Our writer, Jon Hecht, has
put together a list of his top albums of 2015 – featuring albums from Kendrick
Lamar, Neon Indian, and HEALTH among others. Check out his full list below!
20. Pusha T, King Push: Darkest Before Dawn
I’m not going to claim any
objectivity on this. Pusha T could cough up a ball of phlegm from his throat
and I would probably love it (and if you’ve listened to how many times he
randomly screams “Yechh” in his raps, one could argue that he has and I do). I
love his stuff in Clipse and Re-Up Gang from the mid aughts, I love his guest
verses on Kanye/GOOD Music songs, and I actually really liked…some of his
first solo album, My Name Is My Name in 2013.
The hit or miss aspects of
that album are addressed pretty clearly on this one. Whereas that album had
three songs (that encapsulated the absolute best of Terrence Thornton in
full-on attack mode (”King Push,” “Numbers On The Board,” and “Nosetalgia”),
Darkest Before Dawn showcases what he does best, with foreboding,
dangerous beats, and Pusha T spitting furiously on the mic. Surprisingly
enough, he doesn’t seem to be rapping exclusively about cocaine, which is very
surprising indeed. It’s also got “Sunshine,” which is the biggest departure
from Push’s normal style, a righteous polemic in the vein of Black Lives
Matter. It’s a weird fit—conscious rap from a guy who’s usually rapping about
putting other rappers in caskets—but when it comes down to it, I can’t make
nitpicks about the King. He’s Untouchable.
19. Rae Sremmurd, SremmLife
I made a mistake this year. I heard this album last spring when
it came out, and it didn’t really register. I checked out, and I missed out on
what could have been an incredible summer. I could have stood on sun-drenched
rooftops and screamed out “Safe
Sex Pay Checks” like god intended. I did that once, when I had
finally realized how great this album was, but by that point it was a chilly
fall, and the roof was under a cloudy night sky. It was fun and all, but it
could have been so much better.
Party rap is one of the
most constantly evolving forms of music. It’s always looking for the next fix,
a new hook that lets people get even more down than ever before. These kids are
scarily young—young enough to make me feel like a grandfather at just 24. They
bring with them the best part of youth, the impossible innovation that the
older generation just can’t keep up with. The blend of rapping and singing,
backed by Mike Will Made It doing his best beats.
I missed this the first
time. When there were friends getting obsessed with these kids, I missed it.
Don’t make my mistake. This could be us.
18. Carly Rae Jepsen, E MO TION
I kind of love the fact
that Carly Rae Jepsen is 30 years old. She has the voice (and look) of a
teenager, and sings songs that lose all semblance of self-respect and maturity
under layers of cheesy synths. She is pop star artifice at its best, ignoring
the real version of herself, the Canadian musical-theater geek Idol
winner, in favor of a wholly created, almost doll-like persona, afraid of
maturity and enraptured by just the thought of love, built in a factory to
deliver the most perfect version of manufactured sugar.
Yeah yeah we’re all sick
of “Call Me Maybe,” which entered our ears and hearts for a whole summer and
never let us forget it. But that’s not on this album, and in its place is a
series of songs that manage to recapture the unabashed
glee without the oversaturated memes. Everything shines and
everything gleams, with the best Swedish (and this
guy) production that all that one-hit-wonder cash can buy. I
really really really really really really really like this album.
17. Jamie XX, In Colour
This is dance music for
people who don’t like dance music. Drum hits and bloopy synths that ease their
way into your heart more than your hips. No track exemplifies this better than
the opener, “Gosh,” which starts out as a thumping club banger and surprises
you, letting a small tone in the upper register, that seems like just a minor
detail, take over the song and turn it into a haunting and beautiful melody,
pure in its simplicity even if it started from much dirtier origin.
The whole album
exemplifies this feeling, that through the sheen of electronic music, of
crowded rooms of dancing people, late at night with energy that won’t let them
sleep, there’s still just you, surrounded, but just a stranger in a room. Jamie
can still make you feel the good times, getting something earnest and almost
adorable out of Young Thug in the process, but he never lets you forget the
human that builds these textures on a laptop and blasts them out to rooms full
of people trying their hardest to lose themselves for a night.
