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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly/Earl Sweatshirt: I Don't Like S***, I Don't Go Outside (Release Dates: 3-23-2015)

      Perhaps it was always meant to be this way. Back in August of 2013, Big Sean dropped Control, a 7+ minute track whose middle section almost tore the internet in half. Things got serious the moment the song's proper author passed the mic off to Kendrick Lamar, an MC less than a year removed from releasing the most widely hailed hip-hop debut in years, who wastes no time in literally name-checking all the up-and-coming rappers whom he plans on dispatching. His list, despite being 11 names long, neglected to include Earl Sweatshirt, whose terrific studio debut, Doris, was released only a week later. I wondered at the time if he had simply forgotten the still-teenaged wordsmith, both hailing from the same Los Angeles that Lamar seems almost obsessed with promoting. Their stars have crossed again in the last month or so; their sophomore studio efforts were slated for release on the very same day, both record labels managing to botch the launch, Earl's desired surprise arrival derailed by an unwanted announcement a week prior, while Kendrick's whole album slipped out ten days ahead of schedule. Perhaps it's irresponsible of me to review a pair of such highly-anticipated albums in tandem, but the similarities of these releases are almost as interesting as their wild differences. 

          While the success of Doris undoubtably had some anxiously awaiting Sweatshirt's follow up, Lamar's Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was another thing entirely: a legend-on-arrival that stands next to The Strokes' Is This It?, The XX's XX, and Arcade Fire's Funeral as one of the most worshipped debuts in recent history. Folks have been scratching and prying for information on his follow-up for well over a year now, creating a level of anticipation and pressure reserved for only a sacred few, and if anyone knows this, it's Kendrick himself. Clocking in at just under an hour and 19 minutes, To Pimp A Butterfly sports a mind-numbing level of ambition, every second of the thing proving exhaustively measured, and fussed over to degrees that border on madness. Some will undoubtably be turned off be the stark change in sound since good kid, but it'd be downright disingenuous to suggest Lamar puts anything less than his all into this record. You can almost feel the bullets of sweat rolling down his temples.

        The guy is eager to please, but he'll do it on his own terms, thankyouverymuch. Perhaps to prove a point, Lamar opens Pimp with it's single strangest track, Wesley's Theory, a schizophrenic jazz spaz that starts, stops, and changes gears about 17 times within 5 minutes. The song is produced by Flying Lotus, and while the madcap electronic artist is only credited this once, his free-assosiation jazz stamp is littered through-out the album, perhaps most notably on follow-up cut For Free? Lasting all of 2 minutes, the track opens with a woman chastising Lamar for his lack of funds over the sound of pianist Robert Glasper and sax player Terrace Martin's breezy, fleet-of-foot interplay. When Kendrick finally responds, it's less rapping than some sort of spoken word exercise, syllables tumbling from his mouth with ever-increasing speed as the drum line heats up, snares popping with crispness and force. Through-out its lengthy runtime, Butterfly frequently opts for session musicians over sample-work, a choice that marks a fork in the road between this and M.A.A.D. City, as well as most of hip hop in general. There's a reason so few critics offered their immediate opinion upon the release of this LP; not only are Lamar's lyrics too knotty and dense to fully comprehend on the first go-around, but the album's production takes some getting used to.

          None of this could be said of I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside, an album that, production-wise, is To Pimp a Butterfly's perfect foil. Where Kendrick's only gotten bigger and bolder since we last saw him, Earl has been busy paring things down, simplifying the already-basic aesthetic found on his last LP. Lamar desperately wants you to notice all of the individuals at play on his disc; Sweatshirt is just as eager to make you aware that everything here is laptop fodder, each note knowingly lo-fi and scuzzy. Doris was partially produced by Earl (under the self-assigned moniker randomblackdude), but also received outside help all over the place, from his buddy Tyler, the Creator, on down to soundboard kings Pharrell Williams and RZA: Outside features literally only two producers, randomblackdude taking the reigns on 9 of the disc's ten tracks, yielding only Off Top to his Odd Future buddy Left Brain, whose beat is perfectly at home with everything else here.

