To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

Before I say anything else about this album, I need to say this: I have the highest respect for Kendrick Lamar. As an artist, as a role model, and as a human being, I’m extremely impressed with who he is and what he hopes to stand for as someone with fame and influence.

And that’s what To Pimp a Butterfly comes from: Kendrick Lamar’s deep desire to utilize his influence for good. It’s an album about leadership and celebrity. It’s Kendrick wrestling with the temptations associated with his new platform – the “evils of Lucy” (aka Lucifer) as he calls them. It’s his sophomore album – which typically has insane pressure to build off a successful debut project – isn’t anything what you’d expect from a rising star in the world. Instead of diving deep into his newfound wealth and power, he has chosen to take a step back and comment on how his status can be problematic, and how he strives to “pimp” that status for the benefit of others. Speaking value into his home community.

Kendrick Lamar is from Compton. He was raised in a world with a certain perspective and a certain way of life. No one ever told him he could amount to anything – that there was a world out there he could explore and learn from. He was born into a system of madness – which is the focus of his first album, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” – and one of his primary goals in his new album is to preach potential to his community back home.

The opening track, “Wesley’s Theory,” speaks to poverty and imprisonment. Opening up the collective mind of the systematic oppression experienced by those who grow up in the narrative of Compton and similar communities. There are places to visit, there’s a world out there to learn from – there are other ways of life. You’re not stuck in the narrative of cyclical generational poverty you’re been raised into.

It’s a fascinating album from a structural standpoint. The album continues in that vein through “King Kunta” and “Institutionalized” and “These Walls.” But the album seems to be framed in two parts around two songs: “u” – which focuses on the depression and suicidal feelings stemming from Kendrick experiencing a lack of control in painful things in his life – and “Alright” – which is the inverse narrative declaring that regardless of how bad things get, “we gonna be alright.”

Laced throughout the album is a poem. The first time you hear it, it’s only the first couple lines, but each recitation reveals more and more of the complete poem.

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
Found myself screaming in the hotel room
I didn’t wanna self destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers
Until I came home…

The first time through the album, it’s confusing and disruptive. It’s tempting to skip the spoken portions to get back to the music, but the listener does him/herself a disservice if he does it. If Kendrick Lamar was about writing singles and pop hits, he’d never want the monologue there. It segments the flow and forces you to consider the words through repetition. The words provide the thrust of the album’s content.

But then you get to the end of the album – to “Mortal Man” – and you realize this isn’t a poem at all, but it’s a letter to Tupac. Apparently, while Kendrick was in Germany, some dude gave him a recording of an interview with Tupac from years ago when he was still alive. Kendrick takes that audio and creates an interview dialogue out of it between he and Tupac. It’s unbelievable. If you didn’t know/believe Tupac was dead, you’d be convinced he somehow sat down with Kendrick. It’s seamless and still so relevant to the world today.

In fact, get this: the orginal title for the album was going to be Tu Pimp a Caterpiller – Tu.P.A.C. – but went with butterfly instead because it represented Kendrick’s desire to pimp the beautiful things in life. There is so much happening here structurally it’s hard to nail it down unless you take the time to zoom out and consider the full context. The whole structure of the album is brilliant. Once the first listen is over, suddenly the end opens up the entire album in a new light – like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, to be honest. Lamar doesn’t shy away from the painful realities in the world, so there are moments on the album which, when taken out of context, can communicate something totally different than Kendrick’s big idea of the album. But when you listen to its entirety and begin to break down the themes and what he’s doing structurally, the album manages to open up to something incredible.

Admittedly, this isn’t an album that you can sit down and bump around to. It’s also not an album with singles you can throw into a playlist and listen to individually. Again, his goal isn’t to create a bunch of pop hits (which is basically exactly Taylor Swift’s goal in creating 1989) – it’s a cohesive creative unit with a message throughout.

The only single that was released for the album was “i” where features a looped Isley Brothers sample that really grooves. The phrase “I love myself” is repeated in chorus. It’s an anthem for those who society puts down – specifically young black community. Instead of believing the narrative of their world, to discover that everyone has value and ought to love themselves.

Except then on the album, it sounds like a live version! What?! Why would you do this to us Kendrick?! You can hear a crowd clamoring and someone introducing Kendrick as a guy who has “traveled all round the world but came back” – so apparently he’s performing for the people of Compton.

