“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.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: Did you find any advantages to writing about a living, working artist’s body of work rather than waiting until his career’s end?
Marcus Moore: There was definitely some advantage in terms of dissecting music that’s still very new and evokes such a visceral reaction for people. It was fun to sit back and soak all of that in and write from that perspective. I felt like I could go off to the side and reengage with some music that maybe I hadn’t heard in a year or two years. And I just wanted to write about history as it was happening, because it was still very impactful. Anybody that was in and around music or in and around Black culture—there was no denying the impact that [Lamar] made.
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.