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Q&A: Professor Who Teaches a Kendrick Lamar Course Talks ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’

Adam Diehl of George Regents University weighs in on one of the year's most anticipated albums

Professor Adam Diehl teaches a course on Kendrick Lamar’s classic 2012 album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, incorporating the writing of James Joyce and showings of Boyz N the Hood, among other things. Because he’s paid to teach the rapper’s merits to the English majors of Georgia Regents University, SPIN got Diehl on the phone to ask the Kendrick scholar’s first thoughts on the highly-anticipated follow-up To Pimp a Butterfly, which arrived a week ahead of schedule at midnight on Monday.

So were you awake when the album dropped?
I was not, I was actually feeling sick [Sunday] night, so I took a NyQuil and had a dream — I kid you not — that Top Dawg was going to have a one-on-one meet with Kendrick. And I was like, in the background, and he was furious, and I was like, “What you so mad at Kendrick about?” And I woke up and I got online and the first thing I saw was this Top Dawg tweet that [Anthony Tiffith, Top Dawg’s CEO] was so mad about iTunes dropping the album.

What were your first thoughts on the record?
I tried to give myself to the very end of the album to have a complete thought about it, but I listened to about 12 songs and cried about four times. I mean, it just touches me; to borrow a phrase, I’m feeling some type of way.

What was the first moment that made you tear up?
I think when he goes into that verse at the end of “These Walls” when he says, “You killed my friend, now you got arrested the same night,” just taking me back to the emotions that are on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” And, really, the whole plot of good kid revolves around his friend getting killed and he’s still making reference to that now. It will probably be at the center of his music because I feel like [that day] was when he becomes Kendrick Lamar the artist. That’s when he realizes, “I’ve got to make it as an artist, I can’t make it as a gangbanger, I can’t make it as just a citizen of Compton, I’ve got to have something to get me off the streets otherwise I’m going to be in a body bag or incarcerated or just slumming it and trying to make ends meet.”

Was there anything that you didn’t like about the album?
I think “King Kunta” is just his way of showing okay, when you make it in hip-hop, the point is to be the king and to lead the people and not just who is sitting on the biggest sack of money. So, out of context I didn’t quite see how it was going to fit with “i” and “The Blacker the Berry.” I felt like those two songs were bouncing off each other and I was trying to figure out where “King Kunta” was going to fit. But now that I’ve heard the musicality of the album as a whole, I feel like the free jazz of “King Kunta”… I understand it more, it’s not my particular choice.

If I had to pick an era of jazz, it would not be pre-jazz, but that being said, jazz is the music of America and it’s the most American music form of all except for maybe hip-hop. So I think him appealing to that and appealing to ’70s funk and R&B, rather than just trying to get another hit… I wasn’t expecting him to be so particular about the feel of the album from a musical standpoint. I thought he was going to have a lot to say lyrically, and the music was going to not be industry-dictated but take more of a backseat to the lyrics. And by no means was that the case. 

Do you think that this album is going to be received as well as good kid, m.A.A.d city?
Yeah, I think it is going to be a whole another course [to teach] because the people that love Kendrick for who Kendrick is are going to love it, and it’s just going to be another progression in his career. I feel like six months from now there are going to be some people who listen to it and it changes their lives, there will be some people who say, “Yeah, but it’s not as good as good kid,” and then there will be some people who are like, “I only like good kid because it felt like hip-hop and I hate this because it is not what I’m used to.”

I can see it outselling good kid just on the strength of how much anticipation there is for it, but I think it’s going to be a different conversation. I can’t imagine this getting nominated in Best Rap Album category because it’s really not fair [for this to be in competition with] the Drake album, it’s like they are two different things. I love Drake, I love Kanye, I like a lot of the heavy hitters in hip-hop but Kendrick just broke the mold with this one. I feel like [good kid] stands apart from hip-hop too, but it still is a hip-hop album, it is indebted to the history of hip-hop and this one is almost like he is re-writing hip hop from 1976 — like he went back in time and restarted the clock on this whole musical form.

