Saturday, 25 April 2015

Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp A Butterfly": The Next Classic

I’ve spoken about Kendrick Lamar numerous times on this blog, and he’s probably the most popular rapper in the Hip-Hop world right now, so I hope I don’t need to provide a history lesson on the guy. He first blew me away with his independent debut Section.80 back in 2011, a very cohesive and conceptual album where Kendrick addresses many issues that plague the youth of today. Upon listening to this album, I immediately went back and checked out the very solid Kendrick Lamar EP and the explosive Overly Dedicated. I knew from then that this dude was going to be someone to look out for. I loved his flow, his stories, his passion and of course the social commentary he puts out.

Kendrick then signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Records label, which also houses the legendary Eminem, and things just went up from there. Kendrick dropped good kid, m.A.A.d city, an album considered by many as an instant classic and one of the best of the decade so far. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a classic just yet, but I did understand the praise that it received, calling it my favourite album of 2012 myself. It had stellar production that could appeal to both the mainstream and underground fans, and featured Kendrick telling the story of his life in the city of Compton. I thought that the album was stellar and I had no idea where Kendrick could go from there. From there Kendrick started putting out some verses that proved that he wasn’t going anywhere, from Pusha T’s Nostalgia (which was my favourite song of 2013), Kendrick Lamar’s Interlude on Ab-Soul’s last album, ScHoolboy Q’s Collard Greens, and who can forget that Control verse. But for the majority of 2014, Kendrick stayed silent. He dropped the first single from this album “i”, which was a positive song for self-love. I did initially like the song, and I still do, but I do have to admit that at the time I wanted him to do something else. After a couple of Grammy wins earlier this year for that song (about time), Kendrick dropped The Blacker the Berry, and that song only made my mouth water more for the album. I needed to hear it right away! The album was announced and set to be released for March 23rd, which I thought was great because it meant that I didn’t have to wait much longer. So a week before the album was supposed to come out, something weird happened with the label and it dropped a week early. After staying up to get the explicit version for the album, I finally got my hands on it and listened to it. So how was it? Well, I can honestly say that not only did Kendrick manage to top all of his previous albums, he also managed to put out one of the most creative, conceptually, and socially conscious albums I’ve heard in a while.

The album opens up with the incredibly catchy Wesley’s Theory, which also features the eccentric Thundercat and funk legend George Clinton. The song starts out with a sample of Boris Gardiner’s Every Nigger Is A Star, which sets the tone of the track. The beat is produced by none other than Flying Lotus, one of my favourite producers. The beat sounds so funky and jazzy at the same time, and has a great groove, especially when the chorus hits and both Kendrick and Thundercat contribute great vocals. The movement from Kendrick’s part to Thundercat’s part always gets me and Thundercat’s lyrics specifically are very strong in terms of the concept. The song delves into the concept of how uneducated rappers get signed and receive million dollar checks, and then go out and spend their money on useless materialistic things for status. But then, the second verse delivered from the perspective of Uncle Sam explains how even when African Americans are given riches, the system is designed to imprison them again either through contractional obligations or through their taxes. It’s a very serious topic, but it still done in such a catchy way that I play this song the most from the album. George Clinton’s contributions at the end of the song are great as well, and the delivery he has is chilling. The song to me sounds like if you took a young Dr. Dre from the 80s and placed him in 2015 and told him to make a G-Funk beat with The Chronic feel. It’s that good!

For Free? (Interlude) then follows, and is actually the shortest song on the whole album but also the jazziest. Produced by Terrace Martin, this track is the most light-hearted song on the whole album. Kendrick goes off about how he’s still perceived as this entity for women to approach for monetary gain. Kendrick reverses the roles and takes the popular “this pussy ain’t free” and puts it from his perspective with the hilarious “this dick ain’t freeeeeee”. It’s absolutely hilarious but still has a deep meaning behind it.

King Kunta in my opinion should be the next Hip-Hop anthem. If this song doesn’t get extreme radio play, at least on the Hip-Hop stations, then I don’t know what else the Hip-Hop listeners need. Kendrick seems to be rapping with a familiar flow and content about how he’s the best and criticizes other rappers for being whack, having ghostwriters, and biting each other’s styles as well as his own. So while the content isn’t anything new, his does this over an extremely funky beat that would’ve also fit into that 80s Dre influenced G-Funk sound. I love the lyrics in the chorus specifically when Kendrick plays with words and says “Where were you when I was walking? Now I run the game got the whole world talking, KING KUNTA, everybody wanna cut the legs off him, black man taking no losses” . It’s extremely catchy and I love the guitar solo at the end.

The album then mellows out a bit with the laid back Institutionalized featuring Bilal, Anna Wise, and none other than Snoop Dogg. At first when I saw the tracklist, I have to admit that I was hesitant. Snoop Dogg on a track? I was really hoping he doesn’t mess it up and I was pleasantly surprised with what he brought to the track. He had great flow and provided narration to the track. Bilal sounded great, and the chorus he delivered was excellent, saying “shit don’t change til you get up and wipe your ass”. Kendrick delves into this concept, talking about the influence that he has, but how he still has love for his past, and how the people he’s around still influence him.  It’s a nice change of pace for the album.

These Walls follows and it is also easily one of my favourite tracks on the whole album. It also features Bilal and Anna Wise, but additional contributions from Thundercat. Basically what the song is about is Kendrick’s perspective on sex. To be honest, the concept did not click with me the first few listens, thinking that he was talking about walls closing in on him in terms of pressure. However, when I finally figured out the concept when I gave it a hard listen, I felt dumb as hell! This is probably one of the best songs I’ve heard about sex. It’s done so elegantly and poetically and it sounds so soulful. It’s definitely a highlight; however it did not prepare me enough for the next song.

