Kendrick Lamar

Belated Year-Endings: Kendrick, Fargo, etc.

kendrickWe may be well past the point where anyone particularly cares about “best of 2015” features, but there a handful of odds and ends I wanted to note before we get any deeper into this new year. For starters, the good folks at In Review Online were kind enough to let me vote on the best albums and songs of the year; on the former list you can see my quick blurb about Alabama Shakes, and in the latter I wrote some laudatory remarks about three songs, two Kendrick Lamar and one Ashley Monroe.


Meanwhile, and off the beaten path a bit… I voted for the best TV shows of the year for Flood, and though my top-ranked Parks and Recreation did not make the final cut, I was most happy for the opportunity to pen blurbs for Fargo and Veep.

My own list of 2015’s best albums remains here for your perusal; if I could change anything about it now it would be to excise one album from the list– not necessarily Kacey Musgraves– in favor of the Hamilton soundtrack, which I discovered late but have listened to obsessively over the past several weeks.

As for new stuff, I hope to have some new reviews up in the weeks to come. I continue to be rather blindsided by the passing of David Bowie, but will attempt to unearth some truths from Blackstar just as soon as I make some progress wrapping my head around it. I am also happy to report that the upcoming Lucinda Williams finds her somewhere adjacent to masterpiece material, and I hope to write quite a bit about that when time permits.


ON TO SOMETHING GOOD: Top 10 Records of 2015


Every year since 2000 I have shared a list of ten favorite records, and with the same annual caveat—i.e., that these aren’t necessarily the best records of the year, that I lay no claim to objectivity or to authority, that these are just my favorites, etcetera whatever.

But no such false modesty this year: Who’s to say that these aren’t the ten best albums of 2015, or that my own perceptions of quality aren’t plenty compelling and persuasive? The ten records I’ve celebrated here are all—I am just sure—cosmic in their significance, ravishing in their humanity, exemplary in their songcraft, seductive in their creative expression, unique in how they change the weather in the room.

Yes, I feel that strongly about them. Or, as I have said before, they are abounding in revelation and rich in entertainment. They’ll make you laugh, they’ll make you cry, they have beats you can dance to, and so on.

I’m telling you that these records are worth hearing; worth owning; worth cozying up to; once dressing down and being dressed down in return. You won’t regret it, or at least I haven’t.

A few curiosities: Though I never think about genre when putting these lists together, I feel like each year brings a particular emphasis on some particular trope of American song, and this year, for whatever reason, seems to have been a particularly rich one for country. Also, I have noted that, through some weird coincidence, my past lists have tended to be a little bit slanted toward males, but this year’s picks are more or less evenly split between male and female auteurs.

But enough preamble: A couple of special distinctions follow, and then the list itself.

Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll
Lead Belly, The Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Bob Dylan, The Cutting Edge

 samphillipsleadbellycutting edge

The best and most easily and widely recommendable music I heard this year is a package of recordings from the 50s and 60s; the Sam Phillips anthology is as essential as the Harry Smith anthology of yesteryear, and for basically the same reasons. Why wouldn’t a person buy it? The Lead Belly collection is exhaustive but never exhausting thanks to the man’s rich humor, deep soul, and beautiful humanity. And two discs of newly-unearthed Dylan outtakes have confirmed and contextualized my deep and abiding love of his electric trifecta—reason enough to keep it in the player.


Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Adele, 25


The former is immediately iconic, and like the album itself seems to contain multitudes: It speaks to layers of history both overt and underground, to humor and heartache and a riot still goin’ on. The latter can be plastered on as many Target and Wal-Mart displays as you like but will not lose its soulful magnetism.


And… THE TOP 10

10. Kacey Musgraves
Pageant Material
Kacey’s country has plenty of room for the Opry, the outlaw, and plenty of high and lonesome—emphasis on high. Would crack the top ten for the steel guitar player alone

9. Boz Scaggs
A Fool to Care
Alternate titles: Rhythms & Romance; Love in the Ruins; Money Won’t Change You, except maybe it will. Listen to how these songs move, and then listen to what they’re telling you.

8.Bob Dylan
Shadows in the Night
Reminds me of three things: 1. Bob Dylan can still surprise. 2. Bob Dylan can still be a masterful and controlled singer when he’s of the right mind to be. 3. Love is always just a song away.

