Read Mickey’s official review of To Pimp A Butterfly here.
Not to toot my own horn or anything but this is probably the world’s first review of Kendrick Lamar’s awesomely-titled new album, To Pimp a Butterfly. Who cares, right? Frankly, it’s not much of an accomplishment unless I plan on saying something special. (I’ll do my best.) But before we get into that, I should probably give you a little background into why this album is important.
First of all, To Pimp a Butterfly isn’t even out yet and virtually no one, including yours truly, has heard it. So yeah, to write a review at this point is kind of silly. I get that. I couldn’t possibly fault you for questioning my credibility here. That said, I don’t make a habit of reviewing albums I’ve never heard. Nor under normal circumstances could I think of a more foolhardy endeavor. However, this is no typical record and I assure you that even though I’ve never heard it I’m nevertheless quite certain of its merits—in case you’re wondering, they’re vast and mighty. I know it might sound impossible, but trust me, this will be an amazing album.
Editors Note: Listen to Kendrick Lamar’s latest track “King Kunta” below.
Sure, there’s slim a chance I might regret those words. But let’s be honest, to predict that Kendrick Lamar will release good music is a pretty safe bet. Besides, there’s another reason I’ve written this pompous, long-winded, and (hopefully somewhat) prophetic album review: To Pimp a Butterfly might very well be the first in a long line of stellar hip-hop releases this year.
Undoubtedly, there’s a lot riding on this album. Few records enjoy the feverish anticipation that surrounds this one. Much of that is due to the exalted nature of Lamar’s last effort, good kid M.A.A.D. city. A record that has taken it’s rightful place in the haughtiest echelons of the hip-hop canon. Still, for me to expect Lamar to follow that up that with something even better is perhaps a bit unfair. It’s the sort of herculean task that even Dr. Dre had trouble accomplishing. But if you’ve been watching Kendrick Lamar’s shrewd and deliberate movements of late, you know that this cat is uncommonly focused. Then again, so too are a lot of people making hip-hop. Allow me to explain.
By any gauge, hip-hop is at a turning point right now. In the past few years the genre has embraced EDM and complicated poly-rhythms in equal measure. Creative juices are flowing in a way they haven’t in some time. Styles are changing and expanding rapidly. This could be due to a lot of things—but my money is on the widespread collaboration that’s happening, and more recently, the impact of the news media finally reporting on the rampant injustice in black communities.
I’ll admit, that’s a bit speculative. But, hopefully we can agree that all eyes are on Kendrick Lamar right now. He’s become the de facto leader of hip-hop. And if there was ever a time when we needed our artist’s to say something, it was now–luckily, Kendrick seems poised to do just that. For many of us, this is more than just another rap project, it’s a very big deal.
America has become an ugly and disappointing place. Being black is still a frightening liability. If you’re African-American, it means that selling untaxed cigarettes or swiping a box of Swisher Sweets can get you killed. Meanwhile, if you’re white, you can literally orchestrate the systematic denial of thousands of people’s constitutional rights and the only consequence you might face is being forced resign your post one day.
When you consider that, suddenly To Pimp a Butterfly becomes timely and important. Not just because it’s by a brilliant artist who’s sure to address these issues. It’s vital because people are listening.
In other words, the iron is hot and the heat won’t be restricted to Kendrick Lamar. My guess is there’s about to be a veritable explosion in hip-hop. Lamar notwithstanding, we’ve witnessed the game bubbling over with talent for months. Three releases, in particular, deserve special mention. The first is D’Angelo’s, Black Messiah, one of the finest albums of the past 50 years. If you haven’t heard it and you enjoy soul music, this is as good as it gets. A labor of love like this doesn’t come along very often. It took D’Angelo 15 years to make it, and it was well worth the wait.
There was also Drake’s, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. It’s solid throughout, too, but the back-to-back PartyNextDoor features might be the proudest part of its legacy. Stream, “Wednesday Night Interlude” below.
