Hip Hop – wherefore art thou, where have you disappeared to? It remains a constant question, when hip hop becomes hip pop, it becomes too commercial, the message diluted, awash with empty slogans about nothing much in particular.
You are thinking you might just give up on it all, wondering where all the heroes, the true MC’s went…when Kanye West turns up from behind the mixing desk and blasts your head into a thousand pieces and puts it all back together again. He raps about his ego, his experiences, his life, communicating directly like all the best artists. Yet he later becomes tiresome due to his attitude, obsession with auto-tune and the sound of his own damn voice. Perhaps you can have too much of a marvelous thing….
Meanwhile, a little 5 foot nothing character emerges from the streets of Compton, where the West Coast scene started in the late 80’s, under the tutelage of Dr Dre. He drops ‘Good Kid, Maad City’ in 2012 and it grows slow, blooming gracefully, addressing issues and themes with a degree of intimacy and honesty not heard since Public Enemy and Naz stormed the scene. This kid celebrated his roots, he was willing to experiment, but kept his ears to the street, opening up our imaginations with club anthems like ‘Compton’ and the more relaxed vibes of ‘Bitch, don’t kill my Vibe’. Zane Lowe and others recognized his virtues and played him out on prime time to interested listeners. The slow burn kept on smoldering, the touchpaper put on hold while chancers like Wiz Khalifa, A$AP Rocky and a host of pop rappers went about their business.
Late 2014 comes around and an Isley Brothers sample graces the airwaves, buoyed by an up-tempo beat. Mr Lamar (aka Duckworth) returns to the fray with ‘ I ‘ and couplets like “The Devil wanna put me in a bow tie / Pray that the holy water don’t go dry”. Little were we to know how this anthem was barely scratching the surface of this genius rule breaker’s crazy, filthy mind.
‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ may just be the most important hip hop release since Nas’s ‘Illmatic’ in 1994. Here are the reasons WHY –
This LP sounds like nothing else since or before – just as Nas and Public Enemy broke the back of gangsta rap and came up with a new formula, Kendrick brings mind-blowing musicality back to hip hop. Of course there are brilliant samples, but the roster of previously unknown producers introduce live instrumentation (The Roots), melding the jazz piano harmonics of one Robert Glasper with moody soundscapes, which allow the sounds and layers to breathe, to inhabit your mind, your essence.
This LP redefines hip hop and its importance in modern culture. It is a concept album, clearly set in the ever present and looking anxiously into the near future. Its concept is a nakedly confessional assessment of the life and times of Afro American males and females and asks mighty questions about their place in society – linked to drugs, alcohol, poverty, mental illness and modern ills aplenty. Yet this could apply to anyone who experiences self-doubt, lack of self-esteem, difficulties in everyday existence.
Mr Lamar is overtly political and furiously intelligent, railing against his own people on ‘The Blacker The Berry’, a brutal self-examination of the young black man’s struggles : “ I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015 / Once I finish this, witnesses will convey just what I mean…it’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society ”…I mean, wow! His flow is fascinating, overlaying his voice into several different tones, sometimes upping the pitch to a squeaky, eerie lament. He employs guests sparingly but with killer effect – Snoop Dogg on ‘Institutionialized’ and the brilliant Rapsody, whose deadpan delivery conveys sweet deliciousness with lines like “The new James Bond gon’ be black as me / Black as brown, hazelnut, cinnamon, black tea / And it’s all beautiful to me / Call your brothers magnificent, call all the sisters queens / We all on the same team, blues and pirus, no colors ain’t a thing’.
The musical palette expands to pure melancholy on ‘How Much A Dollar Cost’ with its glistening refrain and a main keyboard line which resembles the fraught emotional landscape of Radiohead’s Kid A. This track ends with a rhetorical exhortation from Ronald Isley himself – ‘I wash my hands, I said my grace / What more do you want from me? / Tears of a clown, guess I’m not all what is meant to be…’
These lines are delivered with weary resignation, infused with years of experience. Kendrick understands his true heritage. There are no jokes or needless skits here. The links between songs create a seamless whole. Not a moment is wasted – ever – and this LP stretches to close to 80 minutes.
A track like ‘For Free?’ is a perfect example of this LP’s soaring ambition – jazz licks curling around orchestral vibes and an irresistible momentum to the voice, which speeds up in to a blur of scat, but with diction all on point, every second.
This album isn’t heaving with club bangers, but every track plumbs incredible depths for its source material. The standout ‘These Walls’ weaves a deceptively seductive vocal line courtesy of Anna Wise (‘She just want to close her eyes and sway / With you, with you, with you’) around a relaxed guitar refrain and updated G-funk sparks. Kendrick’s flow is soft, perfectly weighted, yet replete with an ineffable sadness, relieved only by Glasper Rhodes’ solo. Lines cascade in layers of rhythm – ‘Walls telling me they full of pain, resentment / Need someone to live in them just to relieve tension /Me? I’m just a tenant’. What are these walls – those that surround the man, preventing him from moving forward with his life, or his own thoughts trapping him? Whatever it may be, his thinking is welcome and profound.
Throughout this opus, Kendrick continually reflects on his mortality and the innate complexities of being a spokesperson for his disenfranchised and disenchanted generation. At the close of ‘I’ and towards the end of the album, he directly addresses a crowd about the numbers lost to violence: black on black or through police oppression and brutality. He then moves to discuss the word Negus, a new definition of the N-word, here known as Black Emperor, King, Ruler. As he says ‘the history books overlook the word and hide it’. This is provocative, important, changing up the discussion to new levels. It’s not about self-immolation or wallowing in disgust, it’s about taking the power and respect back.
I could bore you with how crucial this album will become in the recounting of post-modern musical history. It sets itself against the greatest creations in rap music and takes its unique flavours to levels beyond, by embracing music in every sense, giving space to the listener and treating YOU like an intelligent, beautiful human. It is more than just mere music. Its importance must never be undervalued. If you love music that rips up the rulebook and hits you squarely in the heart of your soul and leaves you reeling, please do listen. It might just change your perspective…..
Review by Hugh Ogilvie.