The Best Album of 2015, Obliquely
Warning: NSFW, lots of the n-word in particular. Also impossibly catchy, so it will be NSFW in your head for days.
Once again, 2015 had a bunch of wonderful music, and I’d love to do a Best Of list, but every time I try, I just end up talking about Kendrick Lamar. At the bottom of this post, then, is a really long Spotify playlist filled songs that I listened to a lot this year. I hope you listen and find some things you enjoy. But now, let’s talk about the album of 2015.
For almost a year now, I’ve intended to write a post about Kendrick Lamar’s 3rd studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly. I waited when it was released in March, because it is complex and at times inaccessible, so I wanted to give myself time to fully digest it. Then I waited because I’m lazy. And then because everyone was talking about it, even into the fall. And now I’m avoiding it entirely, because I cannot possibly say anything that hasn’t already been said. I don’t even want to try to say how good it is, as everyone says that too. I mean, it is on every Best of 2015 list, and it’s number one on most of them. All of that despite of its inaccessibility: it is an anti-pop album for the most part (with the exceptions of “i” and “Alright”), so much so that many of Lamar’s fans, who, having listened to “i” for a couple months before the album’s release, were expecting something more like “Swimming Pools” than “King Kunta.” Many were vocal in their initial frustration — I remember someone on Twitter saying after his first listen that Lamar was “just phoning it in,” perhaps the least insightful review ever, but one that was likely a result of the confusion the album can engender – but after a few careful listens, it becomes clear that the frustration is part of what Lamar is conveying. It is as personal as it is political, and as timely as it is timeless. It’s one of the best hip hop albums I’ve ever heard, perhaps matched only by Illmatic, which, given how far above almost everything else that album has been for 20 years, is almost unthinkably high praise.
(Warning: NSFW, lots of the n-word in particular.)
But you see I’m merely gushing. I have nothing to say about the album itself that will help you to understand it any more than the much more eloquent and knowledgeable folks who have written about it have. So instead I’m going to talk about the people who made the album with Lamar. By all accounts most of the tracks were recorded collaboratively, after Lamar and his team of musicians, producers, and friends had immersed themselves in the music of artists as varied as D’Angelo (particularly 2014’s Black Messiah) and Sufjan Stevens for an extended period of time. These collaborators provide so many of the layers that make To Pimp a Butterfly as rich as it is, and deserve a lot of the credit, even if, as Anna Wise put it in an interview (which I can’t find at the moment), Lamar was like a movie director and screenwriter, and his collaborators merely actors playing his roles.
Let’s start from the ground up. Several producers worked on the album, but a few were there for pretty much all of it: Sounwave (that’s not a typo), who also worked on Lamar’s previous albums, as well as on 2014’s best hip hop album, ScHoolboy Q’s Oxymoron; Tae Beast, also a Lamar and ScHoolboy Q veteran; and Terrace Martin. Martin’s love of jazz, funk, and old school R&B is particularly evident on To Pimp a Butterfly, as it is in the work he produces under his own name:
(Not Even a Little Bit Safe For Work.)
(Not quite as bad, but still NSFW)
Flying Lotus also helped to produce the album, adding his experimental, at times ethereal, even psychedelic sound:
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the album’s sound is its dark funk, which is perhaps most influenced by producer and bassist Thundercat:
But even he is not funk enough, so they had to bring in George Clinton for the opening track, “Wesley’s Theory”. Clearly we want the funk:
But we also want the soul, so in addition to Isley brother samples on the album’s first single, “i,” Ron Isley himself shows up on “How Much a Dollar Cost”:
Rounding out the Old School are samples from Michael Jackson, James Brown, the voice of Tupac, and of course, Snoop, who is featured on the wonderful “Institutionalized” (oh, and Pharrell contributed as well, so two birds, one video):
(Radio Edit, just for you)
But Kendrick isn’t stuck in the past. In addition to Thundercat and Flying Lotus, frequent collaborator Bilal makes several appearances, bringing not only more funk, but his New R&B sound:
Then there’s the wonderful R&B artist contributed both samples (on “Momma”) and vocals:
And New R&B artist SZA:
Along with fellow rapper Rapsody:
And last, but certainly not least, the wonderful vocals of frequent collaborator, and my major musical crush, Anna Wise are featured on several tracks. Her own group, Sonnymoon, also released one of my favorite albums of 2015, the bizarrely wonderful Courage of Present Times. It includes these gems:
And really that’s just the tip of the iceberg. One could probably write a year’s-worth of posts on the collaborators alone, and only then begin to talk about what Lamar himself brings. I hope you check some of these out, and I really hope that you give To Pimp a Butterfly a listen, if you haven’t already. Even if you’re not a hip hop fan, with all the jazz and funk and poetry, I have little doubt that it will have something for you.
Finally, here’s the playlist I promised at the start. Enjoy: