20 September 2015

Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly

This record has already been hailed as one of the most important records of a generation, hailed as one of the albums of the year and touted as a classic for the ages.  That is a pretty big statement for any album to live up to if we are honest. Ok, here is the background to the album - To Pimp a Butterfly is the third studio album by American rapper Kendrick Lamar. It was released on March 15, 2015, by Top Dawg Entertainment and Aftermath Entertainment, and distributed by Interscope Records. The album was recorded in five different studios throughout the United States, with executive production from Dr. Dre and Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith.  It also features production from Boi-1da, Flying Lotus, Terrace Martin, Pharrell Williams, Knxwledge, Sounwave, and Thundercat amongst others. Its music was influenced by various styles including (but not exclusively) funk, jazz and spoken word.  Due to an error on the part of the main distributor - Interscope, To Pimp a Butterfly was released to the iTunes Store and Spotify a week earlier than scheduled. It debuted atop the Billboard 200 in the USA, as well as reaching the number one spot in New Zealand, the UK, Australia and Canada.  I can see that it is a very important album for 2015, but now it is time to review it; but before I do that, I feel like I need to say something.  I have never been a fan of multiple producer albums, I always feel that they are disjointed; however this album has Dr. Dre as an executive producer and that gives me hope - Dre is one of my favourite producers ever. I also feel like I am one of the least likely people to review this; the album is obviously an album which has the "n" word used throughout and aimed at an audience which has been systematically repressed for far too long - I wish that this was not the case, but the authorities in America keep proving me wrong and this should not be the case in 2015.  As a 40 year old man from the North East of England, I do not want to be seen as disrespecting Kendrick Lamar or the struggles that this album highlights - but I will look at this album fairly and give it the up most respect.  So, time to see the butterfly in flight.

Starting with a sample from the song "Every Nigger is a Star" by Boris Gardiner is the song called "Wesley's Theory"; it features George Clinton, Thundercat, Dr. Dre, Anna Wise, Ash Riser, Josef Leimberg and Whitney Alford.  The fade into the sample with the hiss from a record player brings a warm vibe to the beginning to the song, then it drops into a funk heavy joint that sounds like it will make any club light up.  Smashing the ball out of the court with a rap that sounds like it both makes promises that it can keep and also showcases Kendrick Lamar front and centre of all the action.  When I first heard it, I was not too sure about what to make of it; sure it is a good song but I was not digging it.  However, further listens reveal more facet of the song; the music sinks in and it makes more sense.  The first interlude is next and it is called "For Free? (Interlude)" featuring Anna Wise and Darlene Tibbs, it uses Jazz/Be-bop (I know Be-Bop is style of Jazz before I get hate mail) and is a damning diss about a relationship where one partner is expecting everything for free and admitting that they are fucking someone else.  The response is spat out with a machine gun like venom that gives the unfaithful partner with no uncertainty that they are being shown to be the arsehole that they sound like at the beginning of the song.  From the first moment for me, it is a jaw dropping song that is relentless in fury, style and sarcasm - it is a stunning song that grabs your attention.  The third track is called "King Kunta" which features additional vocals by Whitney Alford, the song is a reference to the archetypal rebellious slave Kunta Kinte, the basis of the main character from the novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The song contains an interpolation of "Get Nekkid" by Mausberg; resung lyrics from "Smooth Criminal" by Michael Jackson; elements of "The Payback" by James Brown and a sample from "We Want the Funk" by Ahmad Lewis.  The message of the song is powerful and something that will be studied for years to come, the music sounds haunting with a funk bass that drives the song and it is one of the best songs on this album.  With guests Bilal, Anna Wise and Snoop Dogg, "Institutionalized" slows everything down to a slow grind that sound like paradise is going wrong.  It is another song which has a powerful message about the state of the world, it is something that shows the world has sadly not changed as much as some people imagine.  It also has other aspects about it, you get a kid (probably a younger Kendrick Lamar) being out on a night and it does not go to plan.  The slow vibe is something that will work well for fans of hip-hop, the music sounds like a nightmare with synths out of tune with the rest of the world and I cannot get totally into the song, but it is not poor at all - just not for me.

