Whether it’s the death of the album, the death of guitar music or the death of the record store, the music fan is yet to meet a subject they aren’t willing to publicly eulogise. Guitar music is neither running on fumes nor is it a messianic force that will save us from the perceived (and pretty silly) Top 40 inadequacy; hip-hop isn’t going to become a waning force anytime soon despite everything from radio play to auto-tune being cited as the genesis of its downfall; and the public are still willing to embrace an unorthodox listen, despite a notion of bogus intellectualism being passed around the fact that people are always going to love a hit single. Reactionary thinking seems to favour the next quick fix and is entirely missing the common thread: it’s the quality of the music being made – regardless of the genre – that will ensure it lasts, not a conformity to whatever movement is emerging.
A fresh example of this is the latest Kendrick Lamar release. To Pimp A Butterfly has set the world ablaze in a way we haven’t seen since Kendrick dropped 2012’s critically lauded and utterly quality good kid, M.A.A.d city. After To Pimp A Butterfly’s surprise drop on March 16th, it has become an early heavyweight contender in everyone’s ‘Album Of The Year’ list and for good reason. good kid, M.A.A.d city certainly wasn’t short of ambition, clocking in at an atmospheric, unique 68 minutes and following the narrative of a young Kendrick (or at least a character based on Kendrick) making sense of the world and the madness around him. Despite all the hype that surrounded it – including the difficult ‘modern classic’ tag – good kid, M.A.A.d city stills stands as one of the strongest modern rap albums released, which left us all with the question: where does Kendrick go now?
It turns out that the only way was to follow the upward trajectory for the conscientious Compton native, with To Pimp A Butterfly proving that Kendrick was nowhere near peaking. good kid, M.A.A.d city aimed high, but To Pimp A Butterfly has solidified Kendrick’s already enviable legacy, opening with 44 seconds of a Boris Gardiner song – setting the message of self-love and understanding the album expands upon – and ending with an unearthed Tupac interview from 1994, with Kendrick taking the place of original interviewer Mats Nileskar and thus tying a bow on the album’s thematic threads of racial unrest and social understanding. Listening to the album, it’s clear that the three-year gestation period has been well worth it.
To Pimp A Butterfly not only represents a triumph of modern rap music’s ability to convey a complex tangle of messages, but that a dense 78 minute record would still sell like hotcakes; To Pimp A Butterfly debuted at #1 on the US Billboard 200 and selling 363,000 in its first week of release. That’s an achievement for the rap album as a whole, and that’s before even getting to the music itself. There’s the way the blissful ‘Complexion (A Zulu Love)’ celebrates blackness before ‘The Black The Berry’ rapidly brings boiling racial unrest and demonisation to the forefront; the reframing of the career of Wesley Snipes as a tragedy of hubris through barnstorming, G-funk flecked opener ‘Wesley’s Theory’; the way that the slick funk of ‘These Walls’ utilises enclosed space as a pleasure centre just for the bleak ‘u’ to present an isolated hotel room as the battleground for a nihilistic breakdown, whilst the track’s motif of ‘loving you is complicated’ could act as a summary of the album’s message. These knotted, difficult issues are explored from a multitude of viewpoints, from the optimistic to the aggressive, yet never does To Pimp A Butterfly feel like hard work, operating on some of Kendrick’s best ever hook before the societal commentary can settled in, making it very conceivable that a huge jam like the swaggering funk of ‘King Kunta’ could even pop up at a summer BBQ near you (depending on which circles you move in).
It’s often written that this generation are keen for instant gratification – operating through Instagram and Twitter as we do – and whilst boasting some singles carved out of pure gold, To Pimp A Butterfly is one of the best crafted albums in recent memory, standing as a testament to how taking the whole multifarious journey alongside Kendrick yields the richest rewards to the listener. The standout moments are striking, but To Pimp A Butterfly ultimately succeeds through being a filmic, striving whole experience, rich with memorable choruses yet without any easy answers, instead left to the listener after Kendrick’s conversation with the spectre of Tupac closes the album out.
