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At SXSW, new Kendrick Lamar album drowns out digital profit-talk and hype

AUSTIN, Texas - The first time I listened to To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar's densely detailed, richly ambitious musical examination of race and identity in America, I was hunkered down on a comfy couch in the PBS lounge at the South by Southwest Interactive and Film conference, surrounded by white people.

Kendrick Lamar: "To Pimp A Butterfly" (From the album cover)
Kendrick Lamar: "To Pimp A Butterfly" (From the album cover)Read more

AUSTIN, Texas - The first time I listened to To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar's densely detailed, richly ambitious musical examination of race and identity in America, I was hunkered down on a comfy couch in the PBS lounge at the South by Southwest Interactive and Film conference, surrounded by white people.

Not just any white people. Cardboard cutouts of the cast of Downton Abbey, promoting public TV's signature brand, were looking over my shoulder as Lamar's album played in my earbuds.

I wondered: What would Mrs. Patmore think of Lamar lyrics such "The yam is the power that be"? That's in "King Kunta," the '70s funk-strut-gangsta boast that nods to Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe's 1958 anti-colonial novel Things Fall Apart and Alex Haley's 1976 slavery saga Roots.

Why was I consorting with two-dimensional renderings of Lady Edith and Thomas the underbutler? Because To Pimp a Butterfly had been released the night before - a week ahead of schedule - in the increasingly familiar music-business strategy to take fans by surprise and focus the attention of the tweeting masses.

Focused attention is hard to come by at SXSW, where everything happens all at once and digital-age fear-of-missing-out angst was invented. But attention is what To Pimp a Butterfly deserves. (And it has gotten it - it's already the most-streamed album in Spotify history.) So I needed a little peace and quiet to immerse myself in what Lamar is up to.

The album's title may or may not be a play on Harper Lee's 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Whether that's the case or not, the phrase gives Lamar a way to think about what happens when an artistic soul - the good kid who became a superstar thanks to breakout hits such as "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" and "Swimming Pools (Drank)" - has mad success in the great big world.

Butterfly (Interscope nolead begins ***1/2 nolead ends ), Lamar's long-in-coming follow-up to 2012's Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, is a bold step forward for Lamar. It puts his prodigious stream-of-consciousness storytelling skills to often staggering use.

"You take a black kid out of Compton [Calif.] and put him in the limelight," Lamar said to Rolling Stone recently, talking about the new album. "And you find answers about yourself you never knew you were searching for. There's some stuff in there, man. It's like a roller coaster. It builds."

From the songs Lamar has been letting loose in recent months, it was clear he was readying a wide-ranging release. First there was the Grammy-winning, Isley Brothers-sampling "i," then the high-speed jazz freakout "Never Catch Me," on producer Flying Lotus' album You're Dead!, followed by "The Blacker the Berry," an urgent and intense disquisition on the erasure of black men in America: "It's evident I'm irrelevant to society / That's what you're telling me, penitentiary only would hire me."

The  album opens with another FlyLo production called "Wesley's Choice." From its needle-dropping-on-vinyl intro, it's clear that this song - which features guests George Clinton and the appropriately named bass player Thundercat, who performs throughout the album - is pulling you into a head trip.

The track builds off Jamaican soul man Boris Gardiner's 1974 black and proud "Every N- Is a Star" and features a cameo appearance by Dr. Dre. The producer of N.W.A., Tupac Shakur, and Eminem doesn't personally helm any individual tracks on Butterfly, but Dre is still credited as an executive producer, just as he was on Good Kid, when his imprimatur assured hip-hop heads that there was no need to worry that Lamar was merely an alt-rapper who might not be tough enough to compete on the biggest stages.

Butterfly employs a host of producers and helpmates. Donny Hathaway's daughter Lalah and the underrated (though not by those in the know) Philadelphia soul man Bilal sing on several tracks. Jazz pianist Robert Glasper plays on "For Free (Interlude)," Snoop Dogg drops a verse on "Institutionalized," and "Hood Politics" creatively samples indie auteur Sufjan Steven's 2010 song "All For Myself."

It's never in question, though, that Butterfly is entirely Lamar's show. That's true even when he's turning the closing 12-minute indulgence, "Mortal Men," into a conversation with the ghost of Shakur, whose example as a sensitive ghetto poet turned tragic superstar inspires and haunts Lamar.

After that first listen, I roamed the Austin Convention Center, seeking informative diversions. Discussion panels included one with comedian and actress Amy Schumer, whose new movie Trainwreck, directed by Judd Apatow, had premiered to positive reviews the night before. And Jonah Peretti, founder and CEO of the massively popular Internet media company BuzzFeed, was holding forth in the cavernous hall where a virtual Edward Snowden had packed them in last year.

For laughs, I chose Schumer. But the line was not moving, and I was in front of a guy on the phone to a colleague, advising him to follow the SXSW Interactive mantra: "Go where the data takes you." (Yes, he really said that.)

So when I got shut out of Schumer, I took heed and headed to the Lessons from BuzzFeed talk. Mostly, that turned out to be about how the site, founded in 2006, has attained world domination through viral media, whether pictures of cute animals or its recent short film featuring President Obama with a selfie stick.

One part of Peretti's talk got me thinking back to Lamar - and wanting to listen to Butterfly again (it's that kind of album), rather than hear about how many million hits the #TheDress post got earlier this month. It was when Peretti started explaining why BuzzFeed has not yet seriously expanded into making TV shows or feature films, or what is called "long-form content."

The reason? Creating art involves risks. And the formula for success for media companies in the digital age is about mining the data that users freely give up to figure out how to give them what they want, and use targeted advertising to convince them of what they need to buy.

Without that data, creating content that will satisfy consumers becomes guesswork. The problem with creating TV shows or a cable channel, Peretti said, is that "you provide content and you get money back, but you don't get much data. You don't have any relationship with your audience, and you can't actually learn and get better over time."

From Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City to his new album, Lamar has gotten plenty better over time. His personal vision builds on that of predecessors such as the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Snoop, and Tupac. But he didn't bring it to fruition by asking his fans what they wanted him to do next, and then shaping his content to fit their needs. The data he needed to create To Pimp a Butterfly weren't available through an algorithm. To find them, he needed to look down deep into his soul.