This story starts with a conversation in Brooklyn roughly last week. “Yo, you know what this means?” “No, what?” “This time next week, we’re really going to have a new Kendrick Lamar album.”
The last time we, the people, received a full body of work from Kendrick Lamar Duckworth was October 22, 2012, when good kid, m.A.A.d City was released to the world, and impacted hip-hop culture just as we expected and then some. The album received success both in sales and opinion, selling over a million records worldwide and constantly slapped with the mythical “classic” label by peers, critics and fans alike. Many solid music projects have been released since good kid dropped. But there was a largely growing section of the music industry as a whole that impatiently waited for new music from the Compton MC.
So imagine the surprise (and, in some minds, confusion) when Lamar released “i” out of the blue in September 2014.
I say confusion because on the first, second, and maybe third listens, this new music wasn’t quite what we expected. It didn’t have the new age, albeit familiar sound of good kid. Actually, it sounded like something our stocking cap-wearing uncle would’ve listened to in his prime. It received mixed reviews, and in the good old age of social media, two sides went at peaceful war—saying either that Kendrick might’ve lost it or was just going in another direction.
Those worries were soothed when Lamar made an appearance on one of the last episodes of The Colbert Report. Alongside soulful crooner Bilal, fresh-voiced Anna Wise, bassist Thundercat and saxophone fiend Terrace Martin, he performed “Untitled,” and the people knew we would be in for something special.
Reports rumbled that we’d be receiving a new Kendrick album at the top of 2015. And with cryptic tweets from label reps and past collaborators, as well as the new fad of artists mysteriously and suddenly releasing new albums, no one knew for sure.
“The Blacker the Berry” released towards the end of my workday on February 9, and it kept me at my desk an extra three hours after the day was done. After finally receiving his industry just due winning two Grammy awards, Lamar felt it was time to start the show. “The Blacker the Berry” felt like five minutes and 31 seconds of audio release, as if Kendrick was waiting to get this off his chest. It was powerful. It was aggressive. It was BLACK. And as an African-American man living in the U.S. in 2015, it spoke to me.
Amongst comparisons of tribal clashes in Africa to brothers killing each other across the country due to being on the wrong side of the color bar, it provided commentary to what we face in a society that may not care for our existence. “The Blacker the Berry,” alongside “King Kunta,” showed us a glimpse of what To Pimp a Butterfly would be about. And we weren’t ready for what was awaiting us in the early hours of March 16. What was that, you ask? The bounce. The soul. The phonk.
Whether it was a glitch, a mistake worthy of someone never working in the music industry again, or the conclusion of a marketing initiative who knew what he was doing all along, news spread like wildfire amongst Twitter timelines and personal inboxes like messenger children going from village to village: “Kendrick’s album is out.”
Download links were shared like buttered bread. And with some initial tweets from TDE head Top Dawg showing disapproval towards Interscope Records for mishandling the album’s release, leave it to the always seemingly cool 27-year-old rapper from Compton to bring peace. “Keep calm, all is well,” Lamar tweeted. So yes, I actually bought the album. And then I pressed play.
I felt like I stepped into a time machine, one that warped today’s ideologies with the soulful sounds of the 1970s. The sounds of the 17-track album aren’t considered “regular” by today’s standards of rap, but that’s where Kendrick shines. Of course we’ve seen rappers who’ve gone against the status quo, but Kendrick does it different. He doesn’t care what sound is popular right now. He creates what he wants, a musical scientist hell-bent of bending the rules and creating something one of a kind.
On To Pimp a Butterfly, I hear myself. I hear my friends. I hear the brothers of my inner cities—ones I’ve met and those I never will get the chance to. Suicide, depression, survivor’s remorse, the sacrifices of success, being regarded as a human target by those with a gun and a badge just as much as those with a gavel or a pen… all topics tackled here. This isn’t your typical club record.
Kendrick Lamar has found a way to speak radically with an approach that doesn’t scare you away. No, this embraces you, grabs you and makes you pay attention. From Long Beach to Long Island and everywhere in between, we all can understand.
I promise someone heard “The Blacker the Berry” and turned the magnifying glass on themselves rather than the news and those in power. It’s music like this that you listen to, not just hear. And in today’s in your face society, where attention spans seem to be short as a wayward police officer’s fuse, if that isn’t considered power, I’m not sure what is.
There’s a reason why hip-hop greats give familiar praise to Kendrick Lamar. There’s a reason why when referring to him, we just say, “that boy got it.” There’s a reason why he has our attention the way he does. It’s the music, the feelings it generates. It’s the concepts. It’s creating a poem that spans an entire album only for Kendrick to recite it and have a conversation with Tupac Shakur. (What? Tupac? But he’s… I know. How? What? I feel the same way.)
That is what makes Kendrick Lamar Duckworth the best in hip-hop today. The brother brings the issues of an entire race to you in ways you can understand. And to that, I say thank you, Kendrick. Keep speaking to those after us, and may your words ring through the halls of Black culture for generations to come.
Cory Townes was born and raised in Philadelphia, and currently lives in Brooklyn. A devout Philly sports fan, Townes is the Social Media Manager for EBONY.com. When he’s not drinking cognac in a turtleneck or singing "Lemonade" by Gucci Mane at karaokes, you can reach him on Twitter @CoryTownes.