#1. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp A Butterfly
There’s no such thing as a perfect album. When fans and critics get too bogged down in arguing over which albums are the “best,” they’re often missing the whole point of why we make music—it’s not to compete with our peers, it’s to create something we're passionate about. The worth of every other rock album wasn’t diminished when The Beatles made Sgt. Pepper. In fact, the most powerful albums have a history of not devaluing but invigorating, sending out ripples that reshape contemporary music for the better. Albums like this don’t come around very often, but when they do their influence can be heard for generations to come. To Pimp A Butterfly is one of these albums.
Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city was heralded as an instant classic, praised for its cinematic retelling of a harrowing story from his adolescent years. Its success skyrocketed him to a tier of fame not usually reached by artists with just one major release under their belt. And on Butterfly, Lamar surprised even his most faithful fans by not just living up to the bar set by good kid but making an even bolder, more confident album that pushes the boundaries of hip-hop in ways nobody has done before. His debut is a traditional hip-hop album, encouraging comparisons to genre benchmarks like Illmatic and The Low End Theory. Butterfly is still a hip-hop album, but it doesn’t conform to any current genre format. In what will likely influence droves of artists moving forward, Butterfly defies genre boundaries by heavily incorporating elements of jazz, funk, and soul. There isn’t a single track that’s 100% hip-hop. George Clinton, Thundercat, and Flying Lotus lay down dense funk grooves on the album’s opening track. Ronald Isley’s presence is felt throughout, from guest vocals on “How Much a Dollar Cost” to the beat of “i,” which was pulled from the Isley Brothers’ 1973 hit “That Lady.” “For Free?” the first of two interludes, finds Lamar rapping with the rhythmic dexterity of a jazz saxophonist; he locks in with the supporting rhythm section as if he’s been performing with jazz musicians his whole life. And genre-bending is just one aspect of his fearless musical experimentation. He explores polyrhythms, flirts with complex chord extensions, and makes modulation feel like a legitimate compositional choice instead of a cheap trick used by pop songwriters.
From a strictly musical standpoint, Butterfly is visionary enough that it would probably be at the top of this list even if it were an instrumental album. But Lamar’s at the top of his game lyrically as well, and proves that he’s one of the most talented rappers in hip-hop’s rich history. He juggles weighty themes like fame and race with ease and care. Lamar uses the album to shine a spotlight on racial inequality not just within the music industry but throughout the world, and in doing so he became a champion of the Black Lives Matter movement—“Alright” has become their unofficial theme song. He doesn’t pull any punches on the song, rapping “we hate po-po / wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho.” He spends the verses confronting the vices and obstacles that stand in his way as a black American, but always circles back to the incessant chant: “we gon be alright.” Even “King Kunta,” the album’s grooviest and most straightforward track, contains some strong racial subtext. At first glance, the hook is a proud assertion of fame and success, but it draws parallels between Lamar’s own story and that of the slave Kunta Kinte, a character in Alex Haley’s novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family who fights to maintain his identity and freedom. “These Walls” is an extended metaphor that’s simultaneously about a woman, Lamar’s conscience & personal trepidations, and the victims of a racially charged prison-industrial complex. On fiery standout track “The Blacker the Berry,” he angrily denounces racism and gang violence over a militant drum loop; on the chorus, Jamaican dancehall vocalist Assassin reminds us through his thick patois that “every race starts from the black.” Lamar also takes a moment to reject the sexism that’s too prevalent in hip-hop on “Complexion,” urging listeners and peers alike that “a woman is woman, love the creation / it all came from God.” He even addresses suffering from crippling depression on the painfully vulnerable “u,” sobbing about the survivor’s guilt he feels for leaving Compton to pursue his career while his friends are still getting killed back in his hometown.
Rarely does an album succeed on so many fronts simultaneously. Butterfly is compositionally daring, but manages to experiment without sacrificing catchiness. It subverts the genre limitations that have defined the music industry for the past century—and will likely trigger a slow evolution towards a musical landscape where genres are mixed and matched as liberally as instruments. Its subject matter is intelligent, informed, and expansive, covering everything from Willie Lynch to Wesley Snipes. It ends with a bizarre yet fascinating twist, in which the prose Lamar keeps reciting between songs is revealed on the final track to be the beginning of a conversation between him and the late Tupac Shakur, created by splicing in archival interview recordings. The album even pays homage to the very concept of albums as being a viable art form, in an era when many albums are glorified bundles of unrelated singles. Butterfly, more than any other album on this list, is greater than the sum of its parts (which is why the interlude "For Sale," a conversation between Lamar and Lucifer, is included at the end of this review—to isolate one of the bona fide songs from the rest of the album would be a disservice to the music). Butterfly exemplifies what can happen when music becomes more than just entertainment. Its social impact is undeniable, and its impact on the generation of music that’s about to come will be profound. This is more than the top album of the year. To Pimp A Butterfly is one of the premier albums of the 21st century thus far.