Saturday, March 21, 2015

Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly (Semi-Review)

Kendrick Lamar is an asset to hip hop and music in general. The title "King Kendrick" is absolutely appropriate and well-earned. Kendrick is a remarkably gifted writer, proficient to such an extent that the listener often has to press rewind in order to decipher his lexical gymnastic routines. To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar's ambitious new album, is nothing short of a tour de force. If a hip hop artist were to emulate Marvin Gaye's infinitely-pertinent What's Going On, it'd sound a lot like To Pimp a Butterfly. (That's just a thought I had mid-way through my second play-through of the album.) The sequencing is dope. The writing is on-point and nothing short of brilliant. Kendrick sounds perfectly comfortable and adept with the inventive soundbeds he's jumping off of. The subject matter is painfully relevant - and Kendrick tackles it with expertise and innovative approaches. (I sound like a total Stan, don't I?) What more can I say about this record? Oh. How about this: I don't f**k with it.

No, I didn't just pull a 180° before your very eyes. Let me explain! Don't get me wrong, I still genuinely stand by the praise I heaped on To Pimp a Butterfly in the previous paragraph. But I just can't see myself playing this record from start to finish in the year 2016 (and beyond).

Fader writer Rawiya Kameir recently posed some interesting thoughts on the record. Her article, "Kendrick Lamar's New Album Is Critic-Proof, And That's A Good Thing," suggests that Kendrick's "black-ass album" is not just "critic-proof" but "commentary-proof." (Spoiler alert: I don't agree with that, ahem, commentary.) "The first time I listened to it in its entirety," she writes, "I cried." The fact that she, the listener, could " feel both spoken to and spoken for" by a record is a beautiful thing. My criticism of the album doesn't aim to negate these sentiments. I love politically-charged, so-called-"conscious" rap music. I love thematic albums. I love this album. I have tremendous admiration for Kendrick Lamar's brilliance on full display here. So what is it about To Pimp a Butterfly that rubs me the wrong way?

I went back and listened to good kid, m.A.A.d city for some perspective. As I was flipping through the album, I took notice of many of the tracks' replay value. "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe." "Backseat Freestyle." "The Art of Peer Pressure." "Money Trees." "Poetic Justice." I'm going in order here! These are all incredible stand-alone tracks; they could all be released as singles in their own right. To Pimp a Butterfly doesn't have too much of that. (Which is perfectly fine, but allow me to proceed...) Then I got to GKMC's " Sing About Me/I'm Dying of Thirst" and "Real." I've got nothing against those songs, but if I had to choose a couple of songs to knock off the album, or simply press "skip" on, it'd probably be those two. They just don't KNOCK like the rest of the album. And then it occurred to me that those particular songs, from both sonic and conceptual standpoints, sound like descendants of To Pimp a Butterfly. As DJ Quik said in this recent Montreality interview, "while [Kendrick] was doing good kid, m.A.A.d city, it sounds like he already had [To Pimp a Butterfly] in his sight ... the groundwork was already laid." I can recognize that creative progression/direction when I listen to those tracks. So in other words, my main takeaway from this little experiment was as follows: To Pimp a Butterfly SOUNDS like my least favorite good kid, m.A.A.d city tracks. Ugh.

Now I've been "reviewing" albums since 2006. The number one cardinal sin in this field, in my opinion, is critiquing music based on what you expect/want it to be, not on what it actually is. That's not what I'm doing here. If I am to be objective, I would conclude that To Pimp a Butterfly is a landscape-shattering album; it's a tour de force (as I stated above). However, if I am to be subjective, I would simply say that I just don't f**k with it.

Favorite tracks/keepers: "King Kunta," "Institutionalized," 1st half of "u," "Hood Politcs," "Complexion (A Zulu Love)" & "The Blacker the Berry"