16. Future, Digital Sprites 2
To be honest, (zing,
though that was the previous album) I can’t really handle Future a lot of the
time. His beats are rough, and sometimes his autotuned barks just make it feel
like I’m being yelled by a robot. His raps are so devoid of the deft lyricism
that defines most of my favorite rap. When it comes down to it though, I think
the biggest issue I often have with him, and also the reason why this is
nevertheless so high on my list, is that I have absolutely no clue what he is
this rapping? Is this singing? Hell, is this even music? Did
Nayvadius Wilson choose his stage name based on him actually being from the
future? I try not to make predictions about the future of music (because really
how disappointing would it be if we weren’t surprised) but I can imagine that
in ten years from now, Future is either seen as a genius or completely
forgotten. He’s changing the world of rap as he conquers it, with the best
up-and-comers ripping him off (especially the aforementioned Rae Sremmurd and
Young Thug, but also Migos, who are maybe
better than the Beatles) and the elder statesmen are playing
catch up. In a decade, his influence will be so widespread that we’ll either be
shocked at how ahead of his time he was, or just treat him as a forerunner to a
completely new style that other people perfected way better than he could.
In the meantime, what a
time to be alive.
15. Joanna Newsom, Divers It’s difficult for me to
write anything tangible about this album. This is not because this album is
anything less than tangible. It is so tangible. It is powerful and
intimidating. It’s a Himalaya, and I’ve maybe made it to camp two. It’s an
album that demands the kind of attention that I haven’t been able to fairly
give it. It’s full of lyrics that call back to history and
poetry and life, and require more examination than any amount of Genius entries
can handle. It loops upon itself, ending with Newsom’s voice trailing off on
the word “trans…” and connecting back to the opening track starting with her
singing “send.” Surrounding her is this beautiful classical instrumentation
that accentuates her impressive harp skills, and sounds like music from a
Joanna Newsom has never
made things easy. She was once a girl with a harp and a nails-on-chalkboard
voice, before she married Andy Samberg,* and started getting voice lessons and
symphonic arrangements to turn her still-weird vocal chords into an
otherworldly miracle. There was a time when she seemed slight, even cutesy,
singing about “Sprout and the Bean.” She spent the two intervening albums
exploding with ambition, releasing one of five epic
poems averaging in at above 10 minutes each, and another that
almost hits 4 hours of playing time. Arguably, Divers is her most
straightforward album since her debut (11 songs lasting just over 50 minutes),
but it also shows more ambition and maturity than anything she’s done so far.
She’s always seemed like a fairy princess, but in releasing an album that is so
powerful, so heavy, and so much smarter than I am, she has without a doubt
proven that she is the queen.
*I had to mention this
because it is without a doubt my favorite celebrity marriage of our time. The
rule that I have is that one spouse should be more famous and the other more
interesting, and this works for that perfectly. There was a while where Ryan
Adams/Mandy Moore was the gold standard, but then they got divorced, and I felt
way sadder than is reasonable about two people I’ve never met. Keep up the good
work Joandy Samson! Continue to be such a weird pairing that I can only imagine
you got together for no reason than because you legitimately love each other!
14. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Stevens is really impressively good at stuff. He made
his name for recording double albums full of gorgeously
orchestrated songs with endlessly memorable melodies (and some
occasional weird wordless segments). He plays what seems
to be a dozen and a half instruments, far better than I can play anything. He
writes surprisingly heartfelt lyrics that he draws from the most arcane trivia
But on Carrie &
Lowell, he trades all that in, writing lyrics about the least trivial thing
imaginable—the story of his mother abandoning him as a child, and his struggle
as an adult to forgive her as they reunited shortly before he died. Just as he
did with his 2010 album, The Age of Adz,
Stevens shows that he’s at his best when he
lets go a little of the tight control and perfectionism of his albums about
states or Christmas. This isn’t to say that the songs aren’t perfect—he
definitely hasn’t lost an ounce of his talent for these exacting arrangements
or beautiful melodies—but they ache with the haunting voice of a man dealing
with more emotion than one person can live with. “Did you get enough love, my little dove/ Why do you cry?/ And I’m
sorry I left, but it was for the best/ Though it never felt right/ My little
Versailles,“ he sings from the perspective of his mother on a hospital
bed on “Fourth of July,” and my heart
*Which, as someone who makes part of his living through writing
trivia questions for bars, is actually very appreciated
13. Jim O’Rourke, Simple Songs
I’m noticing a trend over the past three albums on this list. I
guess for me, 2015 was a year full of veterans of indie rock baroque
arrangements, maturing after a decade of lush instrumentation to focus and
strip down their ambitions to their core, with albums that are at least
partially about saying goodbye to the more childish bombast they had had
before. I’ve talked about how great that is with Joanna Newsom and Sufjan
Stevens, but of this trio, my favorite has to be Jim O’Rourke.
Unlike, Newsom and Stevens, Jim O’Rourke (who actually did work
as a mixer on Joanna Newsom’s 2006 album, Ys)
doesn’t have the same pedigree as a songwriter. His claim to fame (or whatever)
is mostly as a producer, most notably working as a full-time member of Sonic Youth for a few of their
critically-acclaimed albums in the early aughts, and lending lush
instrumentation and mixing duties to Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. He also
has a few solo albums, which stand out with some
pretty astounding textures more than for their songcraft.
Which is part of what makes the excellence of Simple Songs really shine through. This
is O’Rourke running away from the full-bodied sound that he’s perfected in the
studio to instead mostly stick to a basic band, led by his straightforward
acoustic guitar. As the album’s title suggests, this is Jim O’Rourke focusing
on the songs, and, you guessed it, keeping them simple. It’s an album that
reeks of the maturity and confidence of someone letting go of their flashiest
toys. The lyrics mostly reflect thoughts on time
and aging, and they do it so well.
12. IGLOOGHOST &
MR. YOTE, YOTEGHOST MILK EMPIRE
This album is nuts. It’s barely even really an album. It’s two
songs, each 12-minutes long, but each consisting of dozens of segments that
warp, stop abruptly, change into each other, and worm their way into your head
just before disappearing for something new. As a producer, Iglooghost’s beats
skip and syncopate, full of drum kicks that whiz by too fast and at unexpected
moments, and synths that fizz and crackle, throwing you off guard.
This would all be hard to latch on to if Iglooghost hadn’t
found such a winning collaborator in the bass-voiced rapper Mr. Yote. Yote’s
voice is like a broken bass synthesizer in its own right. He changes flows
within a bar, speeds up and slows down, and manipulates his voice with any
manner of effects to match the production backing him up. Together, the pair
make a schizophrenic and deeply synthetic piece of music that gets through to
something human after all. The shifts and glitches make Yote’s voice, and
Iglooghost’s music, reveal a truer version of themselves than organic sounds
11. The Weeknd, Beauty Behind The Madness
This has been a hell of a year for Abęl Tesfaye. It’s been the
year of not one but two number one singles, of the Fifty
Shades Of Grey soundtrack, of
being profiled in the New York Times. It
was, pretty explicitly, the year that The Weeknd sold
Selling out has a long history in pop music. We’ve seen, in the past decade and change,
as it’s become harder (read: impossible) for musicians to actually make any
money through selling albums, we’ve begun to accept artists brazenly and honestly saying that yes, they want
money, and yes, they are willing to compromise some of their artistry for the
sake of getting it. If it’s not selling out for you to work for your money,
it’s not selling out for your heroes either.
Beauty Behind The Madness
manages to somehow take both sides of the argument on selling out. The Weeknd
first came up as a bedroom-produced, insular misanthrope, playing the most depressing songs to ever have incredible sex to.
His music has always evoked the numbness that comes with hedonism, the darkness
of a club, the drained-out feeling of drugs, the emptiness of casual sex. And
on this album, he takes that even further, out of his bedroom and onto the biggest stages. Whereas before his music
indulged in earthly delights, it’s now moved past earth completely.
