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Review: A different kind of Kendrick Lamar with new album

People are trying to compare Lamar’s album to Lupe‘s but for all the boundaries Tetsuo and Youth pushes — it’s still purely a rap album. This is like a more accessible version of what D’Angelo is doing on Black Messiah — but slightly less soul and rnb, more jazz and just the right amount of P Funk.

To Pimp a Butterfly is not an album that can be parsed in one listen. It is a sonically dense album with challenging themes that deserve your time. Unlike most commercial albums, this is not background music. For the first time, in a very long time, an artist in the genre of pop-rap has delivered an album that deserves to be heard as a whole. If you listen to, “To Pimp A Butterfly,” schedule the required free time, sit down, and listen to it in its entirety.

The bad: Yes, there’s a lot of cursing on this record. If you listen with younger folks, maybe this could open up a dialogue on the degradation of language, or the social environment that inspires music with this amount of foul language. I don’t find this album as misogynistic as others will. There are points where Kendrick’s hyper-masculinity is jarring — but there’s also a clear artistic intent behind those moments. Personally, I don’t see this as a negative, but he could have dumbed it down a bit and expanded the audience that his message reached.

The good: Kendrick Lamar could have easily made a part 2 of “GKMC”. Most of his fans would have even been satisfied with an updated “Section .80”. Instead, the listener is taken to an album which borrows its sonic roots from politically charged jazz. Today the general public considers jazz strictly music that is related to, or inspired by the Great American Songbook.

But the Great America Songbook wasn’t jazz until Ella touched it. Jazz was a genre of mostly Black innovators, that challenged traditional composition convention. They created their own scale structures, and musical languages. Many lost their burlesque licenses, and unable to play in venues like the Cotton Club, these musicians found refuge and fans in places like San Francisco’s Fillmore District. For a certain generation, jazz was the music of rebellion. Jazz musicians often crossed paths with beatniks. It’s at such crossroads that beat poetry, and the amalgamation of music and poetry became a prominent part of US music history.

In some moments Kendrick borrows directly from this lineage, his pacing, meter, delivery and theme sound more like a member of the Last Poets is performing than a modern day rapper. In others, he is the quintessential rapper.

The album is paced brilliantly. I was surprised when I saw where in the album the singles were placed. Other than King Kunta, most of the songs that I had heard in advance were in the second half of the album. When I hit play, I quickly realized why. From the first audible sample, we know who this album is for. Some have called this racist. It’s not. This is how dialogue begins. Voices from one side share their perspective, and then voices from the other side respond. If the dialogue is done through our artists (without an intent of malice from either side), in a way that garners attention from the public at large, maybe progress can be made.

Kendrick’s perspective appears to have no malice, instead the young kid from Compton, who once opened up an album with the anti-racism themed, “F*** Your Ethnicity,” has grown into a man who sees the issues tied to race at the macro level. There is no singular Black perspective. Yes, there is a history of disenfranchisement. We share the same universal struggle, but our personal issues tied to race, and our individual perspectives are different. The songs reflect this – sonically changing midway, or lyrically proclaiming in, “The Blacker the Berry,” “I’m the biggest hypocrite in 2015.” Even songs like “i” and “u” present point and counterpoint. In fact, if you really delve into the album, you’ll notice that multiple songs present different perspectives to similar issues.

Speaking of “The Blacker the Berry,” this is perhaps a high point for Boi-1da as a producer. His boom-bap influenced instrumental fits perfectly beside the work of Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Bilal, Dr. Dre, Terrace Martin, and George Clinton. “Complexion” is the best work that you’ll ever hear from Rapsody. Snoop Dogg is at his best on this album as well, and even Pharell’s hook driven production works to break up an otherwise heavy musical project. However, the supporting cast member to pay particular attention to is Sounwave, who distinguishes himself as a producer of importance on this album. With production credits on half of the album, it’s his work that aids in unifying Kendrick’s ideas into a singular sonically pleasing piece of music.

This a very exciting time in North American Black music. There are young artists who have reached a certain level of commercial success and have decided that having work that says something matters. Rappers like Joey Badass, and Lupe Fiasco come to mind. It’s exciting to see the gradual thread of social consciousness that has entered J. Cole’s work. Besides that, we have the return of a social justice motivated D’Angelo. Perhaps this gradual shift will lead to a more realistic perspective of Black thought to the general public.

Where does “To Pimp a Butterfly” fit in all of this? It’s a record released on time – as the knowledge of racial conflicts in North America expands because of social media, it speaks to the disenfranchised and their newly educated allies. Other albums will have more sales, but this is the type of album that within months college students will write papers on. Within years, there will be doctorate dissertations analyzing it. In a decade, university courses will be discussing it. Its relevant portrayal of the present, the quality of musicianship and production, and the social reach of this album make it one of the more important albums in nearly 20 years.

I’m not saying everyone will like it. Hardly anyone liked the music of Ornette Coleman. But this has a wider reach than what Coleman ever had. I will suggest, that if you have the time, and you can find a legal source to stream, or purchase “To Pimp A Butterfly.” Plan your schedule accordingly, and listen to the whole album. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable while listening, to not like parts, etc. But be open to the idea that you likely won’t begin to fully grasp this album until the last word is uttered.

After my first listen of Kendrick Lamar’s album I stayed in silence for half an hour. What I initially thought (half way through) was a great album circa hip-hop’s pique in the late 90’s – early 2000’s evolved into an album that felt bigger than that by the time I reached the end. I haven’t been so emotionally invested in a mainstream album since I started to discover old jazz records. The energy I found in those old vinyls – the struggle, the angst, the fervour, the social conscious — is what resonates in this incredible work. It’s not perfect, but very few conversations start perfectly.

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