7. Alabama Shakes
Sound and Color
A promising band becoming a great one. Sound, color—and don’t forget the funk, swagger, soul, and fire.

6. Eric Church
Mr. Misunderstood
Last time, he told us he was an outsider; this time, he makes me believe it, with killer country reared on gospel, steeped in the blues, and unafraid to crank up the funk or to move from barroom ballads and murder tales into paeans to his toddler.

5. Kamasi Washington
The Epic
the epic
Epic not just because it’s lengthy or because it’s weighty but because it takes you on a journey—from Coltrane’s spiritualism to hip-hop’s new world order.

4. Bettye LaVette
Not as explicitly autobiographical as The Scene of the Crime, but also not any less her story; these songs of tribulation and triumph alternate between tearjerkers and shitkickers, and are sequenced so perfectly you’ll want to just keep listening over and over.

3. Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp a Butterfly
Audaciously hopeful, or hopefully audacious? Only hip-hop could create such an expansive funhouse of history, and only a visionary like Kendrick could tilt each carnival mirror toward the present.

2. Rhiannon Giddens
Tomorrow is My Turn
She is everything we keep hoping our Americana stars will be: Rooted in the past but living for the present; authentic, yes, but also funky and fun. This deeply traditional album is closer to Technicolor than to sepia; it’s got twangers and bangers, and its reverence never outweighs its imagination. And let’s not let the obvious go unstated: She is one of the most gifted vocalists working today, in any idiom.

1. Ashley Monroe
The Blade
“I thought that we would go all the way/ But you caught it by the handle, baby, and I caught it by the blade.” The year’s best album– country, roots, Americana, singer/songwriter, or otherwise– balances on the razor’s edge separating joy and sadness, songs of hopefulness and devotion in dialogue with honky tonk weepers, broken-hearted laments, and testaments to love’s abiding fracture. Just as skillful: The balance between tradition and modernity, between songs with crusty roots and songs with sleek hooks, songs that are smart about their happiness and joyous even when they ring with lamentation. Ashley Monroe has enough sense of history to make an album that’s weighty and well-crafted, and enough sense of herself to keep it crackling with personality. She doesn’t reinvent this music, but she may as well be rewriting it– making a masterful country album cast in her own image.

Favorites of 2015 – At the Halfway Point

rhiannonA summer tradition; a check-in with the records that have received the most play and generated the most delight around here, from January through today. Of course all of this can and will change, but I recommend the following records without hesitation.

Top Ten Albums of the Year – So Far!

  1. Rhiannon Giddens, Tomorrow is My Turn
  2. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
  3. Bettye LaVette, Worthy
  4. Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material
  5. Paul Weller, Saturns Pattern
  6. Alabama Shakes, Sound and Color
  7. Bob Dylan, Shadows in the Night
  8. Richard Thompson, Still
  9. Van Hunt, The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets
  10. Kamasi Washington, The Epic

Favorite Re-Issue:

Lead Belly, The Smithsonian-Folkways Collection

Favorite Single:

“King Kunta.” (Honorable Mention: “Biscuits.”)

Most Revelatory Interpretive Singing:

Bettye LaVette finding the quiet heart of The Beatles’ “Wait.” (Honorable mention: Rhiannon getting funky on “Black is the Color.”)

Favorite Production:

T-Bone Burnett on the Rhiannon joint… his best work in 10+ years?

Cameo of the Year:

Harry Belafonte, a most welcome presence on that new Robert Glasper.

Ringer of the Year:

Jay Bellerose, instrumental in turning Tomorrow is My Turn into a banger. (Honorable mention: Kacey’s pedal steel player.)

Favorite Album Cover:

Gotta be Kendrick’s.

Worst Title for an Otherwise Good Record:

Van Hunt, The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets.

