Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Ready to Pimp a Butterfly Dropout: the hip hop concept album

As a historian, I feel leery at claiming that every ten years or so, a hip hop album emerges of such fundamental importance that the genre is changed thereafter--a simplified (and potentially spurious) notion of history-in-cycles. And yet, when I first heard Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly last week, I almost immediately thought of a 10-hour road trip I took in 2005 with Kanye's College Dropout effectively on repeat for the whole time because I was so thoroughly entranced with the album. That was ten hours each way, resulting in almost a full day's worth of 'Ye when all was said and done. I would do the same for To Pimp a Butterfly in a heartbeat, and I cannot think of an album that has had such an immediate effect on me. My only question is why it took me until last week to discover it, but at least I can now rectify my ignorance by listening to it incessantly on repeat while at work.

When I listened to College Dropout a decade ago, I was struck by the singular sound that 'Ye had managed to produce, a sound that was very unlike what had come before. He did not limit his producing skills to his own album, but also worked with artists such as Common to incorporate this new hip hop aesthetic that featured soaring vocals and grandiose sounds:

But while Common's challenging rhymes were ideally paired with this new and challenging sound, one could argue that some of 'Ye's lyrics delved into the mundane (seatbelts for safety first) or even the absurd (pick whatever you want, there are plenty of examples):

In contrast, one of the most notable features of To Pimp a Butterfly is the sophistication of both rhymes and sound on the album. In fact, Lamar conscientiously fuses references to blackness in a variety of media to create a reflection on black culture as a whole. It is, I feel, nothing short of a masterwork, while simultaneously featuring tracks as catchy as this one:

There is much to be said about this video (and much has been said already) and about the imagery itself, turning around the main character of Alex Haley's Roots from a slave into a king--Kunta Kinte has taken over Compton as King Kunta, replete with a throne sitting in his driveway. Just as Lamar reimagines this iconic 70s black figure, he reinvigorates funk while drawing on its main indicators. It's hard not to hear the numerous exhortations of wanting the funk at the end of the track as parody.

If you haven't heard the album, please do not think of 'King Kunta' as typical of its sound. In fact, there is no 'typical' sound as each track ranges widely from sultry, jazzy big band:

To a Curtis Mayfield-inspired track that might simultaneously reference Kanye's 'Touch the Sky' (the repeated lyric in the chorus 'I love myself' could not be a better parody of 'Ye, really):

And beyond! Including spoken word tracks and a dialog with Tupac. That's right, he's still releasing albums from beyond the grave.

To Pimp a Butterfly is also quite clearly a concept album: a work that is meant to be understood as a coherent whole rather than what most albums present, which is an assemblage of individual tracks that do not depend on order. That Lamar sees the tracks as interwoven is undeniable since he presents a series of spoken-word lines at various points in the album. The first two lines are heard after 'King Kunta,' then are repeated and expanded as the album continues. It is only in the final track, 'Mortal Man,' that the poem is heard in its entirety, presented in a 'dialogue' with Tupac that intersperses a 1994 interview with Lamar's observations. That Lamar is reflecting on hip hop--and by extension, black culture--is apparent throughout To Pimp a Butterfly in subtle and blatant ways.

By presenting a concept album, I also see a parallel between Lamar's project and Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die--an album that came out in 1994, so almost twenty years ago in keeping with the 'every ten years' idea. I would not characterize Ready to Die as a reflection. Instead, it is a provocation, from its lyrical content to its front cover, which features a black baby juxtaposed with the album title. Biggie was seeking to capture his world with its oppression and paradox, a world where a black man was ready to die as soon as he was born.

The reception of Ready to Die, particularly through its radio-friendly songs such as 'Juicy' and 'One More Chance' (in the remixed version specifically), makes it easy to forget about the more hard-hitting tracks that appear on this album as well. Through them, we are exposed to the ways in which the protagonist sees the world: at times its hope and promise, but also its insurmountable difficulties that eventually lead the narrator to suicide on the final track. 'Juicy' is the most optimistic moment of the album, although the verse opens with the line 'It was all a dream,' creating an immediate (and unanswered) question about whether the song should be understood as truth or fantasy. There is no ambiguity about how this album ends: a gunshot and an incredulous friend on the phone who has aurally witnessed a suicide.

Just as I am reluctant to claim that there is some mandated ten-year cycle for hip hop albums that indelibly change the genre, I am equally wont to suggest that hip hop is 'evolving' as time goes on--genres do not evolve so much as they shift and change. What I would suggest instead is that these three albums demonstrate the profound variety of responses that hip hop has grown to accommodate: from Biggie's provocation to Kanye's stylization and now Lamar's sophistication. If you haven't yet had the chance to listen to To Pimp a Butterfly, I hope you will take the time to check it out, as I have only scratched the surface in terms of what could be said about it.

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