“Compton—and Los Angeles as a whole—was chock-full of great lyricists with something viable to say,” Marcus Moore writes about rapper Kendrick Lamar’s hometown, “so what made Kendrick the one to rise above it all?” It’s a question at the heart of his new book, The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America, out in October, and one Moore uses to guide readers through wider discussions of artistic achievement and what it means to be the voice of a generation.
As a cultural biography, The Butterfly Effect examines the course of Lamar’s career with an eye on the relationship between his body of work and Black American culture at large. It’s a unique project that Moore was particularly geared for, having about a decade of music journalism under his belt. Most recently, he served as a senior editor at online music publication Bandcamp Daily, covering everything from alt-pop and soul to every iteration of his central love, jazz. (He’s also a contributing writer for The Nation.) In The Butterfly Effect, Moore eschews traditional biographical focus on the minutiae of the artist’s personal life to examine the mechanisms and meaning behind the oft-repeated phrase “Do it for the culture.” The result is a deeply personal yet critical look at how Lamar brought the anxieties, joys, struggles, and achievements of Black America to the forefront of pop culture. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
But admittedly, there was also some stress because it seems like everybody has a strong opinion about Kendrick and everybody is an expert. There are whole podcasts dedicated to people breaking down his lyrics. As I was writing it, I was concerned, like, “Man, hopefully, I dissected this correctly,” because everybody has such strong opinions about what they’re hearing that I don’t want to just be totally off base. There definitely was just me being a stressed writer.
ADG: How did you navigate parsing his artistic intentions and how much of his lyrics are truthful biography versus artistic expression?
MM: I knew pretty early on that I wasn’t going to get Kendrick. When he’s not promoting an album, he’s pretty quiet. So when I started reporting the book, admittedly, my approach was a little bit off. I was reaching out to all of these different names that either were on tour or weren’t interested or what have you. I had to realize quickly that [because it’s] the first book on him ever, everybody is in wait-and-see mode.
So then I changed my approach to say, well, this is a book about Black culture. Let me actually talk to Black culture. Let me talk to people in the liner notes who would have more to say and who would be fine with me talking to them. Since [Kendrick’s] such a private guy, I did as much as possible to keep it to the music and see how much I can actually parse from the music. I also made it a point to talk to people around him, whether it was talking to his best friend growing up or talking to his creative writing teacher or collaborators and people who have known him for years. I’m not going to be able to get him, but let me try to paint a picture of what’s going on by citing old interviews, by citing records and things of that nature.
ADG: You write about Kendrick’s greatness, comparing him with people like Serena Williams and Kobe Bryant. How do you conceptualize greatness?
MM: In this age of social media, we’re all really quick to deem something is great. Something is either classic or it’s trash within 10 minutes of the project coming out. I’ve always been of the mindset that greatness isn’t right away. Greatness is something that you have to work on alone. It’s time spent alone.
The thing with Kendrick is he spent a lot of time alone just working on his rhymes, working on his craft, popping up at Sounwave’s house when he had an idea, doing takes over and over again. That’s what I noticed about him, and that’s the thing that I noticed about all great people. The work comes first. That’s why, to me, he’s like Kobe shooting in the gym. He’s LeBron [James]. He’s Serena. He’s all of these people who didn’t just wake up and be great. They worked really hard at it.
Greatness is going to last over everything. If I’m blessed enough to have something I do be called great, I want people to be able to pick it up 10 years later, 20 years later and say, “Man, that was great. And it’s still great.” I feel like you can’t really determine greatness until years later, until you look back at it. That’s why I felt comfortable calling Kendrick great. When good kid, Section.80, and all that stuff came out, it was a moment of greatness. But you can still go back and listen to that stuff, and it’s still just as great. And you may be picking up something different. That’s true greatness to me.
ADG: In the book you speak to some of your experiences, such as having spent time in Africa and, in the last chapter, experiencing the 2016 election in Hyattsville, Md., near where you’re from. How did you navigate how much of your experiences to include?
MM: I really wish that I was very calculating toward that, but I tend to be more of a sort of free-form kind of guy. It’s a book about him, but it reminded me, “You and Kendrick have a lot of the same experiences, so now you can take this opportunity to talk about yourself a little bit.”
