A masterpiece in any way you want to measure its worth.Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope, 2015
10 / 10
Not too long ago, someone asked me an odd question: “why don’t you like anything mainstream?” The question is built on an incorrect premise, for starters—my favorite album of the first half of this decade was a Kanye West album, my favorite film of the past year was The Lego Movie, and Game of Thrones is among my favorite TV shows. Those selections aside, though, it was just last weekend that I declared mainstream country to be going through its worst phase ever in a private conversation at a low-key Lebanese restaurant (thank you, Guinness!), and it wasn’t too long before then that I pointed to the Grammys as personification of everything I hate about the music industry, so I get where my friend’s perception comes from. It would be easy to point to the wide assortment of mainstream works as reason enough to stay with smaller works, but if I had to single out one through line between everything I hate in the mainstream, it would be that none of them attempting to elevate the art and hold it to a higher standard. I’m not asking for every artist to treat their work with stone-faced seriousness, but damn near every artist is all too willing to pass the buck to the next, declaring that they don’t intend to be viewed as a role model. The result of this sort of attitude in the music industry is that it is hard to get excited about anything I hear on the radio these days. Just being able to play the piano seems like enough of a qualification to get Grammy buzz, and that Meghan Trainor was so close to walking away with a golden statue says a lot about how far the standards of pop music have fallen.
By the sound of it, Kendrick Lamar is just as unhappy as I am over these diminished standards. He could have just put out another great album (I’m convinced that the man doesn’t know how to suck given his track record), one full of quotables and beats that stick with you like flypaper. Instead, he’s crafted an album-long statement about his views on black culture, one that tackles feelings of disenfranchisement brought up by the death of Trayvon Martin, the active role of drugs in the community, and the black man’s perception of the black man. It’s heady stuff, and I’ve heard from many people that they aren’t sure everything Lamar says is totally accurate. Take, for instance, the way in which he ends “The Blacker the Berry”, whose first two verses are focused on the negative perception he believes black people are seen in by those in power: “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? / When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? /Hypocrite!”. It’s a sudden call for responsibility, and placing it after airing so many grievances can result in whiplash. Is this necessarily correct? I can see how this could be rejected, and I don’t know that I can fault anyone who disagrees with this conclusion. What can’t be denied, though, is that To Pimp a Butterfly invites discussion like few albums I’ve heard in the past few years, mainstream or otherwise, and whether or not you end up agreeing with Lamar on every issue, he always manages to put his opinions together in a way that fascinates, whether it is due to his mastery of the English language, his prodigious rapping abilities, or the images he conjures.
That said, the backing work on this album would be enough to earn a thumbs up on its own merits. Lamar has always had an ear for music, but Butterfly marries that ear with live instrumentation, and the result recalls the best of jazz, funk, Outkast, and Flying Lotus. Put simply, even a terrible artist would sound exceptional over “King Kunta” and “The Blacker the Berry”. It’s hard to recall the last time I heard a hip-hop album as refreshing and consistent as this, and I say this as someone who thinks the genre is in a golden age.
Then there’s the way this album ends. Throughout the album, Lamar reads from a poem whose lines line up with what the next song is about, building onto itself until it registers as something past spoken word. I don’t know if albums can technically have spoilers, but, um, spoiler warning: he reveals at the end that he’s reciting this poem to get feedback from Tupac Shakur. From there, they engage in a lengthy discussion about politics, music, and religion. On first listen, this registers as a ballsy move, as the natural assumption is that Lamar enlisted an actor to portray Tupac, but no, everything he says comes from a 1994 interview for a Swedish radio station. Lamar has always said that Tupac was a huge influence on his life, and for the longest time, I thought that was just the standard line that every rapper from Compton had, but the six minutes that conclude this album do more to humanize Tupac than the past twenty years of retrospection from television, films, and tributes. For the first time, I actually understood what so many meant when they said that Tupac was ahead of his time. It takes guts to end an album like this, but then again, it takes guts to make an album like this in the first place.
Frankly, I feel as though I haven’t begun to dissect some of the bigger themes here, and I’ve been listening to this album nonstop for the past week. I have no qualms of giving this album a perfect score, though. This is a ten as assuredly as The Money Store was a ten. This is the first album I’ve heard, hip-hop or otherwise, that could challenge My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy for the distinction of being the best album of this decade. To Pimp a Butterfly is a masterpiece in any way you want to measure its worth. If only we could be blessed with work like this more often from those in positions of power.