It's been nearly two years since Kendrick Lamar dropped To Pimp a Butterfly. Listening through that first time, it felt like Kendrick had torn a hole in his mind and was really selling tickets to have people step up and listen to the swirling jazz and self-destructive confessions pouring out of it. Two years later, the album's stature has only grown, and it feels safe to certify it a classic and start the work of preserving it for future generations. Former Little Brother producer 9th Wonder, in collaboration with Harvard Library, is leading that charge.
Last week, Harvard's Hiphop Archive shared an Instagram post from 9th Wonder, revealing the first four hip-hop albums they'll be adding to the Library's collection. The project is called "These Are the Breaks" and will include 200 albums that represent "the standard of the culture."
#Repost @9thwonder with @repostapp ??? In 2012, I was chosen to be a Harvard University Fellow at The Dubois Institute under the direction of @henrylouisgates and Dr. Marcy Morgan. I chose the research project "These Are The Breaks"....a collection of albums that are the standard of the culture.....200 in all in no particular order. These are the first four we chose to start with....to live for forever in the Harvard Library...and to be forever placed in the canon...complete with liner notes and the vinyl that was used in the production of the album...... To live forever.... 4 down.. 196 to go....
Though 9th Wonder insisted the albums will be added in no particular order, the first four are in a class all to their own: Lauryn Hill's Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory, Nas' Illmatic and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly.
Each of the first three sit as corner stones for entire movements in hip-hop, with Illmatic remaining one of the most perfect examples of New York's grimey golden age sound and The Low End Theory standing as one of the most perfect fusions of jazz and hip-hop. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill suffused Miss Lauryn Hill's art with an undying romance and mystique that continues to this day, though Hill has yet to release a proper studio follow-up.
To Pimp a Butterfly stands somewhat apart. It hasn't existed long enough to inspire a movement of copycats or disciples, or to entirely reshape the way artists approach album craft. But it does represent a pinnacle of sorts. Two years later, there still hasn't been a hip-hop album capable of matching the density of Lamar's storytelling, the profundity of his symbols and metaphors or the virtuosity of the musicianship that built the album's wide array of beats.
Even its cover has offered enough food for thought to fill out lengthy think pieces on the ways it represents how the Obama administration welcomed hip-hop and blackness into the White House.
It's a classic in the literal Moby Dick and Ulysses nature of the word. At the end of the day, few works truly summarize the contradictions and solidarity of art in the Obama era with as much effortless swagger. Future students looking to study it will now be able to listen and study Kendrick to their hearts' content from the comfort of their ivory towers — at least as long as those walls hold.