Kendrick Lamar – “To Pimp a Butterfly”

Grade: A

Best Tracks: the whole damned thing

He is a winner, and he’s probably gonna win again.

Oh, Jesus. One of 2015’s most hotly anticipated albums didn’t even have a confirmed release date, title, or tracklist a month ago. And now, it’s out a week early. It’s not known if Lamar dropping it early was to avoid a leak, or to pull a Bey, or just sheer confidence. But whatever way you look at it, “To Pimp a Butterfly” is not only one of the best rap albums of the year, it’s one of the best of the decade.

Lamar nails down a wide range of emotions and influences on “TPAB.” While rappers often try to make diverse albums, not all of them can pull it off. But Lamar shows all sides of himself simultaneously, not individually. “To Pimp a Butterfly” is as self-referential as an episode of Arrested Development. It is the work of a man who is confident to an arrogant point, but still deeply, deeply pained. Throughout the album, there’s a repeated spoken word bit about depression leading to screaming in a hotel room. He’s vulnerable when he raps “loving you is painful” on “u.” Lamar’s ability to shift tone is natural, and he’s possibly the best at playing off his emotions with the sound of his voice alone.

But at the same time, he’s confident, almost to a fault. Loving an unknown subject might be tough, but loving himself isn’t, as proven on the leadoff single “i,” even though the album version of the song is radically different. More still, he’s said the album’s title is a play on “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in one way because seeing “Pimp” next to “Butterfly” is an alarming juxtaposition, but also because he believes the album is Harper Lee-level importance. That’s bold; hell, that’s stupid. But, he’s right. It’s that good. He even ends with a 12 minute track, “Mortal Man,” which starts as a song, then transitions into a poem, and ends with another poem. In between the two – a spliced up interview with 2Pac from 1993. Pac. In the hip-hop world, that’s the equivalent of putting the Frost/Nixon tapes in the middle of a campaign speech.

The music on the album is dense. It goes from abrasive – “The Blacker the Berry,” “King Kunta” – to chill – “Momma,” “How Much a Dollar Cost” – to surprisingly funky – “Wesley’s Theory,” “i.” He pulls them all off, and they all flow and bleed together, sometimes in the middle of a track. There’s repeated musical sections, repeated phrases, and self-references. There’s also well-picked guest inclusions. The production credits read like a novel, but the album itself has few guests. Pharrell, Rapsody and Snoop Dogg round out expected roles. George Clinton and Ron Isley are less expected. Least expected is a sample of a Sufjan Stevens song.

Lamar knows what he wants and what he likes. “TPAB” is significantly different, tonally, than the song that made him famous – Big Sean’s “Control.” In his guest verse, he calls out nearly every rapper imaginable, even the beatified Andre 3000. On this album, Lamar raps about racial politics, and calls for black rappers to come together, overcome differences and fight against racism (most notably on “Mortal Man”). He praises Snoop, and calls out critics on “Hood Politics”: “Critics say they miss when hip-hop was rapping / Motherfucker if you did then Killer Mike would be platinum.” “Hood Politics” might be the album’s most important track, ironic given that it’s one of the more forgettable ones, musically. The song establishes Lamar’s political beliefs more than any other track.

Over the past few years, hip-hop albums have had a tendency to get bloated. But at 78 minutes and 16 tracks, there isn’t a moment that doesn’t belong on “To Pimp a Butterfly.” It doesn’t even feel like 78 minutes, anyways. Lamar is celebratory, depressed, angry; he is human. And he’s a phenomenal rapper, writer, and performer. If everyone was shocked by Lamar getting the Grammy snub last year, then they shouldn’t be shocked at the next ceremony.

-By Andrew McNally

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Heems – “Eat Pray Thug”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Sometimes” “So NY”

Review also printed on Seroword.com

BRUH. Do you want to get shaken up? Wanna get rattled? Heems’ debut is the album to mess you up.

Queens rapper Heems finally has his debut album out, on his own Greedhead Records (search the name on my blog). He has described the album as “post-9/11 dystopian brown man rap.” Indeed, Himanshu Suri is a phenomenally unique force in hip-hop – a man living in New York who’s proud of his heritage, but also feels ostracized because of his race. And that politically charged motive is all over “Eat Pray Thug.” The songs excel on contradiction – New York is home; I’m driven from home.

The lead-off single, opening track and best song “Sometimes” establishes the discord perfectly, by setting Heems up as a rapper who isn’t taking on a persona. “Sometimes I’m pacifist / Sometimes it’s pass the fist / Sometimes I stay sober/ Sometimes it’s pass the fifth,” he raps about his human qualities. This disconnect is what demands the album work as a whole – on “So NY,” he raps about being so New York-based that, “I still don’t bump Tupac.” But, on most of the songs, especially closer “Patriot Act,” he’s more honest about the racism that he, his family, and others have been through as a Middle Eastern man living in New York City. On “Patriot Act,” he bemoans how life became difficult for many people he knew after 9/11, in a spoken word piece that references stop & frisks and donating to local politicians to stay safe. On “Flag Shopping,” he rhymes ‘flags’ with ‘rags,’ and later raps “They wanna Toby us / Like we Cunta Kinte.” Heems cuts deep with his personal experiences, accurate accusations and brutal truth.

But Heems doesn’t spend the whole album expanding on that. He tries pop songs and ballads, too. On “Pop Songs (Games),” he goes for a genuine, bona fide pop song and, while it’s results aren’t quite spectacular, he’s putting in the effort to diversify his music. And on “Home,” Heems and Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) expertly pull off a ballad (courtesy of the line “Be my remix to Ignition”). Heems hits all boundaries on a relatively short album, expanding a brief time to include everything he can.

“Former Das Racist frontman” “Das Racist head” “Creator of internet rap sensations Das Racist” Uuuuuuuuuugh. Still referring to Heems as being the frontman for Das Racist is like still referring to Conan as being a “Tonight Show” host. It happened, it was great and it was underappreciated, but it’s over. Das Racist hasn’t been a band for something like two and a half years, and it’s time to start recognizing Heems for what he is – an incredibly complex, diverse and talented rapper and entrepreneur. On “Eat Pray Thug,” Heems gives it his all, and nearly everything he throws at the wall sticks. “Eat Pray Thug” is an open, honest and powerful work, one that examines New York City as both a lifestyle and a germ pool. And it proves Heems to be the affronting rapper he’d set himself up to be; ready to grab the throne whenever it’s left unattended. There’s a lot going on, and Heems has a lot to say. We should all be listening.

If you like this, try: Any of the people Heems has signed to Greedhead; namely Le1f, or Lakutis.