The weekend before last, Stevie Wonder touched down in Houston to perform Songs In the Key of Life in its entirety. About the same time, many of us were hearing Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly for the first time. It doesn't feel like a stretch to imagine a day in the distant future where an elder Lamar returns to perform this album in a similar celebratory fashion.
Everything about Butterfly feels classic, beginning with the very first of thousands of sounds on the album, the scratchiness of a worn vinyl record. Its themes; the way it's stitched together via interludes and spoken-word bridges that begs for it to be heard from start to finish for a full appreciation; the samples that are heavy on the soul and jazz of a long-ago era -- all of it has the feel of something that can be comfortably nestled between Wonder's Innervisions and Prince'sSign O' the Times on the record shelf.
The album has been universally acclaimed. But recognizing I might be hearing the hype instead of the music, I reached out to a couple of folks whose opinions I value for some perspective.
Juan Olivo is founder of The Underground Collective, an upstart magazine which surveys the local music landscape. He also produces music as WiddlyBurtango. He's young and is an adventurous seeker of music of every ilk. His work has turned me on to some fantastic and largely unknown acts. I felt he might understand the music better than this old, tin ear. Certainly, he'd at least hear it differently.
If I'm the dude sitting in the stands wondering whether this is really a homerun, then Houston rapper OneHunnidt is the on-deck batter who plays the game and knows what to swing at and what to take. His latest, Field Sobriety, was released last month. Coming from one of the city's most promising rap talents, his take on the album was one I most wanted to hear.
Before I pass the mike to them, here's my quick verse: To Pimp a Butterfly is not a masterpiece. At least, I hope it isn't.
It is high art, beginning with the moving album cover that leaked a week in advance of the album leak. It's wordier than the entirety of Waiting for Godot (I didn't actually count, just a guess). It's a young artist's unflinching look at us all, starting with the man in the mirror and the realization that the person glaring back is, at times, unrecognizable. It's fraught with the fear that the avalanche of today's accolades and riches could mean getting "Wesley Snipes'd" before too long.
It reminds me of Innervisions in so many ways, not the least being all the self-reflection evident in both albums. Already, Lamar sounds like no one else in the profession, but, like Wonder altering his voice for "Living For the City," so does Kendrick, sounding like a grief-stricken Grover the Muppet on the doleful track, "u." The album concludes with a 12-minute track -- the way they used to do it in the 1970s, people. It's the equivalent of a well-placed period at the end of a well-constructed sentence.
Of course, what elevates it above mimicry is the content, the dripping-with-funkiness of the tracks and especially the lyrics. "u," "Alright" and "How Much a Dollar Cost," are a few that resonate. "Hood Politics" earned my favor by using the term "boo boo" in its chorus. Just so y'all know, anything that's "boo boo" will always earn my attention.
The best track, in my opinion, is "The Blacker the Berry," an intensely angry damnation of racial prejudice and black-on-black crime. Lamar's frenzied rapping builds to a jarring blow, a sucker punch so brutal it needs a minute-long musical interlude to follow, just so you have time to absorb the blow and recover.
It's a classic. But, I hope it's not a masterpiece, because that means he's done his best work. I don't wanna be the bitch that kills this vibe.
JUAN OLIVO I remember taking off my headphones with tears welling up in my eyes the second that To Pimp a Butterfly ended. I knew I had just listened to a modern classic that people would be talking about for years to come.
Whether it was the funk-laden grooves of the opening, "Wesley's Theory," or the extremely personal and introspective "u", every moment of this album was pure bliss. It does something very few albums can do, which is to perfectly capture the modern day zeitgeist. Kendrick Lamar is using the platform he created with Good Kid, M.A.A.D City to deliver a message through an album which beautifully and intricately weaves through different themes and ideas until finally culminating into a masterful grand finale.
Although the messages and Lamar's delivery are the most important aspects of the album, it's hard to ignore the extremely layered and dense production behind it all. It's lack of 'banger'-type beats was quite a surprise to a majority of his audience, but I absolutely loved it. You can tell how much an influence both Flying Lotus and Thundercat had on the album's sound.
Everything about this album is perfect and will hopefully influence other top-tier rappers to not only step up their game, but also use their status to begin addressing more pressing social matters both outside and in their music. The influence of To Pimp a Butterfly might also leak into the local music circles and have artists attempt to create more epic endeavors then they ever would have attempted before it.
Story continues on the next page.
ONEHUNNIDT Kendrick Lamar's new album is controversial, complex, uncomfortable, well-thought and sparks a full array of emotions. I'm not sure the exact qualifications for determining an instant classic, but I am positive that To Pimp a Butterfly contains elements that would deem it worthy of consideration.
As an artist myself, I also feel that Kendrick has had this very moment playing in the back of his mind for years. From Overly Dedicated to now, there have always been touches that hinted at his internal complexes that now, in 2015, he wears as a badge of honor in honesty.
I remember first listening to Section.80 and being in awe at his mentions of spirituality, social injustices, history, generational conditioning and the like, yet still finding a way to jam. In this day and age hip-hop is supposed to be divided -- surely it's not possible to compose music with a conscious message that wasn't boring, right? As far back as I could remember, rap music was to either be fun and lovable or thought-provoking and inspiring. Not both. Who does this Kendrick Lamar guy think he is, to push buttons in our minds but also keep our feet tapping at the same time?! I was inspired in a brand-new way back then.
Later, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City came about and it played like the most visual representation of what it could be like to be a teenager raised in Compton, Calif. ever filmed, except it was over beats, melodies, cadences, weird vocal effects and some dope-ass lyrics. At first listen, again I knew, we are witnessing something that has never happened.
Within those previous projects there are the touches of jazz, soul, disco, spoken-word, theatrical skits, [and] instrumental and vocal solos, but To Pimp a Butterfly takes all of those pieces and exaggerates them to new heights. Compile that with a more forthright stance as his emergence as hip-hop's psuedo-civil-rights activist, and it's easy to see that Kendrick has been prepping us all along. Or, maybe he hasn't, maybe he is just now coming to grips with himself as a man, celebrity and artist and the ying-yang pitfalls earned with every "success" achieved.
Maybe he now understands the responsibility he has by being the one who is set to represent a community, culture and demographic that had previously been shunned from the No. 1 position on the charts. I think that realization is exactly what the album is about.
I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same Abusing my power, full of resentment. Resentment that turned into a deep depression
To me, the separation of a good versus a great musician is achieved once an artist decides to take on the treacherous experiment to force listeners to either completely love their work or absolutely hate it. It is to be interpreted at listen four or five, not the first.
For the musician, this means deciding to not follow any popular trend or "safe" sound or typical content and giving your innermost [self] with no regard of repercussion. What better way to do this than tell of your dealings with the industry, the devil, the institutionalization and civil rights of young black men -- then featuring George Clinton and Ronald Isley and creating an album that sounds like it should be playing in a dimly lit soul club in Chicago in 1967, or maybe a 1920s jazz club during the Harlem Renaissance; then adding an exit interlude from the late-great Tupac Shakur.
It's unapologetic, it's bold, it's revolutionary. From the album cover to the title, this is genius.
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