There’s a case to be made that The Weeknd has lost something
since his debut in 2011, the radical newness
that came from House of Balloons, and
has left its mark on R&B since, even taking
over the mainstream version of the genre at
this point. But where that mixtape was The Weeknd changing the world, Beauty Behind The Madness is Abęl
Tesfaye letting himself get changed back. This is the soundtrack of selling
your soul for fame, money, sex, and drugs, and of course that leaves him
hollowed out and empty. But if you don’t have a soul, then you probably don’t
care about that nearly as much as the hedonistic pleasure.
10. Fred Thomas, All Are Saved
The effect of technology on music cannot be understated. We’ve
stopped cutting and pasting analog tape, and figured out how to digitally mimic
the kind of reverb people used to have to rent out concert halls to get. You
can do all of this on your laptop, in your bedroom, with a program that costs just $200 to
This is such a good thing in so many ways. I am so very glad
that money, or connections, or any of the things that kept artists from
recording their masterpieces, have become so much less relevant. But I also
hold some nostalgia for the sloppiness that came with bad recording, for dive
bar bands that made albums that sounded like dive bars, for blown out and
distorted speakers, for albums that didn’t sound like they were trying to
recreate the sound of a factory. Of course no one has tape hiss anymore—it’s
not like anyone uses tape.
Fred Thomas is my favorite answer to this weird little
aesthetic issue. He’s not lo-fi in the way that those
90s indie bands were. He’s got a distinctly modern sound of
sloppiness, the well-manicured recording of a computer program in a small room,
by someone who cares about the songs more than the post-production. The synths glitch
like they’re from a laptop that needs to be taken to the shop but isn’t really
urgent in its issues. The whole thing sounds like a wall-of-sound
for the multi-track age, each of these radically different tones blending
together into one background mess, leaving nothing identifiable but the skill
of the songcraft. And the songs are great. Not quite all of them. Some
of them stand out. But the whole album feels of a piece with itself.
The highs and lows work together, because this album isn’t about perfection.
It’s a celebration of the true beauty that comes from a mess, the emotion that
can’t be sanded off with powerful weapons of technology.
9. Kamasi Washington –
Yeah, guilty. I don’t know much about jazz in 2015.
I only really know about this album because Kamasi Washington is friends with
Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus and Thundercat, because this album is three
discs of orchestral jazz released by Brainfeeder, crazily enough. But listening to
this album makes me want to fix that, and reminds me why I haven’t checked in
on developments in jazz since fusion became a thing.
Somewhere along the line, jazz became nice music to listen to.
That’s great in a lot of ways. I love nice music. But the music that once was
dirty, and dangerous, and shocking in its newness and broken conventions, at
some point became the music of a cocktail party. And that’s great, but also,
god I love it when jazz just freaks me out, leaves me confused, and hurts
Kamasi Washington doesn’t hurt my ears. He actually leaves them
feeling pretty adored. But from the drums roll that jab into the striking piano
chords that open “Change of the Guard,” the
34-year-old composer, bandleader, and energetically virtuosic tenor saxophonist
with the crazy hair grabs your hand and pulls you along for almost three hours
of energetic, explosive, incomprehensible pyrotechnics. Epic indeed.
8. Colleen Green, I Want To Grow Up
I do feel a little weird writing about most of these albums for
this site. We try to be versatile in our tastes, but when it comes down to it,
we know that most of our readership are fans of pop-punk, and now I’ve written
about the past 12 albums that are distinctly not that.
But this one sorta is. So I guess if you’ve been reading this
for a while and thinking that all of my recommendations sound terrible, well,
maybe you’ll like this one.
I personally love this album. It uses pop-punk to its fullest
effect, evoking, as the title suggests, the feeling
of delayed adulthood that hits the American twenty-something. It’s the
sound of watching TV as an excuse for not
doing what you’re supposed to, of wanting something
more out of all of this, but being afraid
that you’re not going to get your shit together enough to reach it. The
lyrics throughout the whole album are bare diary of the most unadorned type,
caring less about rhyming, wordplay or even rhythm than about brutal
directness, and the excellent pop hooks and guitar stabs are stripped down and
rough. It’s a great mix, that feels less like an album by an artist in a studio
than a conversation with a familiar friend about everyday thoughts and anxiety.
7. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes
I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
I feel like there aren’t a lot of “rock stars” these
days—people who convince you that they’re here to save the world by just
playing their guitars loud enough. But the only way I know how to describe
Courtney Barnett (despite her not being especially successful commercially, or
selling out stadiums or anything like that) is that she is a bona fide rock
Sometimes I Sit and
Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is an album with a powerfully pervasive
viewpoint, filled in by Barnett’s relentlessly witty and illuminatingly
detailed lyrics, sung in her thick Aussie accent in deadpan delivery. Her voice
is so specific, but it becomes endlessly relatable when her hard-rocking punk
songcraft is backed up by the arguments made by excellent guitar licks.
She hits hard when she wants,
she pulls back without losing the energy,
and she muses on the absurd in the face of extreme
circumstances. All the while she never stops being a personality, and
even more than that, a force. You listen to this album, and you start to think
like her, or at the very least, you try.
6. Tobias Jesso Jr.,
There was, at some point, a marketing campaign for Cheetos that
advertised them as being “dangerously cheesy.” It was one of those 90’s advertising things
where a product was shown to be “Xtreme” or whatever, and that makes kids like
it. Now, while Cheetos are certainly a health risk
that people should probably be aware of, it’s nevertheless always struck me as
a laughable claim, that eating the most lazy of snacks is frightening. Really
though, when I think of the term “dangerously cheesy,” my thoughts just go to
Tobias Jesso writes piano ballads, with lyrics of the most
straightforward love-song variety. The first, and in my opinion best song on
the album is called, “Can’t Stop Thinking About
You” and features lyrics like “I
lost you in a dream/ But then the dream came true.” From everything I can
tell about the guy, that comes with zero irony.
Who the hell writes lyrics like this in 2015? All I know is
irony! The bubblegum lyrics that once seemed like totally normal things to put
into songs in the 60s and 70s became stale in our mouths, like bubblegum always
does before too long. Jesso’s songs are so insanely retro, evoking the great
pop singer-songwriters of the early 70s—Randy Newman, Elton John, and Carole
King—except even they managed to include a wink and a nod here and there,
understanding the humor in the earnestness.
Now, that itself is enough for me to thoroughly enjoy this
album. I have a pretty extensive obsession with Todd
Rundgren, so anyone making songs that rip him off so well in 2015
gets my love. But it’s especially weird to me that apparently, Jesso isn’t
actually trying to pay homage. He says he’s
never had an especial love of the blue-eyed-soul, instead just trying to
emulate Stevie Wonder (and why shouldn’t he—Stevie’s the greatest—but honestly
he didn’t do that impressive of a job of emulating his style).
I have no choice but to believe him, and slowly start to
realize that Jesso is the most painfully earnest person in history. He has a
soft and heartfelt piano ballad called “Can
We Still Be Friends,” and it’s not at all a reference to the much
more famous soft and heartfelt piano ballad already called “Can
We Still Be Friends.”
In the age of irony that I
was born into and live in, I spend a silly amount of time trying to understand
how to hold on to sincerity. There’s this idea of the “New Sincerity” that
incorporates the knowledge of irony, the belief that seeing the B.S. will allow
for a greater realization of truth. That’s awesome when it works (and it does
surprisingly often), but it’s also hard as hell to get right. Meanwhile, here’s
Tobias Jesso Jr. writing the most dangerously cheesy songs I’ve ever heard, and
seemingly not realizing how unstuck in time they are, and I remember that it
doesn’t have to be. Sometimes someone can just feel emotions and not worry
about overthinking them.