First Impressions: Kamasi Washington, “The Epic”

the epicIt’s epic in its scope (three discs, three hours, 17 songs) and in its ballast (double drummers and keyboardists, full choirs and orchestras, horns aplenty) but not really in its feel: Sure, it’s long, but spend some time sinking into a single disc of it, or just putting the thing on shuffle for an hour or so—I suspect these are the methods through which most of us will enjoy it—and it just plays out like a love letter to everything Kamasi Washington digs about jazz. It’s not monolithic, and though it’s got deep roots it’s not really historical: It’s idiosyncratic, a particular slant on jazz from a talented sax player who grew up with soul jazz, likes it when licks stick pretty close to the melody, and absorbed a bit of the black nationalism of hip-hop, but not necessarily much else, his session work with Kendrick Lamar notwithstanding. Everybody is talking about his allegiance to Pharaoh Sanders (which is indisputable) and later-period John Coltrane (which is maybe a little bit misleading, as he never goes nearly as far into outer space as Coltrane did, and that’s fine). What’s implicit in that is that this is a really a highly traditional jazz album—traditional in a late 60s/early 70s sense, not 20s or 30s—and that’s pretty remarkable. Its title aside, The Epic doesn’t unfurl with any grand narrative momentum, but plays out like a series of scenes, each one exhibiting some particular side of Washington’s jazz obsession: “Change of the Guard” opens the whole thing with solo upon solo, choirs and strings, everybody playing their ass off and pushing the whole thing heavenward; you don’t think it will sustain for a full 12 minutes, but it does. “Final Thought” is soul jazz in cliff notes; it’s the only song here that doesn’t hit the 7-minute mark, but it still finds time for a heavy organ prelude and then a percussive Afro-Cuban workout. “The Magnificent 7” does indeed sound like music for a film, but its swirling orchestration and choral effect don’t detract from the heart of the song, which is a nasty, serpentine groove. “Clair de Lune”—a Debussy piece—is lilting and romantic, patient in its unfolding. “Malcolm’s Theme,” a Terrence Blanchard number, eulogizes Malcolm X, but it’s really a song about black pride. The neatest trick here is when Washington—along with guest vocalist Patrice Quinn—updates a standard (“Cherokee”) by making it sound blissed-out and gently funky, but not “contemporary” in any crass sense, though the ones I come back to are the numbers that prove funk can be its own reward: “The Message” and the globetrotting “Re Run Home” are the standouts. But actually: What really impresses me about this album is that, despite its running time and despite no overt concessions to the listeners who got here by way of To Pimp a Butterfly, it’s incredibly tuneful and accessible to any set of ears—those of seasoned jazz fans or total neophytes. All you have to bring to The Epic is a willingness to be swept along in swing—and in that sense, this couldn’t be anything other than gloriously traditional, deeply rooted jazz.

Ten Favorite Records of the Year, Q1

kendrickWith my earlier clearinghouse post out of the way, and with the first day of April quickly approaching, I should pause to indulge in an annual tradition: To share with you my picks for the best records I’ve heard in the first quarter of the year. I will happily attest that all of the records in my running top ten are excellent, and any or all of them could be back here in December when I do my year-end wrap-up. I love them dearly, and for different reasons; I recommend them all heartily.

  1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
  2. Bettye LaVette, Worthy
  3. Rhiannon Giddens, Tomorrow is My Turn
  4. Bob Dylan, Shadows in the Night
  5. Allison Moorer, Down to Believing
  6. Marcus Miller, Afrodeezia
  7. Laura Marling, Short Movie
  8. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
  9. Brandi Carlile, The Firewatcher’s Daughter
  10. Jose James, Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday

And ten others that I dig plenty: Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love; Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell; Gretchen Peters, Blackbirds; Pop Staples, Don’t Lose This; Will Butler, Policy; Tobias Jesso, Jr., Goon; The Lone Bellow, Then Came the Morning; Matthew White, Fresh Blood; Earl Sweatshirt, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside; and Steve Earle, Terraplane Best re-issue of the year, and likely to remain so: Lead Belly, The Smithsonian Folkways Collection

First Impressions: Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp a Butterfly”

kendrickI couldn’t and shouldn’t speak much to the resonance of To Pimp a Butterfly as a State of the Union address—for hip-hop, for Kendrick Lamar, for America—except to say that it’s there and that its depths are worth plumbing, even if there is, perhaps, no bottom. This is a record so teeming with ideas and so bristling with wild, careening, often contradictory energy that it quickly blasts through any notion that it could possibly be empty or slight: The medium is the message, the chaos is the point, and its profundity lies in its ambition, if nothing else.