A read through the list of contributors To Pimp A Butterfly reveals heavyweight names like Thundercat, Pharrell, Bilal, Dr. Dre, Flying Lotus, whilst a look through the samples utilized includes The Isely Brothers, James Brown and, surprisingly, a clip of ‘All for Myself’ by Sufjan Stevens. Sufjan himself also released a wonderful album this year; Carrie & Lowell was recorded and produced by Stevens (alongside Thomas Bartlett) at Stevens’ home studio in Brooklyn. Whilst an entirely different sonic journey to To Pimp A Butterfly, Carrie & Lowell also finds the narrator using the album format to figure shit out. The past haunts both albums: To Pimp A Butterfly found Kendrick eventually conversing with spirit of Tupac, Carrie & Lowell finds Stevens coming to terms with the apparition of his mother Carrie who passed in 2012. It’s another record that’s best taken as a whole and has achieved great success, raw subject matter and all, debuting at #10 on the Billboard 200. Sales aren’t the only way to quantify success, but the Billboard placing of the two albums proves that the record buying public isn’t afraid of an unconventional listen.
From the off, it’s clear that Carrie & Lowell will be a drastically different journey to 2010’s glitchy, enjoyably weird The Age of Adz or the near-cabaret of the critically acclaimed Illinois, instead retreating to the plaintive textures of Sufjan’s Seven Swans work. To Pimp A Butterfly opens with the affirming chorus of Boris Gardiner’s ‘Every Nigger Is A Star’ (taken from the film of the same name) as a lens to view the album through, whilst Carrie & Lowell opens with Stevens quietly (yet definitively) stating ‘you’ll never see us again’ to his late mother. Both records set their narrative thread in motion early and ensure every timbre and tone follows. Throughout Carrie & Lowell’s hushed 44 minute duration, childhood memories of being left at the video store and being taught to swim drift in and out of Steven’s lyrical, nuanced guitar playing like dreams passing through the listener’s head alongside Sufjan’s: personal struggle laid bare and vulnerable, relatable through the honesty and bravery of the songwriting.
Whilst it’s not as easy to map Carrie & Lowell’s cinematic peaks as it is with To Pimp A Butterfly, the album represents a very different kind of craft, no less concentrated. By opting to attempt to make sense of his unresolved demons through consistently quiet, sparse instrumentation, paired together with reverberating, abstract interludes acting as passages between the memories, Carrie & Lowell is a triumph of the album in a very different form. Stevens’ choice of hushed vocal delivery is closer to a child that’s stumbled across something he shouldn’t have than the man who was exclaiming ‘I’m not fucking around!’ on The Age of Adz's ‘I Want To Be Well’. This adds to the uneasy patchwork of childhood reminiscence and adult reality – the harrowing image of his mother’s body being gassed before her passing on the sombre ‘Fourth Of July’, a song which states ‘we’re all gonna die’ as its eerie central hook – that envelops and defines Carrie & Lowell. It’s a beautiful, uncomfortable and cathartic listen, again yielding no real closure or answer after the final echoes of ‘Blue Bucket of Gold’ glide into the distance.
Despite the difference in sonic approach that separate To Pimp A Butterfly and Carrie & Lowell, they both represent albums that succeed and move due to their uncompromising approach to their subject matter and their understanding on how a narrative arc can be built over a listen. Kendrick Lamar and Sufjan Stevens have produced two of the most powerful listener experiences in recent memory – albums that stand as a testament to ambition, craft and individualistic vision. No matter how these albums are consumed – whether it’s on iTunes, CD, vinyl, YouTube or Spotify – they remain robust adventures, standing out as this year’s high water marks already. The pursuit of enriching listens over instantaneous enjoyment remains in our brightest talents, and as long as it does, we’ll keep getting unique, brilliantly built albums like To Pimp A Butterfly and Carrie & Lowell.
Words by Joseph Fuller