5. Neon Indian, Vega Intl. Night School
As an emotionally stunted millennial, I mostly understand life
through movies. And movies have taught me that clubs are way more awesome than they are. I’m not great with clubs. I don’t
even hate them, which would mean them evoking a real emotion. I sorta just find
them boring, which is a shame because movies have conditioned me to think that
the coolest thing a person can ever do is walk into a club
I don’t really know if Alan Palomo is especially into
nightclubs in real life. But this album evokes the version of it in movies from
the 70s, when floors flashed bright colors, people wore shiny suits, and
realized that cocaine and quaaludes screwed with your head but hadn’t really
figured out what they did to your body. It’s the sound of a truly intentional
cool, of a decision that looking good and walking with a strut are worth whatever
bad stuff comes with it. It’s a perfect nostalgia version of
retrofuturism—it’s music that people 40 years ago thought would be the music of
40 years in the future. It drives through the ersatz narrative of the
nightclub, from the ecstatic highs to the foreboding and imperceptible change into a bad trip. It’s what being cool is
supposed to be like, even if it never works that way outside of the movies.
4. HEALTH, DEATH MAGIC
I’ve already ranted a bit about the magic of HEALTH in my review of their concert a few weeks ago, so
I’ll keep this brief. HEALTH are a noise band that fell in love with pop, and
didn’t find any contradiction in that. They blast out synthesizers that sound
like modem sounds plugged through distortion pedals, drums that sound like
robotic hammers, all at the loudest and scariest volume. But they do that in
service of melodies that would fit right in on the
HEALTH force sound through your ears with such intensity that
it doesn’t stop there. It echoes through your whole body and fills your soul.
It’s abrasive, but it’s in service of something more. It simultaneously hits
you with the fear and power of awesome loudness,
but also the defense-breaking emotion that comes with the best pop music. They
may be the best synthesis I’ve ever heard between experimental, abrasive music
and the future, and music of now that is just pure joy to listen to. And at
their best, you’re too consumed by the feeling to even notice.
3. Miguel, Wildheart
Miguel didn’t have to release an album like this. His previous
album, Kaleidoscope Dream, was a
major hit, and he even managed to get himself a well-earned Grammy for his
excellent single, “Adorn.” He could have
kept doing what it seemed like he was doing best, and made a ton of money as an
impossibly sultry soul singer.
But instead he made Wildheart,
an album that evokes more than anything the desire to be more than what he was.
He hasn’t lost the sexiness that made him famous, or the soulful voice. He
added to it. Now there’s rocking guitar all over this album, choral flourishes,
and a deeper emotional range. He goes straight from the brazenly graphic sex
jam “The Valley” to the ethereal and sweet
morning-after anthem “Coffee.” He brings in
Lenny Kravitz and the rapper Kurupt to help him, not as part of the
commercially-minded feature game, but for something unexpected that they can
bring to the project.
The rawest part of the album comes halfway through the album,
with the song “What’s Normal Anyway?” “Too immoral for the Christians, but too
moral for the cut-throat/ Too far out for the in crowd, what’s normal anyway?/
Too involved in my own life to spend time with my family/ Too concerned about
what others think.” The song focuses on the singer’s feelings of isolation
growing up, of his inability to handle any of the labels he tried to put on
In the song, it’s a lament, a hope that there’s some place he
can find where he belongs, but it’s selling himself far too short. At one
point, Miguel fit perfectly into an archetype. But he understood that he was
more than that. He made this album instead, one that rocks too hard to be soul,
but has too much of a groove and silky voice for rock. It’s wanton lust and
caring love, energetic speed and slow moments. Its greatest strength is that it
doesn’t belong anywhere. It belongs only to itself.
2. Father John
Misty, I Love You, Honeybear
There are some geniuses that have a spark within them, a
collection of ideas waiting to get out, a true and powerful musical expression
that just needs to be accessed. They are prolific and consistent, releasing
song after song that open new horizons.
Josh Tillman is not one of those.
The guy has talent, yeah. Lots of it. He can write the hell out
of a folk song, and his lyrics drip with a relatable cleverness. He released
some pretty good stuff when he went by the name J. Tillman, when he was a
sensitive and quiet singer-songwriter, revealing emotion, and then released a
good debut album when he changed it to Father John Misty, and decided that he
was way too much of a sarcastic asshole to pretend to be all heartfelt.
