Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ Was Inspired By A Life-Altering International Experience

Kendrick Lamar 'To Pimp A Butterfly' South Africa Grammys

At the Grammys, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly caught 11 nominations and five trophies. But Kendrick Lamar’s hit album came after an amazing, life-changing experience, leading to this great album. Lamar’s main inspiration for the project came after a trip to South Africa expanded his worldview and broadened his perceptions.

But even before the South Africa trip, Lamar was doing something different. Going to South Africa was simply a logical progression from Compton. Even before To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar sought to give inspiration to his hometown, Compton, California, while at the same time bringing the storied area back to mainstream consciousness. The hit movie Straight Outta Compton was another reminder that Compton is back in a big way. But Lamar went even further this time around, bridging and stitching together funk, jazz, soul, and hip hop like a tapestry, and coming out of it with To Pimp a Butterfly, something altogether new.

Kendrick told how the South Africa trip inspired him and thrust him into a new sound stratosphere.

“I felt like I belonged in Africa. I saw all the things that I wasn’t taught. Probably one of the hardest things to do is put [together] a concept on how beautiful a place can be, and tell a person this while they’re still in the ghettos of Compton. I wanted to put that experience in the music.”

And that experience was also reflected in Kendrick Lamar’s lauded Grammy performance. Besides coming out in handcuffs, and wearing prison gear, the scene quickly changed to Africa, with African dancers and drummers supporting the second half of the performance, where he rapped his “Alright” single. The video for that song takes place in Compton, but for the televised performance, he wound up in Africa. But really, the To Pimp a Butterfly album is South Africa, it’s Compton, and it’s everywhere in between. It’s the past and the future. It’s all over the map and around the world.

Despite the broad strokes used to paint this album into existence, Kendrick isn’t leaving Compton. Though Dr. Dre didn’t come back when he was presented with the same honor, Lamar was in Compton to receive the key to the city, presented to him by the local city administration. It’s a city he loves and can’t seem to stay away from. His success is Compton’s success.

In his acceptance speech for the award, BadCulture Los Angeles recorded Kendrick’s commitment to Compton.

“As long as I’m doing music, as long as I’m using my platform for something, I’m going to always, since day one, scream Compton and make sure I come back to this community and do right by it, because you all always done right by me.”

But what differentiates Lamar’s approach to Compton from his successors, most notably N.W.A., is that Compton is now in the next stage of its pop culture development. If N.W.A. exposed all of Compton’s problems and gave them a voice, Lamar connects with those problems, but only to offer a bridge towards a new future. Lamar isn’t pretending to be removed from Compton’s notorious gang issue, and isn’t making music that ignores the social ills that plague the area. But he is also serving as a new kind of city ambassador. Lamar’s most Compton-centric song was “King Kunta,” a single from To Pimp a Butterfly. He celebrated life in Compton with a pride that no other artist has ever done.

From Compton, to the Grammys, to the world, the 28-year-old Kendrick Lamar is now at the highest point he’s ever been in his career, and west coast rap is refreshed. The buzz from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is still high, and fans can only look forward to more projects that highlight this newly inspired musical palate.

[Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS]