By Sam Fleming
Kendrick Lamar, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’:
The Compton MC, Kendrick Lamar has taken over mainstream rap in the past few years with two albums that have been dubbed instant classics and a mixtape. He has established himself as one of the most lyrical and versatile MCs in modern rap, as well as found his place on the radio by writing catchy and interesting hooks. After three years of relative silence, Kendrick surprised the world with a follow up to Good Kid M.A.A.d City, further solidifying his place in rap. To Pimp a Butterfly is centered on a poem that Kendrick has written and each song stems in some way from it. The album takes a more jazzy approach than his previous efforts and focuses less on being catchy or telling a story. Instead, Kendrick paints a picture of American society and what it means to be black in America. The production on this album is handled by a variety of producers and shines especially on tracks like King Kunta and Alright. The producer Flying Lotus collaborates with the esteemed bassist Thundercat to add their own spin to the album; Much of it sounding like an extended version of Flying Lotus’ excellent song with Kendrick, –Never Catch Me.
Behind the music on To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick delivers a deeper message. Throughout the album he compares his younger self to a caterpillar. He consumed everything around him because he was a product of his environment and that was all that he knew how to do. He speaks on the tracks Institutionalized and These Walls about how trapped he truly felt. At some point he realized that he could eat his way out of his environment, escape his cocoon. Eventually he does escape and emerges a butterfly. At first he is thrilled to have escaped, but he quickly begins to feel survivor’s guilt and starts to lose the people he loves most. On the song u he expresses his true regret by criticizing himself, saying “You ain’t no brother, you ain’t no disciple you ain’t no friend/A friend never leave Compton for profit or leave his best friend.” Even when Kendrick escapes his cocoon, he sees everybody that he loves still trapped in their own, and he doesn’t know how help them escape. He realizes that he’s been so caught up in the thrill of having escaped that he’s been ignoring the people that have helped him get where he is. This leads him to self-hatred and depression until he realizes that the only thing that he can do is love and give back to his community in whatever way he can. Even when he realizes that he needs to give back, he still struggles with greed and temptation which he addresses on the song How Much A Dollar Cost. Once Kendrick emerges as a butterfly he realizes that gang violence and black-on-black crime is fighting the wrong enemy. Instead of killing ourselves we should be supporting each other and trying to succeed as a race. His message is largely ignored and he finds that nobody wants to hear somebody who has escaped their situation preach positivity. On the last track of the album Kendrick opens up to his fans and the world and it is clear that he feels in a place where he is comfortable with his ideas and has embraced who he is.
Kendrick addresses what it means to be successful and black in America and spreads an important message about self-love. He doesn’t sugar-coat anything and his hatred for what white America represents is clear, especially on tracks like The Blacker the Berry. This album was not made to make white people feel guilty, or to spread hatred, but it perfectly portrays the sense of oppression and fear that comes with being black in America. He feels that he is a butterfly being pimped for his talents by people who care more about money and power than his culture. He realizes that there is no point in bragging about his talents or wealth if he can’t give back to his community. By ignoring his culture he becomes just what the people that are pimping him want.
This album is an exploration of modern and old school west-coast hip-hop and it ends up being one of Kendrick’s best. With his last few albums Kendrick has redefined west-coast hip-hop and he will likely continue to change the perception of rap in general. The great underlying theme combines with a sonically amazing album to create one of the best hip-hop albums in a decade. This album is a necessity for anybody that appreciates good music, and especially those who love west-coast hip-hop.
Death Grips, ‘Jenny Death’
Death Grips, an experimental hip-hop group from Sacramento, announced their breakup this summer via a note scrawled on a napkin. Since their “breakup” they have continued to push out music and recently announced a world tour. Their newest double LP, Jenny Death, shows two different, but equally good sides of Death Grips. Niggas on the Moon, the first half of their double LP, has sharp shouted lyrics, open beats and a Bjork sample in every track. The first half is bizarre and experimental, with MC Ride’s lyrics often dark and sparse. The second side shows Death Grips in their natural form with songs like Pss Pss and Why a Bitch Gotta Lie. On this side, they incorporate guitar samples that help the music to sound much more organic. The songs on the second half of this LP seem to flow together, without losing their punch. Overall, this album is an excellent experimental hip-hop effort and measures up to many of their best previous projects. Jenny Death is definitely worth looking into for any experimental hip-hop fan, or anybody that appreciates great production and rage filled lyrics.
Earl Sweatshirt, ‘I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside’
Earl Sweatshirt has grown to be a musical outlier in his record label, Odd Future . He has wandered down a darker path than many of his label mates and this album is no different. While Doris, Earl’s last album, felt angsty and like he was trying to prove something, his newest effort feels natural. Earl has never left anything up to the imagination with his lyrics, but with this album it no longer feels like he’s saying things to shock or to get a reaction, but rather speaking his mind for all to hear. On the song Grief, Earl speaks about how gang violence is the least of his issues because the police are the ones that really target him. Earl tackles issues like depression, drug abuse, and the death of his grandmother head on in a way that doesn’t alienate the listener. On I don’t like shit, Earl makes the listener empathize with the pain he’s feeling rather than act tough and push the listener away. He still rarely goes into depth on any one specific issue, but when he brushes by one he makes his true feelings clear and understandable. I don’t like shit, is a great album if you enjoy an introspective rapper who doesn’t sugarcoat anything and is still finding himself. It is a solid project and definitely shows a more mature version of Earl than we have seen in the past, as he begins to discover who he wants to be as a rapper.
Action Bronson, ‘Mr. Wonderful’:
Action Bronson takes an interesting approach to his major label debut, Mr. Wonderful. The Chef, turned rapper from Queens, New York, brings his goofy lyrics and his sing-song style to his newest project and attempts to tell a story. This album is great for a laugh and about half the album, with songs like Baby Blue, Terry and Actin Crazy is really solid. The last half of the album, however, really loses focus. Although it’s not terrible, it is underwhelming. Bronson usually excels at painting grand pictures with his lyrics, but in the second half of this album he emptily brags over beats that all begin to mold together. Bronson has always been goofy, but at points on this album his lyrics and beats come off as corny and boring. This is a lighthearted album and is a fun soundtrack for the spring, but its hard to take it too seriously. The first half of the album is exactly what would expect from a major label Bronson debut and I would definitely recumbent giving the first half a listen.
Tinashe was brought to the broader public’s attention last year with her inescapable hit single 2 on, followed up by her pop R&B fusion album Aquarius. Her music has typically fallen between the softer, slower side of R&B and the lighter side of pop. With Aquarius, however, she took a different direction. She took a much more poppy approach and although it was not bad, it did not showcase her artistry. With her new mixtape, Amethys, she shows that she has not forgotten her roots. In these seven tracks she opens up and shows who she is as an artist without fancy production. The entire tape was recorded in her bedroom and it has a very DIY feel. The beats on Amethys compliment her soaring voice well without overshadowing it. Instead of this tape sounding cluttered (like many other DIY tapes), the music’s simplicity is soothing. This mixtape isn’t mind blowing, but it is a soothing and relatively exciting listen.
Pss Pss- Death Grips
All Day- Kanye West
Grief- Earl Sweatshirt
Just the way I like You- Tinashe
Baby Blue- Action Bronson
47 Bars- Ab-Soul
Ratchet Commandments- Tink
Hood Politics- Kendrick Lamar
Push It- Pusha T
Lampshades on Fire- Modest Mouse
How Could You Babe- Tobias Jesso Jr.
Photo: Top Dawg Entertainment