Wednesday, March 18, 2015

album review: 'to pimp a butterfly' by kendrick lamar

And here’s one of the big ones. Ever since I started my channel, I’ve been asked to give my opinion on Kendrick Lamar, flagship rapper from Top Dawg Entertainment and one of the most critically acclaimed and respected rappers of the past five years. A dexterous lyricist with a gift for balancing conscious lyricism with incredible wit, often paired with top-of-the-line production, he’s been a rapper who’s been hungry to seize the top spot, and from the critically acclaimed good kid, m.A.A.d. city to the ‘Control’ verse that set the internet on fire in 2013, it looks like he’s been one of the few rappers who would have a shot of getting there.

So what do I think of him? Well, hate to say it, but I have to echo so many other critics in my praise – there’s not a lot of new things I can say about Kendrick that haven’t already been said. His debut Section 80 was startlingly smart and potent, a gut shot of social commentary fused with impressively well-written bars and an elastic flow that started to set the stage of who Kendrick was: a genuinely good guy, even a leader, stuck in a toxic, decaying system that seemed engineered to destroy the hopes and dreams of young black men. What always caught my eye about Kendrick was his gift for storytelling – not just in crafting a great scene, but fully-fleshed out characters and stories in that unsettling world.

Then came good kid, m.A.A.d city… and somehow, it was even better. Not only was the production better, a slick and impressively modern brand of west coast beats, but the characters were better defined, the narrative was more cohesive and tightly written, and Kendrick’s bars were stronger than ever as things tumble towards darkness. Hell, even guests like Drake step up their game for some of their best bars yet. Many people claim that album is one of the best of 2012 and damn near a classic, and while I think time will tell on the latter, it’s a damn potent hip-hop release that’s astoundingly strong and one of the best of the year.

As such, there’s been a lot of conversation where Kendrick is going to take his material next, especially given his interviews and lead-off singles. Many were expecting Kendrick to get more political and angry with his next album, or at least more conscious, and with lead-off singles like ‘i’ and ‘The Blacker The Berry’, it looked like we were getting that. But it also looked like Kendrick was going to push his production beyond typical modern west-coast instrumentation, which was perplexing at least. So when To Pimp A Butterfly dropped, I definitely made sure to check it out and dig in deep – what did I get?

Well on some level I got what I expected… but on another level, Kendrick opted to go for something bigger and more ambitious than I ever would have expected than him across the board, and yet framed through a more introspective and personal story than one might expect. On some level, it’s more of Kendrick’s story at the end, but the scope is simultaneously more emotionally driven and intimate and yet bigger than ever. And all of that is paired with production that is more eclectic, varied, experimental, and yet drenched in the history of black music than any other hip-hop record I reckon will be dropped this year. So did Kendrick manage to top good kid, m.A.A.d city with To Pimp A Butterfly? That, I reckon, is a much more complicated question, and it ultimately takes away from the fact that this album will likely go down as one of the best of the year, bar none.

And it almost leaves me at a bit of a loss of where to start – Kendrick’s always been a great rapper, but if there’s one thing that this album displays, it’s his versatility and emotional range. Those who are going in expecting Kendrick to just spit hard bars will probably be disappointed, but that’s because he’s aiming for a more complicated picture – there is anger and passion, but more of this album is immersed in the creeping depression touches so many songs as Kendrick’s disillusionment grows with not just the music industry, but with a systemic racism he sees on a much bigger scale that he can’t see his words changing. And sure, there were moments of depression of earlier records, but his choice to avoid any sort of pop or mainstream framework makes the problems seem that much more implacable and insurmountable. That said, there are points where Kendrick contorts his voice for effect a little too far, most notably the drunken crying on the back half of ‘u’ – I get that it’s supposed to sound rough and awkward and uncomfortable, but he may have succeeded too well.

But if that’s the only moment I take issue with Kendrick’s delivery, considering how much he pushes it and switches it up, that’s impressive. And what’s almost more impressive is that he managed to wring top-of-the-line guest appearances from everyone again – and it’s a much different guest list than before. The only guest rapper is criminally underrated female MC Rapsody who drops a characteristically strong verse on ‘Complexion’, but I’m more astounded that Kendrick snagged Snoop Dogg and got him to sound like he’s actually trying. But then you have hooks from Bilal and Anna Wise, the always welcome presence of Thundercat on bass, the ferocious howls of dancehall DJ Assassin who throws a ton of fire on ‘The Blacker The Berry’, all the way to funk legend George Clinton on the opening track ‘Wesley’s Theory’. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised to see more of TDE on this album, but again, this is so much of Kendrick’s lonely personal journey that I’d argue they’d be difficult to fit in.

And nowhere is that journey more emphasized than in the production, which if we’re looking for one area where this album has a unique character unlike so many others, it’d be here. While of course you get songs with a distinctively smooth west-coast sound and vibe, Kendrick is casting a much wider net both in his producers and sound, from the appearance of Flying Lotus to the choice to keep traditional radio friendly production to a minimum in capturing a plethora of black history in music. The album opens with a bubbling funk bassline and fragments of horns and squealing synths and from there it ambles through skittering sax and old school jazz on ‘For Free?’ before it drops into a killer early-to-mid-80s funk vibe on ‘King Kunta’ that’s got a groove that could easily rival ‘Uptown Funk’ for sheer braggadocious flavor. Of course, there’s so much more grit and organic texture to Kendrick’s productions, as the next few g-funk-inspired productions easily prove, especially on the chimes, skittering keyboards, and horns on ‘These Walls’ or the slightly off-kilter choral vocals that almost remind me more late-period albums from The Roots like …and then you shoot your cousin. And the great moments keep coming – the swirling self-flagellating anger of ‘u’ with the horns and choppy samples, the subversion of ‘Alright’ and ‘For Sale?’ with the unsettled vibe and seductive coos against the warped keyboards, the dusty boom-bap vibe of ‘Momma’, the dreary pianos, guitars and cracking beat of ‘How Much A Dollar Cost’ and ‘Complexion’, the heavier, pitch-black dancehall-infused ‘The Blacker The Berry’, the smooth as hell guitar groove on ‘You Ain’t Gotta Lie’, to the choice to go for a live cut of ‘i’ for the album that honestly fits damn near perfectly. Hell, the one hook I didn’t really like was ‘Hood Politics’, but that’s more because I found the hook a little underwritten for Kendrick and the first verse not all that impressive – shame, because the third verse absolutely killer.