The fifth track is called "These Walls" and the guests this time are Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat, as well as James Fauntleroy.  This song is dark - I mean it has a poisoned soul that is all about revenge.  If you think it is about sex, you should check out the end of the song.  I am used to revenge songs, but this is so matter of fact at the end that it was a bit of a shock when I realised what was going on towards the end.  It is stunning, powerful and unrepentant; tread carefully on this number and never fuck with Kendrick Lamar.  Following on is the song called "u" and it features additional vocals from Bilal, Jessica Vielmas and SZA.  Once again this is another song that is steeped in pain and does not leave the listener in any doubt about what is going on.  There is blame, resentment and hostility on this song; something are unforgivable and this song does not sugar-coat the bitter pill that some people have to swallow.  The music is a secondary part to this song, but it supports another song that breaking many hearts; it is so angry and once you hear the message it will not leave you - harrowing.  "Alright" features Pharrell Williams, Candace Wakefield and Thundercat supplying extra vocals, this song feels like a direct response to "u" when everything is not alright, but you try to convince yourself that it will end up ok in the end of the day.  It also repeats lyrics which appear in a few of the songs on this album - "I remembered you was conflicted.  Misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same.  Abusing my power full of resentment" - it goes through the songs and like a superhero movie, everything is connect.  When I realised this was happening, it changed my outlook on this song (and on the album as a whole); this song really changed the record with its style, rap delivery and music - it is one of the hidden gems on this album.  The second interlude marks the halfway point of this album and is called "For Sale? (Interlude)", it has a choir beginning which is followed with a long period of heavy breathing, then the music beings with a sound like summer (really wished I had listened to this album earlier in the year) and it features additional vocals by Bilal, Taz Arnold AKA Ti$A, Preston Harris and SZA (I have to name them all, believe me). It bring the focus to a character called Lucy - some people are saying it is a girl called Lucy or it is the devil (aka Lucifer); either way the song (for me) is all about temptation and trying to avoid it.  Once more, the running theme about being conflicted is used at the end of the song; everything is connected once more.

With a strange set of percussion, "Momma" starts the second half of this album.  The song features Ab-Soul and Bilal, as well as Lalah Hathaway through sampling the song "On Your Own".  After the end of "For Sale (Interlude)" ended with Kendrick Lamar talking about coming home, this song is all about the comfort and familiarity of going to a place where you were brought up; for Kendrick Lamar it is Compton.  Some people have debated if it is to God after the debate over who Lucy was, it could be viewed in many ways; for me it seems to be about being comfortable with yourself and going back to the place where everything is familiar.  It is one of the strongest numbers of the album, it makes you focus on what you are - a towering track.  With a funk beginning "Hood Politics" and sampling "All for Myself" by Surfjan Stevens, it also features Bilal, Anna Wise, Preston Harris and Dion Friley on additional vocals.  It is a song that feels like a man trying to relate to himself as he was many years ago; it seems that you are listening to someone that only knows how he was.  The linking theme is expanded once more at the end and talking about a new war which is going on, sometimes it feels like this war is something that is not ending for Kendrick Lamar and the anger is going back to the album (to be honest, it never really went away).  Next is "How Much a Dollar Cost" which features featuring James Fauntleroy and Ronald Isley and is the story of Kendrick Lamar and his interaction with a tramp in South Africa.  The tramp berates him and reveals himself to be God and the cost of a dollar was the cost of getting into heaven - not the actual dollar itself, the act of helping out one who is in need of help.  It is another powerful song from this album that shows the strength of faith in Kendrick Lamar, whatever your religious belief, it is a lesson in helping your fellow man and that is another powerful message for anyone.  Next is "Complexion (A Zulu Love)", featuring Rapsody.
Thundercat, Lalah Hathaway, Talkbox Monte, Javonte and Pete Rock. The message of this song is educating society on something called the beauty standards, especially colourism. Colourism is something that affects the black community profusely due to its roots, with links directly to slavery in America.  In the song, we are reminded of the importance of loving all people no matter how light or dark.  You are not left with any doubt about how the world should be, it is another powerful song that shows one of the many reasons that this album has been bestowed with praise.

