrick is going to make the music he wants to make, and nobody—definitely not keyboard warriors that don’t have an album in the Harvard Library—is going to stop him.
Art Credit: Don Hinds