Book review: Charting Kendrick Lamar's evolution from platinum-selling rapper to protest artist
"The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America" by Marcus J. Moore (Atria Books)
One night during the wrenching summer of 2015, a Cleveland crowd protesting the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice spontaneously began chanting the words to Kendrick Lamar's new single, "Alright." The moment would soon go viral, notes Marcus J. Moore, the author of a new biography of Lamar, "The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America."
"Alright" is "an abrasive protest track made specifically for people of color who were tired of seeing their brothers and sisters killed by police," Moore writes, but also an ultimately optimistic almost-pop song with a hook supplied by Pharrell Williams. It soon became a Black Lives Matter anthem, catapulting Lamar, already a deeply beloved, platinum-selling rapper, to the forefront of the ranks of protest artists.
Part career retrospective, part cultural history, "The Butterfly Effect" is most interested in Lamar's role as what a journalist once described as "an evangelist for Black power."
It's of a piece with innovative not-quite biographies like Zack O'Malley Greenburg's "Empire State of Mind," which examined Jay-Z's life as a business man, and "Go Ahead in the Rain," Hanif Abdurraqib's personal excavation of A Tribe Called Quest. Moore, a longtime music journalist, didn't speak to Lamar for the book, relying on previously published interviews with the rapper, and the author's own conversations with Lamar's fellow musicians and childhood friends.
Lamar was born into a close family in the famously troubled Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton in 1987, as gangsta rap was beginning to break nationwide. He was a "shy kid in a tough environment," Moore writes, "surrounded by strong black men who did what they could to survive." It was evident that Lamar, born Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, was preternaturally gifted, with "the technical prowess of Jay-Z and the work ethic of a man with nothing to lose." He soon signed a contract with hustler-turned-label-head Anthony Tiffith, whose Top Dawg studio provided both a proving ground and a refuge from the streets that tempted him.
His first mix tapes, released under the name K-Dot, set an early pattern, suggesting a "conflicted soul with one foot on solid ground and the other in the streets." Lamar's music grew increasingly assured, but stardom eluded him: When the life-altering call from West Coast hip-hop deity Dr. Dre came in 2010, he was eating at Chili's.
Backed by Dre's Aftermath label, Lamar dropped two legend-cementing platinum albums in a row, "Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City" and "To Pimp a Butterfly." He "was no longer just the voice of Compton," Moore writes, "he was now the voice of his generation, just like his idol Tupac Shakur before him."
Lamar's meteoric rise eventually began to resemble almost everyone else's meteoric rise, with the same familiar signifiers: the triumphant headlining set at the Pitchfork festival, the Taylor Swift co-sign, the Grammy snubs, the ever-smaller circle of friends closing protectively around him.
"The Butterfly Effect" focuses more on Lamar's discography than his personal life, which may be for the best. The rapper is depicted as a solemn workaholic not prone to the kinds of superstar excess that can enliven a biography, and his feuds aren't exactly the stuff of legend. Early in his career, his peer-dissing guest verse for Big Sean's "Control" briefly caused an uproar. And in 2014, White rapper Macklemore bested Lamar for multiple Grammys, felt bad about it, and posted his private apology texts to Lamar, who expressed polite annoyance at the breach. Moore devotes four pages to the dust-up and to Macklemore in general, which is four pages longer than anyone needs to spend on Macklemore. "The Butterfly Effect" can feel a little padded.
More conversational than scholarly, it's at its most effective when charting Lamar's cultural awakening, prompted in part by a life-changing pilgrimage to South Africa and the death of Trayvon Martin, and the almost parallel rise of Black Lives Matter. It tries to be a lot of things -- an artistic biography, a fan letter, an abbreviated history of West Coast hip-hop, an examination of Black art as a vehicle for resistance -- and does most of them well. But it necessarily suffers from the frustrating opacity of its subject, and the unfortunate timing of its release. It concludes in early 2020, too soon to document the protests that arose this summer. Though Lamar hasn't released an album in more than three years, his presence is still keenly felt: In the days after the death of George Floyd, streams of "Alright" rose 787 percent.