Thursday, January 28, 2016

To Pimp A Butterfly

So, a minute into Kendrick Lamar's newest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, even with all the impossible hype behind it, I couldn't help but thinking this might just be the best Hip Hop album of all time. That's likely an over-exaggeration, while Lamar hits us with some thoughtful, timely, and applicable rhymes that drive the discourse of rap ahead, his concerns are not really on the same level of those we see in the pioneers. He's critiquing the culture that's arisen around the image of hip-hop which is a positive refocusing on the actual culture that drives the anger and frustration that gave birth to hip hop in the first place. It might be the best hip hop album of this generation, though, and that's something.

On the album Lamar explores the reality of fame - examining how everything we're taught to want only brings with it those things that are most destructive. He uses Lucy (short for Lucifer) to embody temptation (something that's pretty darn biblically literate, another trait you'll find across Lamar's work). The album is not about what to do and not to do, but about the difficulties of navigating a world of pleasure and pain and how the human situation doesn't elementally change with money and fame, even if the particulars are quite different. It's a strong album lyrically and thematically, but you'd expect nothing less of Lamar, who will hopefully force everyone else to up their game (attention Kanye).

The production is incredible and compliments the lyrics with a kind of historic understanding and compositional sophistication you just don't see anywhere else. It does everything The Weeknd album does, but ten times better. It's a different approach, for sure, but Kendrick tackles everything we hope The Weeknd might do, but he actually does it. Difficult and often offensive topics are justified when they're leveraged from reality for reflection and social comment. You might not like to listen to Kendrick's tracks, but if you did, you'd have to give some grudging respect for what he's doing.

One of the best examples of what the album can do is "u" a track that sounds like a typical condemnation of an absent father, but over the course of the track you realized it's an expression of self-doubt, highlighting the humanity and weakness of the rapper as opposed to the typical confident persona the industry drives them to present. Many of the tracks do this kind of switch, addressing real issues in direct ways, but in ways the listener won't expect and forces us to challenge the perceptions we bring and the way we view ourselves, others, and the world.

Now I'm not really a hip-hop guy. I make the statement about "best hip hop album ever" with some tongue in cheek, because, frankly, I'm in no position to know. There's also the matter of everyone's tastes being different. I like hip-hop and if there's any resonance between it and my life it's because of the time I've spent working with teenagers; I don't live the life Lamar writes about, but I've cared for enough people fopr whom this is serious to appreciate the seriousness. What I appreciate most is that Lamar puts together an album that both speaks from and to the society and culture that gave birth to him. It's not just pretty ear candy, but a challenge to be more than someone who listens to pretty ear candy.

It's easy for someone to object to the profanity and course subject matter as inappropriate for public consumption - and on a lot of hip hop albums that's really true; they're self-indulgent and offensive - but To Pimp a Butterfly is doing something with the mess. A track like "Alright" doesn't ignore the realities of the world, but doesn't wallow in them either. It gets a bad reputation for its negative reference to police, but it also calls for hope and perseverance in the same way a gospel classic speaks to another generation. If this album is anything, it's Kendrick Lamar's understanding of and genius re-appropriation of cultural and musical history for a worthy purpose.

There's a tremendously high degree of difficulty with a task like this and, on To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar not only meets the challenge, but clears it with room to spare. I don't know if it will win the Best Album Grammy - this is a year with a ton of really great nominees, but it will certainly go down as a classic.

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