Lastly there’s Big Sean’s, Dark Sky Paradise, it’s not without it’s faults (see “One Man Can Change The World” for proof). Still, I would be remiss to overlook how special it is when an album has this many indispensable cuts. If you’ve got 25 minutes, and you haven’t already, you could do a lot worse than acquainting yourself with, “All Your Fault,” “Play No Games,” “Paradise,” “IDFWU,” and, “I Know.”
Looking ahead, there is no shortage of promising releases slated for release this year: Drake, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Shamir, Jeremih, Miguel, Kelela, Tink, Usher, Ty Dolla Sign, Travi$ Scott, and even the much maligned T-Pain have all graced us with reasons to be excited for what’s to come from them.
All told that’s a baker’s dozen worth of artists who’ve either already done so or can reasonably be expected to release some hot shit this year. What do these artists have to do with Kendrick Lamar? A lot, actually. Collaboration in 2015 has reached a feverish pitch. Which means much of hip-hop, including Kendrick Lamar, is beautifully intertwined. Take a look, for example, at who contributed to Big Sean’s album and you’ll find a long list of rap’s biggest names: Drake, Kanye West, DJ Mustard, and Mike WiLL Made It just to name a few. To have this many contributors isn’t the slightest bit out of the ordinary for a hip-hop album–what is unusual is how many of these artists seem to be in their prime simultaneously.
Hip-hop has never seemed more like a team. When the best rappers and producers continuously make music together, ideas are disseminated, different styles influence each other, and music gets better. Those with the most juice educate and act as a springboard for up and coming artists. Naturally, Kendrick Lamar is a part of this phenomenon, both as a student (his mentor/apprentice relationship with Dr. Dre is well-documented) and as a collaborator. He’s worked with pretty much every major producer and rapper alive, along with many relative unknowns. As of this writing, the details about his new album are scant, but it too promises to be a group effort.
All of this has good implications for hip-hop in 2015. Even if some of the high profile releases don’t materialize this year, and more still don’t live up to the hype, I find it hard to believe that we’ll see many duds from artists of this caliber. It’s also worth remembering that the last time we saw this many gifted musicians working together, it was called jazz.
Another reason to be aware of hip-hop right now is the ongoing injustice in black communities. Incidents like the one in Ferguson and New York are not unprecedented. But they still have the power to fuel creative output. I’m not trying to find a silver lining here, simply stating the fact: outrageous inequality has a tendency to inspire important art in America. Perhaps the most appropriate comparison to what’s going on today might be 1992, when large parts of Los Angeles descended into chaos after the police officers who beat Rodney King were cleared of any wrongdoing. The music that came out in the years that followed defined hip-hop and were nothing short of a renaissance.
Some might think it’s a stretch to suggest that records like Illmatic and The Chronic were in some way a response to the Rodney King verdict. Frankly, I would argue that it’s silly to think that the verdict didn’t galvanize the focus of hip-hop artists. To be certain, Rodney King wasn’t the only bit of injustice in the black community at the time. Just like Michael Brown’s and Eric Garner’s stories aren’t the only instances of people being oppressed today. What makes these incidents influential is that they create an opportunity for a national discussion. The commonality between them is that they all seemed to end with a huge “fuck you” to the black community.
Of course, if we were to solve police brutality today there would still be problems in the black community. Racism is institutionalized in America. Poverty is a trap that almost no one can escape from. White privilege is real.
People are fed up. This is why I fully expect hip-hop and R&B to be extraordinary in 2015. I’m betting my reputation on it–whatever that’s worth. And when Kendrick Lamar’s album drops in a week or two, and it’s thoroughly ground-breaking, there will be no need to thank me for giving you a heads up. Just be thankful that the world, which by any other measure is completely fucked, isn’t all bad.
Predicated Album Rating: 5/5
is a freelance writer and hipster emeritus. His work has appeared in various impressive publications including the one you’re enjoying now and he has his own music blog where he reviews music both old and new: oldnewborrowedblew.blogspot.com