"The Blacker The Berry" features additional vocals by Assassin and Lalah Hathaway; now let's get this out of the way - this song is full of fury, it is so angry about the world and is not taking any prisoners in its fight against the world.  It has been noted this song is about the hatred that some people from people in the African American community have with each other; some people have read it that it is when people have more hatred when a descendant from an European settler kills an African American, but they do not register when people of their own community kill each other; some people say it is a song that is just full of hatred to the world.   Whichever one the song is really about, it is still a damning condemnation that this is how the world is on 2015, the anger is justified and you cannot blame people for feeling (and sadly experiencing life) in this way. It tackles the subjects of hatred, racism and hypocrisy head on, it does not give the listener any chance to find comfort and holds you face up to the truth of the world. Another number that is jaw dropping in its message and delivery about a subject that is so sensitive, you cannot help but listen and take attention.  "You Ain't Gonna Lie (Momma Said)" and features additional vocals from Thundercat, Preston Harris, Wyann Vaughn and Javonte.  This is about trying to get to the next level and not quite getting there, the music is very gentle and the rap is good as well; but after all the hard hitting songs that have preceded it, the song does not quite hit those heights.  "i" however, that does hit the mark! Featuring additional vocals from Taz Arnold AKA Ti$A, William Sweat, Candace Wakefield, Devon Downing, Edwin Orellana, Dave Free, Dion Friley and Ronald Isley, the song also contains a sample of the song "That Lady" by the Isley Brothers.  This was the first song to be released as a single off the album; Kendrick Lamar has said it is the best song that he’s ever written; the reason for this is that he never thought he would be in a place in his head to make a positive song, having grown up around so much negativity in Compton.  The most powerful section of the song is the spoken word section at the end; now as I have said at the beginning, I am one of the least qualified to talk about a song such as this - but this song speaks to me in a way that I have not felt for a long time.  It is once again speaking about things that people would rather not speak about, it is facing the world as it is and not blinking - powerful, brilliant and uncompromising.  Ending the album is the 12 minute plus "Mortal Men"; additional vocals from James Fauntleroy & Javonte, this song also uses an extract from "I No Get Eye for Back" by Houston Person; and a sample of an interview with Tupac Shakur by music journalist Mats Nileskar in November 1994 for P3 Soul Broadcasting Corporation.  The song is inspired by Kendrick Lamar's trip to South African and name checks Nelson Mandela, Moses, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. along the way.  It is a great song that ends the song, bringing the album to a thoughtful and questioning end.  The linking words are threaded into the end of the song, which then follows with the Tupac sample as if he and Kendrick are having a conversation.  It does not sound creepy, it sounds so natural and guides you towards the end of the album.

So how does this album fare overall?  Well, when looking at the track individually are all strong and the music is of a high quality.  The lyrical content is very hard hitting in places, uncomfortable to listen (by design obviously) as it shines a light on matters which a lot of people would like to pretend where not there (they are and in this day and ages it should not be the case).  The strength of this album is in the whole, whilst the tracks work by themselves it works so much better when played in one go.  Is it the album of a generation?  I really do not know that, it will be for future generations to decide that one; however as well as 'Black Messiah' by D'Angelo & The Vanguard (cleverly linked here), you have one of the best albums of the last 12 months which is not afraid to show the world how it really is - this will top the usual critic awards this year, it is within a shout of our as well.

Top track - i

9.5 out of ten - Almost perfect, almost......

You can purchase the album from Amazon here

You can visit the Kendrick Lamar website here

You can follow the activities of Kendrick Lamar here on Facebook

You can stream the album on Spotify via this link

For Deezer users, here is a link for you

For our Tidal users, here is a link for you

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