How To Talk About Art When It Pays To Say Nothing
Kendrick Lamar on discovering jazz, making To Pimp a Butterfly, and one way he’s not like NWA.
Artists can do a lot for their work by saying very little. Imaginations should be allowed to run wild because only wild imaginations can look at a painting or read a verse and see greatness, whatever that might mean. There is an inverse correlation between the complexity of a work of art and the incentive for the artist to stay mum—Kid Ink can explain everything he wants about “Main Chick” without risking too much (You see, I know this girl wants to be my main chick, so I tell her to leave the dude that she came with) but maybe Kendrick Lamar shouldn’t distill the extended butterfly metaphor in his latest album or say why he decided to make the record’s closing interlude, where he chats with Tupac’s ghost.
Sadly enough, we’ve come to always expect an explanation—I can’t think that a famous and talented artist could ask his audience to let his work speak for itself without risking condemnation as a diva or worse. The annotators at Genius are hungry and entitled. Art, because of the mass and arguably false democratization of opinion that has come with social media, has never had to engage with its audience as much as it does today.
Artists have also never been adored quite like this. Taylor Swift, despite her recent domination, has created a worldwide empire based on her ability to present herself in small, seemingly candid, but ultimately fatuous snippets. You see her family on Instagram at Thanksgiving, you meet her leggy friends at her concerts. An artist’s popularity, in large part, relies on her ability to compress an image into social media.
So arguably there is no longer any real incentive to talk to the press. Opacity is the new norm, especially if you have enough followers. As a journalist, I’m required to think this is all terrible, but as a consumer of art, I actually find myself drawn to the new model—it allows for a secondary level of criticism in which you judge an artist for how they decide to present themselves to the internet. This analysis might not be particularly dense or insightful, but it’s at least fun.
Which is all to say, before this conversation with Kendrick Lamar took place, I was told that he preferred not to talk about his faith and how it informed To Pimp a Butterfly, his recent engagement to his high school sweetheart, or anything “political.” What follows is my attempt to navigate the narrowing spaces in which a reporter can still speak to an artist about his work.
What did you listen to between finishing good kid, m.A.A.d. city and releasing To Pimp a Butterfly?
KENDRICK LAMAR: Both albums had really the same influence: a lot of gangsta rap. The only difference [with Butterfly] is I expanded broadly on some of my parents’ earlier influences, such as Marvin Gaye, The Isley Brothers. It was a lot of oldies, a lot of funk—things they grew up on. I really just went back to my early childhood years in Compton, back to old videotapes and seeing myself in the midst of the parties. From George Clinton to The Temptations, I’m a little kid and my parents are playing these records and I’m dancing on these videos to it. Still to this day those records move me. I just took that and said, “I’ma do what I wanna do.”
When the album came out, a lot of the reviews were interested in tracing those older sounds back. I think people felt that you had synthesized different types of black music, and that you were making a statement by doing so.
[That reaction] was right. This type of music from the ’70s, then going into my influences from good kid, m.A.A.d. city, music from the ’90s—it’s all in the cohesive pot. I got into the jazz aspect midway into the album by listening to John Coltrane. A producer by the name of Terrace Martin gave me A Love Supreme.
Had you listened to jazz before?
I don’t even think that I actually did before. I’ll tell you this: the majority of the beat selections that I was picking early on in my career was all jazz-influenced, but I never knew. I just knew I loved these melodic sounds and these different notes, until somebody had to pull me to the side and say, “These are all jazz-influenced records, the sounds that you pick. This is what you like, this is what you love, this is why you like it.” You know? The reason why I really gravitated toward it is because I look at myself as a jazz musician, using my voice as its own instrument. The way I cadence my words, the way I cadence my flow—all these are the same elements from the birth of jazz early on. Now I just put the music behind it.
Is there value in knowing one influence in that pot from the other, or does how something feels matter most?
It’s both. You definitely want to know your roots, and why you do the things you do and why you love it. For the most part, for me, I would like to say it’s been 100 percent feel from the beginning, even if I didn’t know the history of it or the value of it. Knowing it’s deeper than music, it’s more of a soul thing.
“I can’t stop the things I want to say and do. I try not to let it overload my thought process.”—Kendrick Lamar
Growing up, did you have strictly West Coast influences? How did you process the West Coast/East Coast stuff that was happening back then?
I grew up off Tha Dogg Pound and Tupac. You know the story and the legacy. That’s what I was always listening to. Once Biggie came in and the whole East Coast/West Coast thing was popping off, that’s when I knew about the difference between them. But other than that, all I knew was West Coast. That’s the only rappers I seen, only rappers I heard, only rappers that were actually visually imaginable in my neighborhood. In today’s world, I don’t think it’s that big of a regionalism—there’s more collaborative efforts. We’ve seen the issues that happen when you have two coasts feuding. It messes up the music, it messes up the money, and it messes up lives. But I think the West Coast will always have its sound. The songs that you hear on the radio now is 90 percent West Coast, all coming from the Bay Area, influenced all the way down to the L.A. sound. I think we’ll always have our own little niche in the game.
After the release of Butterfly, a lot of people were also saying that you are now occupying this role as a messiah figure in hip-hop. How do you feel about the way that people have responded to the album?
I feel great. The type of concepts that I had in the album are actually real, and one of the biggest ones is the fear of having this sort of power, or knowing your place as a role model. That’s real life for me. That’s a struggle every day because things that you say are now in the lives of these young kids that’s listening to you. That’s just something that I still face. I’m starting to be more receptive to it.
Does that struggle ever invade your writing? Do you ever start talking, then feel like you shouldn’t be discussing something, or talking about a certain incident, because you know that so many people are listening?
Well, it used to. But now I’m in a space where it’s all about how I convey the message. I can’t stop my thoughts. I can’t stop my creative process and the things I want to say and do. I try not to let it overload my thought process. But at the end of the day, I have to express myself.
Ice Cube used to say things like, “Do I look like a role model?” Why do you have a different reaction to the idea of being a role model than guys like NWA did early on in their careers?
Shit, because I looked at how I used to look at them. I thought about that. When I looked at Dr. Dre, when I looked at Snoop Dogg. Whether they said it or not, to me, they were role models. Looking at them on TV and them coming from the same neighborhood I come from, I knew in my heart that these were the folks I wanted to be like. So I take that same consideration, in the space I’m in right now.
Your overall message is arguably very different from NWA’s.
Yeah. I just want to be myself and not have any fraudulent points. It'll never be anybody from where I'm from that can put out a faulty statement about who I am or what I've done or how I've grown up. You'll never be able to do that, because everything is 100 percent real. People closest to me know it, and people on the outskirts know it. I always wanted to just keep that authentic, never want to have any weak points in my career, or in my character and who I really am.