If you’re remotely interested in Hip Hop music and culture, you’ve probably heard SOMETHING about Kendrick Lamar. “He’s the next PAC” “He’s the leader of the New School…” “He’s overrated” “He’s trash”, positive or negative, you’ve likely encountered Kendrick’s music or at least heard someone’s opinion about it.
For me, Kendrick is a lot of the positive. He’s captured the spirit of a forty-year-old Hip Hop and pushed it to a level of mainstream awareness that hasn’t really been seen since the more positive songs in Pac’s catalog. Other “high concept” hit-makers haven’t had the audience or the “power” that Kendrick has and I can say that without fear of debate. He is undeniably on top of the game.
And what do most rappers do when they’re on top of the game? They push their style, i.e. what made them famous, to another level and peddle out refined or reimagined versions of their sonic imprints. What was “poppin'” comes back at three times the measure (a la Life After Death), what wasn’t disappears into the back catalog (Life in My Times Vol. 1, and many Na$ albums).
However, with Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly, we find a complete stylistic shift.
What in the earliest iterations of his career, and even up to his debut Good Kid, m.A.A.d city, was sampled jazz, soul, and funk was replaced with Neo-Jazz, Neo-Soul, and Neo-Funk played, for the most part, with real instruments. Where Dr. Dre has become infamous for having session musicians interpolate riffs and samples so he could sample them at lower rates, most of the songs on TPAB forgo that completely. This isn’t just G-Funk, this is NEO-G-SOUL-JAZZ-FUNK. In other words, an intersection of all the prominent Black music of the latter half of the 20th century. AKA Hip Hop.
The content of the album follows a similar trend of re-invigorating what we as listeners have taken for granted. To an astute and well-listened music enthusiast, Kendrick Lamar isn’t saying a lot of new ideas or concepts. Many Hip Hop artists have delved into the issues of “you can take a rapper out the hood, but you can’t take the hood out of a rapper”, slavery, gang violence, depression, politics, influence of wealth, strained ties etc. Few, if any, have so thoroughly woven a quilt of personal grievances and stories in a way that makes them so relatable.
From the poetic fuccbois-etry of “These Walls” to the pained depression of “u” and the parable of the jaded rapper that is “How Much a Dollar Cost”, Kendrick Lamar unleashes the skills and techniques that he has learned and mastered over his eight-year career. The poem that stitches each piece together provides the narrative that die-hard good kid fans were craving. The politics of Black consciousness permeate every song but are challenged in the street. Personal shortcomings erupt in painful epiphanies. This is an epic poem where a dynamic character is forced to change and fight in the face of real adversity. Kendrick wasn’t afraid to go there, and I appreciate him for that.
4 months and 15 days later, I still find myself listening to the album on a daily-weekly rotation. I’m still falling into the form and finding how deeply I feel some of the lyrics. Still discovering aspects of songs that I missed out on for some reason or another. I honestly haven’t been blessed with a more complex or complete album in my lifetime (that was released when I was of the age to purchase or acquire it). It’s closest cousins are all concept albums, but even those don’t quite sit in the same way.
I’m honored to say that this is and will be the album of the year for me. I can’t forsee anyone putting out an album that rivals it. And I’ll be listening very hard to find one that takes me on similar journies.
Until next time,