Kendrick Lamar does not need an Album of the Year Grammy win — let’s start with that. The Grammys, however, need to give him the award.
For Lamar, who has a near record-tying 11 nominations for his earth-shattering To Pimp A Butterfly, this one award means nothing to his legacy as an artist. His work will, and already does, speak for itself when it comes time to evaluate his career.
Not to mention, plenty of critics disregard the Grammys for rewarding only pop stars, rarely recognizing music with complexity or boundary-pushing imagination. But that could change if they give To Pimp A Butterfly the win for Album of the Year. It would mean Grammy voters reward pure artistry — which is the way it should be.
Lamar has already suffered a high-profile Grammy snub. In 2014, his wildly popular, but still thoughtfully crafted, good kid, m.A.A.d city lost Best Rap Album to Macklemore’s debut LP. Most of the hip-hop world, including Macklemore himself, thought Kendrick deserved the win: the voters made a mistake. If they’re smart, they won’t do it again — especially when there is so much to gain.
To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB) is the album to beat for the rap world. There has never been anything like it and rappers will be hard pressed to compete with it moving forward. Lamar’s masterpiece achieved the crown for two reasons that the Grammys should note: it perfectly fits the platform of an “album,” and it was a huge risk.
A brief point needs to be made that TPAB is not exceptional because of its racial timeliness or commentary. Yes, Lamar makes exquisite observations about race in America (“Institutionalized manipulation and lies / Reciprocation of freedom only live in your eyes” on “The Blacker the Berry”), but far too many critics praise TPAB for its political timeliness amid the discussion of police discrimination, basically giving him credit for addressing the topic at all. Let’s not kid ourselves: there have been plenty of rappers that took on the topic long before Lamar was even recording (see Rakim, Nas, or Tupac, to name a few) and while racial inequality might be back in the spotlight it’s by no means a new issue (see American history).
Being Black comprises a significant part of who Kendrick Lamar is, so of course the topic will pervade every corner of his writing — and it does. But simply taking on the topic isn’t what makes Lamar or TPAB stand out. What’s more significant is Lamar himself — his identity.
To Pimp A Butterfly is like a tour through the highs and lows of Black American life, and Lamar is the tour guide. The music provides the scene — sometimes resilient, jazzy and celebratory like in “Alright;” sometimes biting, ominous, and overwhelming like in “Wesley’s Theory” or “How Much a Dollar Cost.” All the while, Lamar’s rapping explores the discord with his first-hand, anecdotal account of a conscientious American’s life.
What makes TPAB a complete album is that it takes all 16 tracks for Lamar to walk us through it all. You can’t sum up Lamar’s feelings on life as a young, Black man in the US with just one song. He explores the complexity of his newfound fame, sometimes owning his accomplishments like in “King Kunta,” but also his regrets and untreatable guilt in songs like ‘u.’ The album is a character study, becoming more universal as it becomes more personal. Lamar mostly discusses his life as a successful recording artist, which is not something most of his audience will directly relate to. But nearly everyone can connect with the insecurity or regret that comes with pursuing a goal, or reaching a new point in life. Lamar achieves relatability by actually sharing more specifics about his emotional path.
Now, what makes TPAB quintessential art is that it is not just about Lamar’s emotions, but it is his emotions. It’s the difference between third person and first person. Taylor Swift, a hot contender for the Album of the Year, can talk about life and its complexity, and many argue she has plenty to say, but with To Pimp A Butterfly, we are experiencing Kendrick Lamar in real time. The way he blends music with his confessional, poignant rap feels genuine and intimate — the work itself is his identity. Kendrick Lamar exemplifies what an artist should be: a human who experiences life through his craft.
Acknowledging this alone would be a step in the right direction for the Grammys voters, but it’s not the only important point: Lamar also took a huge risk with To Pimp A Butterfly.
Coming off the wildly successful, wildly popular, club-worthy m.A.A.d city, TPAB is an enormous leap. There’s not a large market for an album of jazz-laden funk, with an unpredictable musical gumbo of other genres and styles — or at least not before TPAB. This is the album Lamar always wanted to make and it’s an uninhibited expression of his artistry. The Grammys not only should reward artists that attempt to push the boundaries of their genre in this way, but it must reward them when they do so and succeed.
Again, this should mean very little to Lamar. He could go 10 for 11 or 0 for 11 and he’d still be widely regarded as the best in the game, but giving To Pimp A Butterfly the night’s most prestigious honor would be a sign from the higher-ups in the music world that they respect and encourage great music from real artists. The night is theirs to blow.