It comes with lofty expectations—more than any record since, well, Black Messiah, and arguably as much as any album in rap history—and it rises to meet them, surely shouldering the burden through an admittedly exhausting 80-minute runtime in which Kendrick speaks boldly and directly to current events while spending a curiously large fraction of his time dwelling in the past: This is a record that grapples with the current realities of stardom by looking back to the artist’s roots, and honors Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and the Black Lives Matter movement by throwing it back to Parliament and the Isley Brothers, to Tupac and Dr. Dre, to Alex Haley, Michael Jackson, Nelson Mandela, 40 acres and a mule.

It is an album of overwhelming blackness that is also steeped in the artist’s own autobiography and internal monologuing; it does not condescend with efforts to open itself up to wider audiences, and in its lack of compromise proves James Baldwin to be correct: The destiny of America is the destiny of black America; Kendrick wrestles with the pull between being responsible and being a fallen human, with institutional injustice and personal shortcomings, with the rap game as savior and as serpent, and never gives any of us an out: These aren’t just black problems or rap problems or Kendrick Lamar problems, and we think of them as such at our own peril.

Throughout the album, Kendrick is triumphal, defiant, reflective, self-loathing, and self-destructive; a song called “u” courts the hatred of self, the hatred of Kendrick Lamar, with the singer adopting the cracked and pitiful voice of a bitter alcoholic. A later song, “i,” rides an electrifying Isley Brothers groove to an expression of self-love, self-worth.

The album never congeals into any one thing. Funk grooves build momentum and then collapse into free jazz; smooth soul mutates into drunken, Dilla-style beats; a song begins as one thing and then transforms into something altogether different. It’s noisy and convoluted and at times willfully difficult.

The whole thing seems like it might have its own internal logic—repeated phrases and motifs, callbacks to earlier songs—and perhaps in time it will all snap together into something unified and consistent. I rather hope it doesn’t, though: The album’s appeal is in its beautiful mess, its contradictions, its loose sense of time and history. To Pimp a Butterfly is an album that could only have been made by a human being named Kendrick Lamar, following on the heels of wild success and widespread tragedy.

Given how rich in history the album is, it comes as no surprise that it has many antecedents: It resembles Fear of a Black Planet in how its general anger is metered out into individual songs that mount specific arguments and tackle specific points, and also in how its lyrical ambition doesn’t keep it from being musically rich and—at times—funky as shit. It resembles a Roots joint in its live band feel, and undun in particular with its humane and compassionate perspective, with how its protagonists are reflective and aware of their imperfections. George Clinton shows up on the first song as a kind of funk godfather, and unsurprisingly this song feels like it’s cut from the same cloth as Aquemini—not least because, like Outkast, Kendrick makes the case for eccentricity as its own black experience; the album’s weirdness is its own form of hardness.

Several songs feel like Olympian feats. “How Much a Dollar Cost” is tough, then surprising in the end; the song recounts an encounter with a homeless beggar who is in the end revealed to be the very Ancient of Days. It’s killer. On “Mortal Man,” Kendrick considers the burden of his newfound responsibility, the inevitability of his imperfections, and the way we all turned on Michael Jackson. (“He gave us ‘Billie Jean’—you think he touched those kids!”) It descends into a poetry recitation, then an interview with Tupac, then more poetry. It is impossible to imagine a more audacious album closer.

Kendrick’s audacity is almost all it takes to sell the record: I’m not sure how often I’ll actually sit through the Pac interview, but Kendrick really goes for it, doesn’t pull punches, and makes it feel like it’s essential to the album’s tapestry.

If the album’s cover and its opening line—“Every nigga’ is a star”—didn’t give it away, it is indeed a Very Serious record, and could just as easily have been titled There’s a Riot Goin’ On, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, or Black Messiah, were those names not otherwise claimed. It is often fun though never particularly funny, and perhaps doesn’t need to be: It tries so hard and pushes so fearlessly forward that it’s impossible to be bored by the record, even if you might find yourself overwhelmed or even wearied by it. Personally, I think its madness invigorating and galvanizing.

Throughout the album the artist asks us if we hate him, and seems at times to feel sure that we do. Some will, perhaps; To Pimp a Butterfly does not try to make friends. But none will find it possible to ignore. It is as much its own thing as any hip-hop record you can name. It seems as though it contains everything of who Kendrick Lamar is and what he can do, which is another way of saying that it contains multitudes.