To Shit a Mockingbird
Lotsa talk about these two albums—one supposedly already a classic and the other a classic buried by the first. But I know almost nothing about hip-hop, so I’ll leave that up to the cultural arbiters and the underground hip-hop heads who think the best stuff is stuff you’ve never heard. Also, the brief hiatus was caused by a well-needed vacation, with another coming this weekend, too, so don’t expect too much activity here.
KENDRICK LAMAR – To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope/TDE): Like good kid, m.A.A.d city, this is hyped to be a ‘classic,’ and Lamar has the musical and lyrical chops to make the case. But also like good kid, To Pimp a Butterfly is a good album, not a track-for-track masterpiece, or at least that’s this humble reviewer’s opinion. Overrated? Well, what object of rave waves isn’t? My gut feeling is that reviewers, particularly white reviewers such as yours truly, would rather err on the wrong side of history if not to preserve their reputation then to at least pretend like they understand the importance of an album whose content is too long (80 minutes) and too dense (approx. 11,000 words), too full of political, musical, historical, and literary references for anyone to properly unpack in the short amount of time between the unexpected drop and the hasty essays music critics dashed off in response—not to mention figuring out whether all that required unpacking is merely density disguised as depth. And like good kid’s conceit of being a ‘short film,’ this is chock full of gimmicks to lend the album legitimacy: Robert Glasper and Thundercat augment their jazz senses to let Lamar free associate about how his dick ain’t free. George Clinton intones over the P-funk intro, a sound that reverberates on “King Kunta,” easily the best song here and in Lamar’s catalogue. The refrain of spoken-word “I remember you was conflicted” appears again and again, gradually unfolding to reveal Lamar’s combating senses of survivor’s guilt and unwarranted fame. Top all of this with pretty explicit political fury lashing outward and inward, and a closing dialogue with the ghost of Tupac on what sort of bloodbath might unfold in the not-too-distant-future if the disenfranchisement of minorities doesn’t stop—which it won’t. What can be reductively said is that Lamar begrudgingly accepts racism as an indentured institution in American life, and that the conflict between how close he came to becoming a lifelong street thug (whose lives don’t often last long) instead of the monetarily and critically acclaimed darling of the hip-hop scene he is leaves him in a pit of angst that’s more understandable than pitiable. And what I can most definitely say with conviction is that regardless of whether the album warrants pronouncements of ‘classic’ on par with Illmatic or your flavor of choice, and that regardless of whether people can react honestly to an album they’re most definitely pressured to like, Lamar has made the most genuine album of the year, or the last year, or maybe the century. No false emotions, no Kanye-style posturing, no conscious decisions to be different for the sake of it. This is a man half a year my junior who is concerned about the direction his country continues to hurtle towards, a man whose personal life has taken a hit since catapulting into mainstream success, a man who still believes art has the potential to change the world for the better, as all young people should believe. I know I do. Is it as momentous as Nation of Millions? Will it have the cultural impact of Straight Outta Compton? Will people remember this one more than good kid? Only if people keep insisting. Let’s see how long they do. A MINUS
EARL SWEATSHIRT – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside: An Album by Earl Sweatshirt (Columbia): I don’t get Earl’s affinity for the dark, brooding anti-aesthetic sound of Odd Future he’s now carried over to his second studio album. With the exception of the organ on “Huey,” there isn’t much sonically I enjoy. The effect is clear, though; very rarely does music have a tone so depressing that it makes me want to kill myself. Nothing like “Chum” here; none of that song’s lyrical dexterity despite his relatively slow flow, no interplay between words and samples to paint a picture that’s anything other than dark confusion. I want to like him and his slant rhymes and broken lines, but he insists on me not doing so. Swing and a miss. B PLUS (*)