And then toward the end of the song he stops singing and starts talking to the people instead. He’s addressing the community about what it means to be black in the world – trying to create a new narrative for his home. He asks how many people have died in 2015 alone before doing a sort of etymological study on the N-word. He presents the Ethiopian word “negus” meaning “royalty” – a reclamation on a word taken and perverted by Americans over the decades.

By releasing the single version and then changing the album version, Kendrick further pushes his agenda. In fact, he actually sets up the speech in the “live” version by giving the single version beforehand. People come to the album expecting to bump to “i,” but end up startled by Kendrick’s message to home.

The album is honest and vulnerable. Kendrick’s message of positive influence is clear. He wants to denounce the evils associated with fame and celebrity and focus on communicating positivity to the system he came from.

It’s clear that Kendrick Lamar views himself as the butterfly that was able to come out of the system he was born into – not in a boastful or arrogant sense, as is the norm in hip hop. Rather than chasing more money and status and pointing the finger at his success, he points the finger at his struggles and pain. The album is about transformation. He hopes to change the narrative of those who grew up in the culture he did. The caterpillar he talks about in the final minute of the album are all those who are born into that system, and Kendrick hopes his voice can be one that begins a process of transformation.

If you want to know more, I recommend watching this 4-part interview Lamar did with MTV. Here’s the first of the four interviews…

Again, I respect the guy immensely. To Pimp a Butterfly is an incredible album. One with a purpose of making this world a better place. Most people probably don’t get that, and they won’t look past the controversial album cover. I believe strongly that this album deserves to win Album of the Year at the GRAMMYs. I’m rooting for it. It’s obviously highly regarded (Kendrick led all artists with 11 nominations), but can it beat out T-Swift’s 1989 – one of the most successful pop albums in recent history? We’ll see. No offense, Taylor.

Top tracks: u, King Kunta, Alright, i, Mortal Man, Wesley’s Theory

-apc.

Back to the GRAMMYs page.

Beauty Behind the Madness – The Weeknd

As far as seasons go, winter is the worst. It’s cold. It’s grey. It’s dry and uncomfortable. It’s depressing. The best day winter has to offer is Christmas, and since winter begins on December 22, that means the season peaks on Day 3. From there, things trend downward with three major upticks in excitement: New Years Eve, Superbowl Sunday and…

…the Grammys.

And so for the second year in a row, in anticipation of one of the seasons most (only) fun days, I’ll be reviewing the albums up for Album of the Year. Here are this year’s nominees:

  • Beauty Behind the Madness – The Weeknd
  • 1989 – Taylor Swift
  • To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
  • Traveller – Chris Stapleton
  • Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes

The obvious heavy hitters are Taylor and Kendrick. There won’t be a dark horse like Beck this year. It’s a two horse race in 2016.

Noticeably absent: D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, which I think is better than all 5 of the albums listed here. It was nominated for Best R&B Album, and the track “Really Love” is up for Best R&B Song and Record of the Year. I thought for sure it would get a Best Album nom, but alas, it did not. Which sucks. Still, pretty good showing for a guy who’s been on the DL for 14 years.

I also hoped Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special, would make the list, but it seems it couldn’t escape the shadow of its own single, “Uptown Funk,” which is up for Record of the Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. The album did get a nomination for Best Pop Vocal Album, but it’s only going to win if they change the category to Best Non-Taylor Swift Pop Vocal Album.

Those are my only gripes. Nothing against the 5 albums here, I was just rooting for those guys.

As with last year, I need to throw out this disclaimer: I am not a musician and don’t really have any level of musical understanding beyond being a consumer. So this is purely my take. If you’re interested in reading my past music posts, feel free to hit up my Grammys blog homepage.

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The Weeknd is just one dude. His name is Abel Tesfaye, and he’s from Toronto. Apparently the name comes from “the weekend” when he decided to drop out of high school and run away from home at age 17. But “The Weekend” was already taken as a band name, so he dropped the third “e” and moved along with it anyway. Beauty Behind the Madness is Tesfaye’s third studio album in four years.

Let’s start with what I do like about this album.

If you’re a Michael Jackson fan – and let’s be honest, odds are you probably are – then you’re going to love sound The Weeknd. Tesfaye sings almost exclusively in that same angsty falsetto range MJ is known for. It’s not as groovy as Off the Wall or Thriller, but it’s not as poppy and clean as Dangerous or Invincible. If it sounds like an MJ album, it’s definitely Bad – songs like “Liberian Girl” and “Dirty Diana” and “Smooth Criminal.” (But not “The Way You Make Me Feel” because that song’s an overplayed up-tempo stinker.)

