Kendrick Lamar: How to Talk about Art When It Pays to Say Nothing

By Kang, Jay Caspian | The Fader, October-November 2015 | Go to article overview

Kendrick Lamar: How to Talk about Art When It Pays to Say Nothing


Kang, Jay Caspian, The Fader


"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?

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. …

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