"u" is one of the most depressing yet powerful songs I’ve heard in a while. The first half of the song is delivered in an extremely aggressive flow from Kendrick, in which he speaks from the perspective of a person angry at Kendrick for not being a great influence. This person criticises Kendrick for not being a great role model and how his influence didn’t even reach his younger sister who got pregnant at a young age. The song then undergoes a metamorphosis and switches up into a more mellow but even more depressing segment. Here, Kendrick is delivering this sloppy, intoxicated verse in which you can literally hear him crying as he is spitting his verse and you can hear the sounds of the bottle and the alcohol. It’s an extremely emotional track and the beat is fantastic as well.

After that intense experience, the album then switches back to being light-hearted (sorta) into the song Alright, a song produced by Pharrell. This song sounds like something we would be used to hearing from Kendrick. He’s just spitting over a dope beat and delivers a dope hook. The character of Lucy is introduced for the first time, who returns in the song For Sale (Interlude), but in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past month and haven’t listened to the album yet, I won’t spoil what she represents.

Momma follows, and it features Kendrick rapping about needing to return back home. He discusses all of his accomplishments and the knowledge he obtained, but then says that none of that matters because home is where true knowledge comes from. Then, we get to Hood Politics, a track with an immaculate beat. There is not a single complaint I have with this song on a technical level. The beat is just eerie, grimy, and that bass line is hypnotic. Kendrick raps from what I believe is the perspective of another younger individual in Compton, but I have heard other interpretations. It’s basically a representation of the youth and their mindset. I love the wordplay and energy in this track, and the Killer Mike line was awesome!

I want to say that the “song” How Much A Dollar Costs follows, but this one right here is damn near a short film to me. I can visualize every single detail Kendrick says in this song, and it is truly a great testament to how amazing of a storyteller Kendrick is. In this track, assisted by James Fauntleroy and Ronald Isley, Kendrick raps about the frustrations he has with a homeless man. The man requests a dollar from Kendrick, but Kendrick does not feel comfortable with this because he knows he’s only contributing to this man’s drug addiction. The interchange between the two is riveting and the finale is jaw-dropping.  

Complexion follows, and to be honest it is probably my least favourite song on the album. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy this song a lot, but in comparison to the other songs, it’s not as stellar. I thought the beat was a bit more accessible and traditional in comparison to the other songs, but it was still good. The main thing that saved this song is actually the beat switch up near the end and Rhapsody, an extremely underrate rapper, absolutely destroying the track. She knew a lot of people will hear this album, so she knew she had to deliver a stellar verse. Having the female perspective on this issue hits home and adds a lot to the track.

The Blacker the Berry then comes in, and the content of this song juxtaposed with Complexion makes this transition absolutely incredible. Kendrick delves into police brutality and the targeting of young black males in America, but also touches on the hypocrisy in the black community and black-on-black violence. This song pissed some people off, but I see where Kendrick is coming from and I appreciate his perspective and having the balls to drop this song as a single. The beat is ferocious and the hook assisted by Assassin was great. The song ends abruptly and finishes off with a nice jazzy outro that perfectly moves into You Ain’t Gotta Lie, a song that I feel is very underrated. I haven’t heard enough people talk about this song and it’s a shame because it’s very catchy and deep. Kendrick tells the listener from the perspective of his mother that you don’t have to lie and put on a different persona just to fit in and be accepted. Kendrick delivers this message by singing, and it actually sounds great in my opinion!

Then, we get a new version of "i", and this version is a great improvement on the single-version. Kendrick sounds more aggressive, more coherent, and the new chorus is more powerful on the album version. After the crowd starts a fight, Kendrick directly addresses the crowd and delivers a powerful spoken word piece on the origin and meaning of the N-word, as a direct response to Oprah. It’s by far one of the most impactful moments on the album and left me speechless.

The album finishes off with Mortal Man, a 12-minute monster. This song is probably one of Kendrick’s most important songs, and not just because of the surprise ending with the Tupac confrontation. On this song, Kendrick has the guts to say that he has freed the listener's mind, and asks the listener: “if shit hits the fan, is you still a fan?”, meaning if Kendrick’s image gets degraded for whatever reason, will the fan remain loyal? Will you stick by Kendrick no matter how the media decides to alter his image? That’s up to you to decide. The production on this song is breathtaking. The beat has so many layers to it, and the instrumentation is flawless. The beat on this song and the one on Wesley's Theory are tied for my favourite beats on the album. Of course the Tupac confrontation was amazing, and the way the "To Pimp A Butterfly" concept was explained was absolutely poetic and beautiful, but to me the initial part of the song is still on par in terms of emotional impact. It’s a great conclusion to a damn near perfect album.

I know I said I won’t be doing lengthy entries anymore, but I couldn’t help myself with this one. Kendrick Lamar is easily my favourite artist right now. Is he the best lyrically? Maybe, maybe not. There are rappers out there that I feel can go toe to toe with him, but no one currently makes better albums in my opinion. Kendrick is 5/5 for me so far and I don’t see how he can do wrong at this point. The man has an incredible ear for beats, stellar lyricism, and most importantly great vision and creativity. This album right here is going to be an album I will remember for the mid-year list and even the year-end list. The only album out there right now that can remotely compete with To Pimp A Butterfly is Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth. To me, it’s one of the best albums of the decade, and probably the best  album I’ve heard, regardless of genre, since Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Janelle Monae’s The Archandroid. I don’t like throwing the term “classic” out easily because albums take time to reveal their influence, but out of most of the albums to come out recently, this is the one I can say with great confidence has the most potential. I highly recommend you check this album out if you have not. It’s fantastic! 

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