The high-range vocals provide a great contrast to the percussion, strings and bass-heavy instrumentation. It’s dark and damp. At times BBTM goes the route of a jazzy slow jam.

Okay now on to what I’m not a fan of.

The content is mostly about party culture, drugs and sex – but rarely the exciting side of that culture. It’s mostly shadow. Darkness. Sadness. There’s a sense of depression or hurt. It feels lonely in places. Again, angsty. Emotionally charged. I suppose the content isn’t really my jam, but the resulting sound is really compelling throughout. I guess you could say it’s hollow both stylistically and lyrically.

Even the up-tempo songs aren’t upbeat content-wise. “Can’t Feel My Face” is probably the happiest sounding track on the album, but, “I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb,” sure doesn’t inspire much joy.

There are a few solid features on the album: Ed Sheeran brings his acoustic guitar to “Dark Times.” Lana Del Rey’s creepy little nightmarish voice comes in on “Prisoner.” Track three (which I like to refer to as the “power placement” on an album) is the Kanye West produced “Tell Your Friends,” which sounds straight off of Yeezus. The whole album kinda feels like a scene out of Nightmare Before Christmas…only rated R. Or maybe Sin City or something. It would be almost entirely black and white. It’s got a very Tim Burton/Danny Elfman ominous feel to it.

Here’s something I wish I’d never found out: the The Weeknd was involved in the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack (which Danny Elfman was also involved, coincidentally), which makes the album take on a totally different feel than it did the first time I listened through it. I’ve said this before, but I don’t really listen to lyrics much. My mind gets wrapped up in the groove of music and not necessarily the subject matter, but when I found out the 50 Shades bit, it suddenly connected the dots between style and content and now I can’t escape it.

It’s good. His voice is incredible and the shadowy tone gets under my skin a bit and I find myself actually grooving quite a bit. If it hadn’t been for that last bit of info, I probably would’ve dug it more overall. Which is too bad, because I really liked the sound the first time through.

It won’t win Album of the Year. It’s firmly in the second tier of nominees. But if you’re Jesse Pinkman or Christian Grey (or Chandler Jones), this could be your depressing winter hot jam. If you want a similar sound, but a happier album, go listen to Justin Beiber’s Purpose. Or, I suppose, Bad.

Top Tracks: Losers, ShamelessReal Life, Can’t Feel My Face

-apc.

Back to The Grammys Main Page.

G I R L – Pharrell Williams

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Note: I wrote this track by track review prior to knowing it would be nominated for Album of the Year. So this may not follow the same pattern as the other 4 posts in this Grammys series.

There at least three possible arguments for why I completely missed on this album two months ago.

The first is the typical excuse: I was too busy and wasn’t paying attention to music enough in the wake of Grammy season and was focusing more on class, my book project and my impending pilgrimage to Burma. This sounds good, but it’s mostly just an excuse.

Second, where was the promotion for this album?! I never heard anything about it – heck, Billboard announced it’s release date less than two weeks before it dropped on March 3. It seems like it blindsided the whole industry: “Happy” was majorly circulated with Despicable Me 2 coming out in the fall, and his heavy collaborations with Daft Punk on R.A.M. and with Miley Cyrus/Robin Thicke/T.I. on “Blurred Lines” didn’t really leave the possibility for a solo record. Besides, last time he put out any solo work – In My Mind, in 2006 – it didn’t necessarily dominate my iTunes.

The third reason is the most interesting. About two years ago, I started wondering if N*E*R*D – Pharrell’s band along with The Neptunes co-producer Chad Hugo and Shay Haley – would put out a new record to follow up their disappointing Nothing from 2010.

So I set up a Google Alert for any news on N*E*R*D’s new record.

I got weekly updates for about a year, but nothing substantial on the record front. Then, in 2013, I finally started seeing some stuff circulating about how they were working on a new record, but that it wouldn’t be released for a while because of Pharrell’s side work. I guess I just assumed that if N*E*R*D wasn’t putting out something new anytime soon, then Pharrell certainly wouldn’t put out something on his own. Just didn’t compute.

Then in late March someone, I forget who, asked me what I thought of Pharrell’s new album that I didn’t even know existed at that point. And then I got caught up in my excuses again and forgot to download it.

All that to say – and it’s a lot, in retrospect – I finally picked up the album last week and haven’t stopped to listen to anything else. All last week on The West Coast, this was my jam.

It’s been referred to as a “pseudo-feminist” concept album, seemingly in response to his affiliation with the controversial “Blurred Lines” performance from the 2013 VMAs. It’s clear that he wanted to rebrand himself as…something else.