But then he met the love of his life, and married her. He found
a woman that convinced him that there might be something worth being heartfelt
about. He’s still a sarcastic asshole, but he realizes that all his affected
detachment is irrelevant in the face of something so disarming.
“People are boring/But
you’re something else completely/Damn, let’s take our chances” he sings on "Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins),”
as he lays bare the fear that comes with letting his guard down.
If music is, at its best, an expression of raw emotion, more
unfiltered than any word could ever be, then Father John Misty is a master,
even if he may not be a genius. This is his moment, one that transcends his art
and exists in life. He captures a feeling, one so rare but so real, with
“For love to find us of
all people/I never thought it’d be so simple,” he says on the beautiful
closer, “I Went To The Store One Day,” and
he follows it with a moan, an aching “ohhhhhhh” that comes from some place much
deeper than his throat. This is his moment, a moment so powerful he can only
share it, and in that moment, he’s better than any genius.
1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly
OK so maybe I’m not very creative. I’m not the first to sing the
praises of Kendrick Lamar’s bizarre, lyrical, angry, depressed, experimental
masterpiece, and I certainly won’t be the last. It was an album that exploded
the internet’s endless wave of music criticism, but for once, all those think
pieces felt like they had a purpose. They were dealing with a subject that was
so much bigger, and more importantly, so much smarter, so much more complex,
than any amount of dissecting could handle.
In the weeks after this album dropped, I spent enough time
reading hot takes and thought-provoking essays that it might have
gotten me fired from the office job I was supposed to be doing work at. And as
I read novels worth of words written about this nearly 80 minute album, I just
couldn’t help feeling like none of
them got what this album was trying to say. It’s not like I did, of course.
This album is huge. Every now and then I feel like I understand an individual
song, and then recontextualize it within the narrative of the album, the poem
Kendrick writes line by line in the outros of each song, and then realize I
didn’t get all the metaphors and references of that song in the first place.
It would be pretty impossible to point to one aspect of the
current unarguable holder of the Best Rapper Alive that makes him so
incredible, but to me, it’s the chameleon quality of his voice. He takes Biggie’s classic trick of changing up his flow to
depict a conversation and stomps all over it, able to inhabit a dozen or more
voices in one song. He’s proven himself equally untouchable on summer jamz, gratuitous
party raps, plaintive morality plays,
and possibly the greatest diss track of all time.
He used this to such incredible effect on his 2012 album, Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, creating a novelistic rap opera about the
tragedy of his hometown of Compton, a high water-mark of a modern rap album
that seemed unbeatable.
But on To Pimp A
Butterfly he blows that technique out of the water. He zips past inhabiting
the fictional characters that colored his previous album, and aims for the
whole of the American zeitgeist. He raps in the voice of black
history, reimagined as a baller, in the voice of Black
Lives Matter protesters, in the voice of big-name
comedians selling their auteur project, in the voice of Tupac’s
ghost. There’s no use writing about this album, because he knows,
dammit, he knows. He’s his own biggest critic, but he’s also the rap game’s best one.
Months after I first became obsessed with this album, listening
to it while working, listening to it while traveling, listening to it while
running, and trying to reach one more little understanding of the entire world
it contains, I’m afraid that I’ve barely scratched the surface. It’s an album
that has already seen its influence on my life and America become real, leading
to the implementation of live jazz into hip-hop (and the rise of jazz
appreciation among rap fans—see my previous love of Kamasi Washington, who
plays the hell out of his sax all over this record), or the growing resurgence
of the political polemic in hip-hop (see my above discussion of Pusha T).
Rap has often been an inward-looking medium. It’s a collection
of life stories, boasts, and personae, first-person accounts that act as verbal
shields for their speakers. To Pimp A
Butterfly blurs that line of selfhood. It’s an album with a deeply personal
song called “u” and a universal statement of love titled “i”. It makes no distinction between history and
the present, between emotion and intellect, between private fears and public
ills, between himself and the population of this country. To Pimp A Butterfly is bigger than the collection of songs it
contains, and bigger than anything else in 2015.