        "I’m starting to sound like myself again," the MC recently told Clash magazine, perhaps alluding to discomfort with Doris' plethora of cooks in the kitchen. It mirrors the sentiment that Kanye West floated when he claimed his much-beloved My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy wasn't the the purest possible Yeezy, and that certain aspects of himself were sidelined in favor of mass appeal (one listen to the atom-bomb that is Yeezus, and this notion makes a whole lot more sense). Even if, when it's all said and done, Doris turns out to be the best album of Earl's career, it's already not the most Earl record in his canon. The triumphalism of tracks like Burgundy and Whoa is no where to be found here, just as absent as guest spots for known quantities. Don't Like Shit only has time for folks like Da$h, Wiki, and Vince Staples, who are referenced through-out the disc in a way that makes them sound less like true artistic collaborators than a few buddies who came over to smoke a joint, and ended up on the album. Suffice to say, Earl's got some trust issues, and would just as soon go it alone.

         This sense of isolation is the single strongest thread between these two albums, but where Earl's studio incarceration seems to derive from a lack of interest in the world around him, Kendrick's is the product of wanting so badly to not let said world down, beating his head against the wall until a cold, hard classic falls right out. Lamar has always been a storyteller, ready to jump at any opportunity to put himself in someone else's shoes, literally tabling himself for verses at a time to channel the thoughts of others. Butterfly takes this tendency to a whole new level, as the MC's flows from the perspective of a metaphorical, predatory Uncle Sam (Wesley's Theory), a romantic slave boy (Complexion (A Zulu Love)), and even his no-bull mother (You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said)), changing both his cadence and tone with each new embodiment. Lamar himself even becomes a character, as the album reveals lead single i as a self-promotional counter-part to the bitter anger found on u, wherein Kendrick furiously ridicules himself for his many shortcomings, even playing drunk on the song's second half as he continues his tirade. Despite being one of the most exactingly executed musical offerings in recent history, you fear that Lamar might lose control and drive off into a ditch at any moment. One would be forgiven for worrying that Kendrick is fraying at the seams, but it's exhilarating to experience.

        Earl is already in that ditch, and, quite frankly, was probably there before we even met. He seems content to stay put, carefully balancing his intoxicants while neglecting to open his door to the light of day (AM//Radio), wallowing in a sense of depression that boarders on malaise. While the rat-a-tat-tat linguistic virtuoso that aided the MC in his rise to fame is still in fine form (the menacing Mantra, hopscotch closer Wool), it's the moments when he fully gives into emotional numbness when Outside feels most fully realized. Faucet's nocturnal, leering beat provides an ideal backdrop for Sweatshirt's thoughts to slowly drift down into a deep melancholy, admitting in a drug-addled haze, "I don't know hows to call home lately/I hope my phone break, and let it ring." Single Grief does it one better, Earl rapping forcefully from the shadows of a beat that's so drowned in molasses that it can barely move. As much a horror story as a proper song, it's a track that takes on a whole new life when given the headphones treatment, a malevolent world-conquerer aware of nothing beyond gloom and doom. It's inverted hip hop from a guy who might just be pushing out of the genre's established boundaries. That, "sounding like myself again," quote was no joke: Outside's paradigm skews closer to that of a Nine Inch Nails record than an album by a L.A. rap prodigy.