These days, it seems like anything Pharrell touches turns to gold. “Blurred Lines” was huge. I don’t think I’ve spent a day anywhere in this country over the past month without hearing “Happy” two or three times. And “Get Lucky” was the hugest of them all taking home top Grammy nods this year on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.

And yet, I did not expect this solo album to be as good as it is. Here’s a track by track look at G I R L.

1. Marilyn Monroe

First of all, Hans Zimmer did all the strings on this album, and this one is the stringiest there is. A gorgeous orchestral arrangement opens the album and is coupled with some Nile Rodgers-esque guitar riffs a la “Get Lucky”. The track opens the feminist theme, questioning why he would ever want to lose the girl that even Marilyn Monroe, Cleopatra or Joan of Arc can compare to.

2. Brand New (Duet with Justin Timberlake)

One of the perks of completely missing on an album is that you don’t build up any expectation for should-be killer collaborations. This track is a little cheesy, especially the bridge, but I guess that’s what we should expect from a song about how a woman makes a man a better person – a “brand new” man, if you will. And a little Timbaland beatbox intro really, because JT can’t go anywhere without him apparently. Also, did you know: Pharrell and Timbaland were friends as kids?

3. Hunter

Not my favorite track, which is surprising because it has a heavy N*E*R*D sound to it. Goofy lyrics. Simple looped guitar riff. The occasional heavy breathing in the background. It’s Pharrell doing his best impression of himself sans Hugo and Haley.

4. Gush

A transition song, but a strong one. Sure, Pharrell wants to respect and not abuse the woman that makes him better, but that doesn’t mean he’s doesn’t want to get a little dirty. The chorus here is strong. Zimmer returns with the orchestra.

5. Happy (From “Despicable Me 2”)

We all know this song. Not really necessary to write about it other than to say that it’s a super fun doo-wop that I still catch myself snapping my fingers along with. But c’mon man. Track 5? This song startles me every time I’m listening to the album. I skip it about 75% of the time.

6. Come Get It Bae (Feat. Miley Cyrus)

This song has the feel of a group drumming on 5 gallon plastic buckets on a street corner. Lots of claps. A hint of strings and guitar. But mostly a stomp-style groove. This song is all about riding a motorcycle. But it’s a metaphor, you guys. Surprisingly, I actually like what Miley adds to this song – although, the “hey!” that runs throughout the song gets really old really fast.

7. Gust of Wind (Feat. Daft Punk)

Not shocking, but this is in the conversation for my favorite track. Marilyn Monroe is the front runner, but this one is right there too. Those robot vocoder voices are just so mesmerizing. I can’t help myself.

8. Lost Queen

The album takes a turn here. This song feels like it should be the last track. It brings us back to the “taking care of you is my number one thing” theme. Tribal hums and bongos drums give the first half of this song a raw human quality, and it’s reflected in the lyrics. Earth is so messed up, but this “Lost Queen” is so perfect it has to be from some other planet. This track is 8 minutes long. The middle minute is nothing but the sound of crashing waves. The second half feels like we’ve moved off Earth and into outer space. Probably Pharrell trying to communicate where this woman takes him.

9. Know Who You Are (Duet with Alicia Keys)

Alicia Keys!? Woah. This feels surprising for some reason. They seem to be from different edges of the hip hop spectrum for some reason. Pharrell gets me moving and pumps me up. Alicia’s voice just melts everything. It’s a decent song, but I can’t get over that dichotomy when I listen to it.

10. It Girl

This song is a short lyrical wrap up with an extended outro to close the album. It also has one of the best moments on the album when Pharrell takes his voice as high as it’ll go – so high that I don’t really know what he says. It’s a song with a bunch of nautical terms in relation to how this “It Girl” just does it for Pharrell: seasick without her, she’s got his compass spinnin’, her waves crash over him and and her tide pulls him in. It’s a metaphor, you guys.

Overall, it’s a very strong album, and Pharrell’s gold-touch apparently works with his solo stuff too. He even makes that goofy Arby’s hat look good.

Side note: I’ve been told on two separate occasions that I look like Pharrell. I don’t see it, but maybe you do.

Another side note: nearly all these track titles would make terrific horse names for next year’s Kentucky Derby.

Top Tracks: Marilyn Monroe, Gust of Wind, Gush

-apc.

For other reviews up for Album of the Year…

Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Ed Sheeran – x
Beck – Morning Phase

Beyonce – Beyonce
Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

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