Do you think the Kanye album stands a chance of being as interesting as this one?
I’ve been thinking about Kanye and Kendrick a lot because Kanye is probably about ten years older than Kendrick, but in many ways they are the two. Drake is really the one that you compare Kendrick with because they’re the same age and popular in the same era. This is just my own amateur/semi-professional interpretation listening to the record but I think that Kanye is behind one of the targets that Kendrick is aiming at. And I don’t know which one but I think that Kendrick touring with Kanye is something that made him realize, “I could end up like this guy and I don’t want to.” I do hope the Kanye album does well and is interesting but I can’t say that I will be lining up outside of Target to get the Kanye record the second it drops.

I will certainly listen to it with open ears, but Kanye wants to have a hit and move on, and Kendrick is really contemplating the whole culture of where have race relations taken us? What kind of progress has been made and the juxtaposition on the album of “Complexion” into “The Blacker the Berry,” that confounded me. It’s beautiful. I was trying to keep track in my head of how many voices he uses on the album; if he uses maybe seven or eight voices on the last album, he used ten to 12 on this. He has such a vision for knowing how to change his voice to make you think, “Wait, is this Kendrick talking or someone else?” That’s one of the main things that Kanye could never do: Every single thing that comes out of Kanye West’s mouth is Kanye West.

Can you walk me through a typical class that you teach for good kid?
So I started it in the context of an English class and it’d be a disservice to my literature brethren to not include any books, but basically what we did was go word-by-word: We looked at Joyce, we looked at a bunch of poetry, we looked at Boyz N the Hood, we looked at James Baldwin’s short stories, and then we looked at good kid as an album. So what we did was as were reading the other works we would discuss the work and what we read from that class and then we’d discuss what I call a background song from Kendrick, either from Section.80, Overly Dedicated or maybe a feature on someone else’s music, and then we’d pair that with something I considered an influence. So we did Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A, we did 2Pac, and Snoop Dogg. We had a mixture of discussion of the literature and articulating what it’s like to grow up in a city full of vices and temptations and dangers, the overwhelming concept of growing up as a kid in a city that doesn’t need you, so to speak. I wanted to get to the depths of the songs and just who is this guy and why is this album so powerful. I think it is because it’s like literature: It’s a story, it’s got characters, themes, drama and climaxes, everything that makes us love printed material. 

What other album does To Pimp a Butterfly bring to mind?
There are elements of OutKast. Anyone that hears this album and thinks OutKast is not off-base. But I think as I listen to it, if i had to compare it, I might put it in a Jimi Hendrix, Electric Ladyland era. [That album] connected to what the Beatles and the Stones were doing but definitely pushed the envelope of rock’n’roll. I can see [from a] lyrical standpoint he is what Jimi Hendrix was to guitar, there were great guitarists before him and certainly have been great ones after him, but when you see a guitar you think of Jimi. Kendrick is going to get to the point he’s going to be synonymous with rap and hip-hop because if he makes even one more album as interesting as this he’s going to eclipse 2Pac as someone who has made three or four albums that are unapproachable. 

What do you think of the title To Pimp a Butterfly?
I think the title is perfect to go with the music, it has so many levels of potential meaning. It could mean the music industry pimping someone like Kendrick for his talent. It could mean that the establishment pimps African-Americans for their labor. It could be trying to make money off something that’s priceless. The title alone is almost like a poem in four words. It’s certainly not as central to the album as good kid, m.A.A.d city; it’s not like there’s a song called “To Pimp” and a song called “A Butterfly.” I want everyone to want that level of quality that Kendrick brings in every medium, whether it’s literature or film or TV or music. Kendrick is saying, “I’m not going to be a typical rap star who makes a big splash and then just play it safe and age slowly and fade off into the twilight.” That’s exciting; this may be his last album or it may be the first of 30 albums. I’m just excited to listen to it about 5,000 more times.