WTOP alum pens Kendrick Lamar biography ‘The Butterfly Effect’

He grew up in Landover, Maryland, and loaned his music expertise to WTOP before moving to Brooklyn, New York, to become a contributing editor at Bandcamp.

On Tuesday, Marcus Moore published the first biography of Kendrick Lamar — “The Butterfly Effect,” a nod to the rapper’s culture-shifting opus “To Pimp a Butterfly.”

“In the fall of 2017, I was working at Bandcamp,” Moore told WTOP. “I was walking to lunch. I was walking down Franklin Avenue, and when I walk I always play music on these same headphones. … I was listening to ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ … but for whatever reason on this day, I was like, ‘There’s something in here. There’s a book in here.'”

He reached out to a senior editor at Simon and Schuster about writing a proposal in early 2018, then locked in a deal in March 2018. Moore wrote 40 percent of it in Brooklyn and 60 percent in Nairobi, where his wife runs the business Live Africa.

Rather than just breaking down Lamar’s music, the book tells his entire life story, starting with his upbringing in the L.A. neighborhood of Compton, where he navigated local gangs while learning poetry from his creative writing teacher, Regis Inge.

“Even though we know Kendrick Lamar now as this rap messiah, he was just a regular kid,” Moore said. “In 7th grade, he had a creative writing class and his teacher Mr. Inge brought poetry into the classroom to defuse the tension happening outside in L.A. … It inspired Kendrick to get into ways to express his emotions. … He went all in on it.”

We also learn about Lamar’s early rap days as K-Dot, signing with Top Dawg Entertainment under co-founders Dave Free and Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith. The upstart indie label was built for Jay Rock, but soon Lamar would rise to top dog.

“Top Dawg had an uncle that was in the music business,” Moore said. “He finds Jay Rock … then he finds a producer Sounwave, who was friend of Top Dawg’s cousin. … Sounwave does a showcase and there’s this kid who can’t stop rapping. … Sounwave was like, ‘What’s your name? What do you go by?’ [Kendrick] was like, ‘I go by K-Dot.'”

Soon, K-Dot began recording a series of fiery mixtapes as part of a Compton collective with TDE’s stable of Jay Rock, Sounwave, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q and Terrace Martin.

“The K-Dot era was him just wanting to rap,” Moore said. “It wasn’t him talking about real-life issues. … He was taking Jay-Z beats, he was taking Lil Wayne beats and just rapping on stuff. Even by his own admission, those K-Dot mixtapes are not great.”

After an independently released first album “Section.80” (2011), Lamar delivered his first major label album, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” in 2012 — an instant hip-hop masterpiece that went triple platinum and earned a handful of Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year and Best Rap Performance for “Swimming Pools (Drank).”

“I still have friends who say ‘good kid’ is his best work,” Moore said. “He’s incredibly honest and vulnerable on that record. … It’s the first time he discovers his friends are doing stuff he doesn’t want to get into. … He is a good kid in a mad city. He has friends that look after him because they recognize he has a gift the world needs to hear.”

That theme is crystalized in the song “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” in which an elderly religious woman pulls him aside and stops him from committing a crime.

“That’s the most epic track on that album,” Moore said. “That’s the moment when religion takes over and he realizes, ‘I need to shift into something more positive.’ The song tells a story of his friends getting killed. … Your first thought is retaliation, but they literally bump into somebody on the street who offers a prayer. … It sets them straight.”

In 2014, Lamar went on tour in South Africa, a life-changing trip that inspired “To Pimp a Butterfly” (2015), fusing funk, jazz, soul, spoken word and live instrumentation.

“It made him realize his view needs to be bigger than Compton,” Moore said. “You go to certain townships and you realize that what you thought was the projects is not at all. Go here, they don’t even have running water! He’s taking all that stuff in, along with all the creative stimuli, and realizes that he needs to do something different.”

“To Pimp a Butterfly” earned 11 Grammy nominations, including a win for Best Rap Album, and even inspired a collaboration with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. Today, it ranks 19th on Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, featuring the songwriting masterclasses “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright.”

“That’s the one that should have won the Pulitzer,” Moore said.

Instead, the Pulitzer Prize for Music went to his next album “DAMN.” (2017), which also won a Grammy for Best Rap Album off the strength of singles such as “Humble.”

“When you listen to it just in the background, you think, ‘OK, this is his club record,’ [but] he’s talking about some very deep issues … how he’s conflicted with his faith,” Moore said. “A good buddy of mine has always maintained that Kendrick is the best Christian rapper of all time. I didn’t realize that until I listened to ‘DAMN.'”

Indeed, “DAMN.” dropped on Good Friday, sparking rumors that a second disc would drop on Easter Sunday. Turns out, it was just a single disc; Lamar was already busy working on his next project, the soundtrack to the blockbuster “Black Panther” (2018).

“It was the first time, especially black kids, got to see someone who looks like them as a hero,” Moore said. “‘Black Panther’ was a moment. I still remember the night my wife and I went to see it in Brooklyn. … The line was all the way down the street; people in outfits. … On that record, you had some of South Africa’s most viable musicians.”

Indeed, Moore’s book speaks to the cultural moment, providing the social context of Black Lives Matter amid the murders of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice. The book is dedicated to “Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and the countless souls we’ve lost.”

“I had to go back and redo the dedication,” Moore said. “I was afraid like, ‘Man, I’m gonna miss a name.’ That’s the sad part. … The book shifts and hits a different tempo at Chapter 5. I’m talking to Tamir Rice’s mom, I’m talking to Mike Brown’s dad. … That’s why it’s painstaking detail because I didn’t want to give anybody short shrift.”

It was important to chronicle this tragedy for future generations.

“As much as I hope people can dig it today, I wrote it for the next decade and the decade after that,” Moore said. “I wrote it for the inevitable day when I’m walking down the street and I see an old, beat-up copy on the stoop and somebody picks it up and they get the history.”

In a way, “The Butterfly Effect” is a time capsule, not only for the black community, not only for Lamar’s meteoric rise, but of Moore’s own journey as a journalist. There’s a passage at the end of Chapter 4 where Moore’s own DMV roots shine through:

“Whether you were a teenager in Compton or a young adult from Landover, Maryland, good kid forced you to think about your own upbringing. … It was about the unconditional love between Kendrick and his friends, Kendrick and his neighborhood, Kendrick and his parents, and how — ultimately — he’d have to leave the city but it would never leave him.”

“If I’m being honest, that was totally me,” Moore said. “Anybody who knows me knows that I shout out Landover every chance I get. … I’ve always felt like D.C. and Maryland was always home, but Bandcamp is where I was given the green light to do what I do naturally. … It was an opportunity to build something from the ground up.”

The gamble paid off, with his name forever etched on a book cover with Lamar.

“Last night, I had a live webinar with Robert Glasper and Terrace Martin … who was a huge part of ‘To Pimp a Butterfly,'” Moore said. “He was like, ‘Man, we need this! We need to celebrate!’ … Hopefully I hear from [Lamar]. … It’s gotta be weird when some stranger from another coast reaches out like, ‘Hey, I’m writing a book about you.’ So, we’ll see what happens.”

Listen to our full conversation here. Watch our Zoom video at the top of this article.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The Butterfly Effect' (Part 1)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The Butterfly Effect' (Part 2)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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