I wrote the part about Nairobi specifically after reading about how he felt landing in South Africa and then going back to LA. I felt the exact same way. I’ve been here back and forth for a year, and I didn’t realize how traumatized [by the United States] I was until being [in Kenya] for a few months. I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t put this in the book. I use that [last chapter] as therapy for myself, because I didn’t realize until I’d been living [in Nairobi] for a while that I’ve been holding a lot of stuff in, that a lot of stuff that we’re told as African Americans, none of it is true. That PTSD doesn’t go away.
As a journalist, I’m used to writing about everybody else and being behind the scenes, but then this light bulb went off, where I’m like, “You should have an opportunity to talk about yourself a little bit.” I also didn’t want to just divert into making it about me, but I wanted to put myself in there because those memories were very vivid. I still remember the day after the election in Hyattsville and landing [in Nairobi] and walking around and stuff like that. I wanted to get a little bit personal as a way to let people know that this is something that I’ve also gone through.
ADG: Over the course of writing the book, did you have any thoughts like “I need to put on my fan hat” or “I need to have a more critical distance here”?
MM: It’s a very delicate line. I didn’t want to write just a straight-up love letter to Kendrick Lamar. I definitely had more positive than negative thoughts, but at the same time, I couldn’t shy away from the interview gaffes. I didn’t shy away from when “i” came out and people were like, ‘Wait, what? We didn’t need this right now.’ And when “King Kunta” came out and wasn’t as good as good kid, m.A.A.d city. I felt myself jumping rope every day, because I wanted to unpack exactly what was going on in the music.
I lean more toward the critical side, more toward my album review side, but I also save space at the end of these chapters to say exactly what they mean. What did good kid, m.A.A.d city feel like? What did To Pimp a Butterfly feel like? What did it do? So I lean more toward being the critical journalist, realizing that I’m also a huge fan, too. I wanted to split it down the middle as much as I could while being positive.
ADG: It feels as if people right now are so hungry for new types of music writing and new ways of examining artists and their work. There was Hanif Abdurraqib’s Go Ahead in the Rain talking about A Tribe Called Quest from a critical fan perspective, for example. Did you have any sort of current-state-of-music-writing thoughts while doing this book?
MM: A lot of current music writing is—and I fall into this, too—if you don’t like a project, you don’t have to write about it because there’s so much music out here. It’s impossible to cover everything and to have a voice on something, even if you don’t like it. But I came up in old-school newsrooms where you can be a fan of something, but at a certain point you have to bring the critical aspect in there and somehow come down the middle as much as you can. So I had a lot of that in mind. When I was writing, I had to tap into all aspects of journalism that I’ve done over the years. So there was some local reporting in LA. There was some business reporting and, obviously, music journalism in there. I tried to be as old-school newspaper reporter as I could. And that’s why I wanted the pace of the book to be more leisurely and feel like a conversation. Because I do read a lot of books and stories where you can tell that the writer is just trying to show you how smart they are off rip. They’re trying to hit you with all the words and $50 sentences. And that’s fine, but that’s not my style. I wanted, when you read this, to feel like, “Marcus is talking to me about this thing.” I wanted it to feel like a conversation between the two of us. That’s what I was thinking when I wrote it.
ADG: Where do you think music journalism is going right now?
MM: There is definitely more of a palate for stuff that isn’t on mainstream platforms. The mainstream acts who we love, like Kendrick and Drake and people like that, they’re still around. But naturally there’s just going to be a curiosity for other kinds of art and other kinds of music.
And I’ve also got to give music publications credit because editors, it seems, are now more open to music that isn’t necessarily going to be at the top of the Billboard charts. For instance, a piece that I wrote about Nubya Garcia ran in The New York Times. And she’s just coming out with her debut album. A mold is definitely breaking, where there’s just bigger room for more esoteric forms of Black art. And it’s not just in music. You have Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, which is an amazing show. A couple of years ago, you had Terence Nance with Random Acts of Flyness. You had Donald Glover with Atlanta. Overall, there’s a wider palette for stuff that is off the beaten path and is different. And it just so happened to extend to music as well. It’s a good thing because there’s a lot of very interesting art that just isn’t being covered like that. Now because of editors being more open to different forms of music, it’s helping other artists break through. I love it. It’s something I’ve been clamoring for for probably a decade now.