        But for every opportunity Sweatshirt passes on to align himself with the legends of the golden coast, Kendrick utilizes two. He receives a phone call from mentor/occasional producer Dr. Dre, invites Snoop Dogg to breeze through a couple of bars on Institutionalized, and, in a much-discussed post-album surprise, resurrects Tupac Shakur from the grave for an in-depth conversation about politics, violence, wealth distribution, race, and fame. Shakur's voice and thoughts come curtesy of a 1994 interview with Swedish radio host Mats Nileskår, whom Kendrick steps in for during a surreal six minutes that would probably feel a bit much if not proceeded by an album whose defining characteristic is its muchness. This is, of course, a guy who refers to himself as King Kendrick Lamar, though you'll never hear the rhymesmith describe himself as the greatest of all time; he's merely assumed the throne from the greats of the past, most specifically those from the West Coast, and especially his native Compton. So when the conversation with the thug Machiavelli finally hits, it embodies not only Lamar's confidence in his superiority over his peers, but also the weight he places on himself as a mouth piece for disenfranchised African Americans throughout the nation.

        And he has more than a little to say on the subject. The album's title, which is styled after Harper Lee's immortal novel To Kill a Mockingbird, refers to how America, from its modern state on down to the institution of slavery, has callously used black men and women for the good of the rest of its citizens. It's a sin that comes in many shapes and sizes, from the literal broken backs of the antebellum south, to modern talent agencies' abusive slight of hand toward undereducated industry up-and-comers. Butterfly addresses it all, and while some of the notions prove too intricate and difficult to ultimately solve, racism is an unwieldy beast of an epidemic, one for which no man in history has properly provided a lasting answer. It's so knotty in fact that Lamar finds nothing wrong with playing Complexion (A Zulu Love) directly in front of The Blacker the Berry, the former a seeming condemnation of any color-based bias, the later an exploration of black-against-white racism that's so scorchingly hot that even the song's producer thought it wise to end the track with a delicate, lilting instrumental. 

        Of course Berry isn't only about black-against-white racism, because hardly anything on Pimp is only about one thing. "Generational hatred," rules the day, the ebb and flow of race relations crassly charted before the track eventually shifts to black-on-black violence, concluding on this breath-takingly conflicted note: "Why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street/When gangbanging make me kill a n**** blacker than me?" The song as a whole borders on victim-blaming, but that doesn't mean Kendrick utters every line as a literal truth; as previously stated, the guy likes to play characters, and just about every idea about being black in modern America is presented here, each contradicting the next. The thoughts that Kendrick puts forth on the matter are not meant to be answers or solutions to xenophobia; they are conversation pieces, meant to inspire, disgust, and illuminate pockets of discrimination that are often ignored. There's perhaps only one constant notion, first posited by the slave  he plays on Complexion, who concludes his last verse by informing his lover, "I came to where you reside/Looked around, and seen more sights for sore eyes/Let then Willie Lynch theory reverse a million times."

          The William Lynch Speech was delivered in 1712 to an audience of Virginians who had become distressed when the horrific ways they had punished and controlled their slaves (lynchings, beatings, and other atrocities) started yielding diminished effects. The solution given by the speaker was to utilize differences among slaves, such as skin-tone, gender, or age, to create contained strife within their community, shifting the focus of their anger away from those who caused it. The counter-argument that Lamar proposes in the poem he keeps returning to throughout the album, takes that idea head-on: "Forgetting all the hurt and pain we caused each other in these streets, if I respect you, we unify, and stop the enemy from killing us." To Pimp a Butterfly is a pained, exuberant, conflicted, challenging, and triumphant piece of art, too bold and grand to be as perfect as Good Kid, but perhaps better for it. Besides its obvious musical brilliance, Kendrick's desire for inter-community harmony is as beautiful as it is pressingly important, never more so than on the album version of i. This pseudo-live incarnation of last summer's self-love anthem is stuffed to the brim with energy and bliss as Lamar feverishly tares through his lines until a fight breaks out in the crowd, enticing the rapper to kill the music, and give him a piece of his mind. What he says is downright inspiring, a rallying cry that's too powerful to be simply copy and pasted from a lyrics sheet. I've already said enough about Kendrick Lamar; I'll let him do the rest.

Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly Grade: A
Earl Sweatshirt's I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside Grade: B

        

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