And now, we need to talk about lyrics and themes, because Kendrick is not messing around with either. In terms of wordplay, Kendrick’s damn near untouchable – multisyllabic rhymes that are impressively layered and well-structured with a variety of flows, and while he does occasionally rhyme the same word with themselves, the content is often so strong that it can be overlooked. And the content… well, on the surface, one could argue that Kendrick went more political or conscious with this record, with pretty open criticisms of an exploitative record industry and white listening public who swallow up overblown, shallow crap and yet are quick to drop the hammer down if the environment or personality that shaped that music steps out of line, or succumbs to the temptations of extreme wealth and women that form their own brand of bondage. And Kendrick’s not shy about dragging the obvious comparisons to slavery to the forefront with language provocative enough to likely raise eyebrows in the white and black communities – although he purposefully frames himself as the main culprit, showing just how enticing ‘Lucy’ can be with her gifts, especially in the face of ‘what now’ depression that Kendrick faces having made it.

This is where the real dramatic arc for this album materializes, and where the real gut punches hit, because Kendrick throws everything on the line, and is not afraid to be called a hypocrite. He talks about the distance that builds between himself and his family, increasingly tight walls of a cocoon, his own failures for not doing more and his own hypocrisy and how easy it would be to take the easy way out, either through sex, wealth, or a Glock. From here Kendrick ventures home, trying to find that anchor point, something he can do to free himself… but only to feel that because of his success and hard work, he has further isolated himself from his community, and is wracked with a brand of survivor’s guilt in comparison to those who face a broken system every day. And one of the powerful things about this album is that Kendrick doesn’t have an easy answer, which especially rings to light on the heartbreaking ‘How Much A Dollar’, a song where he avoids giving money to a homeless junkie who turns out to be God himself. And it’s one of the songs that crystallizes one of the primary metaphors of the album: yes, giving something back or giving of yourself might bear no fruit or change nothing of the larger system, but it can change lives on a small scale and bring to you some vestige of redemption and happiness. And that’s not just a message for Kendrick, but the black community as a whole, to stop focusing on pettiness in the pointlessness of hood politics or irrelevant differences in complexion created to divide a community instead of unite it or a larger system that doesn’t care or only cares enough to tempt and exploit you, and instead focus on finding real enlightenment and passion within. And what I love is that he doesn’t condescend to them, he doesn’t get preachy – he simply presents the options and gives them a way to improve themselves for their own benefit, even rappers who pitch a shallower message on ‘You Ain’t Gotta Lie’. I didn’t mind the positive message of when ‘i’ was released as a single, but on the album Kendrick reinterprets it as a call to action, because it’s not like the system is breaking down without that action, repurposing hip-hop language and its most well-known word into something much more powerful.

And all of it leads to the final track ‘Mortal Man’, where that call is placed to Kendrick’s fans and to himself – would you follow him if he rose above the sloppy stuff and ignorance, threw aside temptation for something more, or if his leadership led him down a rough road? He’s not shy about dragging up the list of names of those abandoned by their fans and followers and had to walk the road alone. And it’s also where the arc reaches its conclusion, punctuated by the completion of a poem that Kendrick recited at the end of many songs, adding a line with every song that touched on the next track to come. And it’s a poem he was reading to – and here I was shocked, because very few other rappers would have ever dared – the late Tupac Shakur, where they sampled an interview where Kendrick asks the questions. And then the second poem, where Kendrick sums up the title of the album To Pimp A Butterfly, with the butterfly the enlightened soul, the caterpillar those that would exploit it – superego and id – and the cocoon the system that perpetuates the walls. Only when one breaks out of the system can they be free, inspire other caterpillars to transform… and yet on some level, caterpillar and butterfly are the same person. Transcendence only has value when set against humanity, and it brings a message of universality that anyone can get there – or as Tupac said just minutes earlier, ‘because the spirits, we ain’t even really rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us’. But when Kendrick asks Tupac whether he agrees… he gets no answer. Kendrick is alone, leaving the question hanging over whether the legend would have agreed or thought the system can’t be broken. There’s no moment of solace or clarity, no god to anoint Kendrick’s path or the path of any other – the choice, as it has always been on this album, is a lonely one – and it’s up to Kendrick, the audience, and the world to make it.

I’m not one to call an album a classic right after it gets released – time and history are more of a judge of that than I’ll ever be. But there are records I can say will be transformative and influential in hip-hop if only because of their innovative spirit, intellect, and breathtaking depth. To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar is one of those albums, the sort of astoundingly well-produced, brilliantly written, impressively layered, and heartbreakingly powerful record that aims higher than good kid, m.A.A.d city and gets there too. I won’t say it’s perfect – that 10/10 score from me is a high bar – but Kendrick got damn close with this one. A very strong 9/10 for this, and the highest of recommendations – so far 2015 has been a pretty damn great year for music, and Kendrick just raised the bar again. The stage is set, folks – release those butterflies.

1 comment:

  1. great album, he a goo rapper, if you wanna know what it like to be a pimp listen to his album or read my interview with a pimp!