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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Ariana Grande – “My Everything”

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Problem” “Bang Bang”

There are certain singers and rappers that, when they show up on a track, are automatically going to outshine the star – Beyonce, Andre 3000, Nicki Minaj. The problem with Ariana Grande is that she’s shown up by everyone. Iggy Azalea, Big Sean, Zedd, Cashmere Cat, Childish Gambino, The Weeknd, A$ap Ferg and, in an excellent Deluxe Edition-only song, Juicy J and Minaj all make appearances and they all help otherwise mediocre songs excel. On the four songs where Grande stands alone (not counting an intro), she sounds like an empty copy of a different singer.

“My Everything” does have its moments, most of which being the quicker, more EDM-embracing songs. Despite my best efforts, local rap radio has forced me to love “Problem,” a song with beats bigger than Grande’s whole first album combined.  “Break Free,” with Zedd, “Hands On Me,” with A$ap Ferg and “Bang Bang,” with Juicy J and Nicki Minaj are in the same boat. They’re great, fun songs with crushing beats but inoffensive mission statements. When Grande lets loose and has some fun, the album does too. These four songs are well-positioned, too, saving bursts of energy to come up every few tracks instead of using it all up early. Of the ballads, and there are plenty, the most noteworthy one is “Love Me Harder,” collaboration with The Weeknd, which matches some great vocals with catchy beats.

The rest of the album isn’t bad – it doesn’t ask you to form any kind of opinion. Much of the album, even the better songs, goes in one ear and out the other; cheap entertainment that’s forgotten as soon as it’s over. Grande’s voice shines throughout, and it stays as bouncy and inoffensive as it can, which results in a generally fun listen. The real issue lies in Grande’s lack of identity. She can really sing, maybe even better than most other pop singers out there right now (saving you, Adele), but her ‘carefree, bubblegum’ identity was unfortunately worn out in the early-00′s. Pop singers nowadays have to establish their own, unique beings – Adele is a soulful, 60′s throwback, Lorde is a hip-hop inspired, minimalistic hip-hop basher, Lady Gaga is a theatrical and newsmaking shock. Grande is trying to establish herself as a straight pop singer, but to do that, she’s going to have to compete with the current queen – Katy Perry. And frankly, in this current music world, only one is going to be allowed continued success.

So “My Everything” isn’t bad, just forgettable and bland, and it is never sure of where it wants to be placed. Grande is still (very) young, and she’s still finding her place. Working with big names like Zedd and Minaj could still shape her place in a crowded music scene. But for now, she’s standing as a successful but unexciting singer, and her second album provides a safe, somewhat bland listen.

-By Andrew McNally