Three years after his major-label debut album good kid, m.a.a.d. city came out to critical adulation, Los Angeles rapper Kendrick Lamar abruptly released his much-hyped follow-up, To Pimp A Butterfly, on March 16—a full week before it was set to come out. With its roiling social messages, its brooding poetry and the ink-dark funk of its sound, Lamar saw the expectations and didn’t so much leap over the bar, but move the bar to a completely different frame.
Sales have come through, too. He conquered the Billboard Top 200 chart, having sold 363,000 units in its first week; he also obliterated Spotify’s record for most streaming listens on one album with more than nine million in a single day. (For whatever it’s worth, To Pimp A Butterfly also now holds the honour of being the first No. 1 album with the word “pimp” in the title.)
But is it enough? Perhaps not, according to a nervous tweet (since deleted) from him, as well as his labelmates, who have been urging their hometown of Los Angeles to step up.
The nerves make sense, though. The reality is that there’s more at stake here than mere sales numbers, or even Lamar’s reputation in the rap game. To Pimp A Butterfly eschewed the typical industry expectations of a sophomore rapper that appeared set to claim the throne, using complex strokes of jazz, surprisingly upfront religiousness and strong affirmations of black identity, instead of paint-between-the-lines rapping (in fact, its very last song features a fictionalized interview between Lamar and the late L.A. messiah Tupac Shakur over racial anger and realities).
It’s the same binary split that, in simplistic terms, divided hip-hop in the early 2000s, when gangsta rap went toe-to-toe with what many called “backpack rap,” the hip-hop music of a conscious breed which prided itself on its social messaging. The moment bubbled up to its flashpoint in 2007, when, in what feels like a lifetime ago, self-conscious underdog Kanye West took on gangsta-rap totem 50 Cent in a competition over sales for their albums Graduation and Curtis respectively, released on the same day—and won. Sales, even for Yeezus, were and continue to be the tea leaves that point the way forward for the industry.
But in choosing to fully embrace his complicated role as a prophet, Lamar’s hope was that profit would come too. So there is understandable worry that that’s not the case—that despite crises like the race riots in Ferguson, Mo., and the fomenting of the Black Lives Matter movement, the bottom line remains unmoved. It’s dollars, ultimately, that can make institutions like the record industry take notice, so that music can reflect realities, instead of hewing to prefab identities and canned narratives. These aren’t album sales: Lamar clearly sees this as a barometer of a much-needed crusade.
On last week’s episode of The Thrill, Maclean’s pop-culture podcast, Adrian Lee, Emma Teitel and Julia De Laurentiis Johnson discussed Lamar’s new record as it related to surprise albums. Do album release dates matter anymore? And how much can they help an album? Listen to that segment below.
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