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

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.

Joey Bada$$ – “B4.Da.$$”

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Big Dusty” “Like Me”

The best thing about great hip-hop is how quickly and effectively it’s musicians can respond to the world around them. “B4.Da.$$” (brilliantly pronounced as “Before Da Money”) follows just weeks behind D’Angelo’s political comeback, “Black Messiah,” and J. Cole’s introspective “2014 Forest Hills Drive .” It’s a little heayv to say that Joey Bada$$ is responding to the world of increasing racial tension around him, considering he’s been prepping this album for two years. But it is more serious, more proud and cognizant than his previous mixtapes.

The album’s best tracks deal with familiar themes – his growing up in Brooklyn. It’s unfortunate that the album, after being prepped for so long, had to come out so close to the thematically similar but lesser “Forest Hills,” and we have to hope it doesn’t get shoved under J. Cole’s bigger name. Opener “Save the Children” and following interlude “Greenbax” handle the toughness of making money as a kid in New York, while closer “Curry Chicken” sees the complete arc, of Joey dreaming of his forthcoming exquisite dinner on a plane – after he’s made money and left the city. “Like Me” is noteworthy, too, a sadly optimistic song about hoping to make it out of the city. “O.C.B.” has an intriguing chorus which rhymes the title with ‘O.C.D,’ ‘ODB’ and ‘OMG,’ over its four lines. Not only is it a really clever quadruple-rhyme, it’s also a meat look at how Bada$$ is a throwback rapper – like ODB in an OMG age.

After a few tracks, it becomes pretty obvious to the listener that the album is as much about the music and the flow as it is the lyrics. Bada$$ is a rhythmic rapper, and his flow is largely impeccable (especially on “Hazeus View”). It’s easier to pick up than the lyrics, which sometimes get swept up in the music (although, ironically, the album’s hottest verse comes from Raury on the track “Escape 120”). And since this album has throwback qualities, that’s not a problem. The music itself is often reminiscent of old school hip-hop, with more instrumentation than just beats. “Belly of the Beast” starts with a sudden string crescendo, and “O.C.B.” has a background low brass, at times. Production from J Dilla and the Roots help give the throwbacks an authentic feel. Although the music isn’t always the focus, Bada$$ pulls it off with consistent honesty.

The biggest fault of the album, and the only one that isn’t easily overlooked, is it’s runtime. At over an hour, there’s more crammed into the album than we need. Few songs stand out from the others, and it feels like it was designed that way, so we just get too much. It could stand to jettison three or four songs and it would be just as strong. For a debut album, it’s too bloated. But otherwise, it’s an album that shows progress for the already hyped Joey Bada$$. He pushed the album back so he could gain some notoriety and cred, and the maturity shows (plus, he waited until his 20th birthday to release it. Happy birthday!). “B4.Da.$$” isn’t going to be one of the best hip-hop albums of the year (especially when we’re staring down “View From the 6,” “RTJ3” and whatever Kanye’s planning), but Bada$$ has proven himself as one of the better young rappers in the scene. It’s the first in a year that promises new albums from A$ap Rocky and Chance the Rapper. 2015’s off to a fairly strong start, let’s hope it keeps up.

-By Andrew McNally

J. Cole – “2014 Forest Hills Drive”

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “Fire Squad” “No Role Modelz”

J. Cole wrote “magnum opus” all over this album. This is the album he envisioned as leaving his mark on rap, his childhood-based album, his “Here’s what New York is like” album. It’s not that, but it’s at least a solid release, largely devoid of some of his clunky lyrics of the past.

Defense seems to be the strategy on “2014 Forest Hills Drive.” It’s J. Cole’s album to lose. This is probably the most apparent in the lack of credited guests. He dominates every song, and although other voices do drop in, they’re uncredited and not the big names you’d expect. The album’s overarching theme is childhood and youth, as earlier this year J. Cole bought the house he grew up in, after it was foreclosed on in 2003. He defends this, he defends New York City, he defends his own position in rap. But the most effective is his defense of race, one of the few areas where J. Cole has been distinguished as of late. He gives a Ferguson mention on the sprawling finale, “Note to Self,” reminiscent of him being one of the first entertainers to make a visit to the town. On “Fire Squad,” he raps about white people taking over rock and rap, and how he’ll try to crack a smile when Iggy wins big at the Grammy’s. And on “No Role Modelz,” he raps, “I came fast like 911 in a white neighborhood.” At the album’s best, it’s provocative and button-pushing, a step forward for someone still looking for his place, and certainly forgiveness for Nas.

At the album’s worst, though, it falls into blander hip-hop lyrics and beats. “A Tale of Two Citiez” is particularly clunky song, just a self-serving boastful sex song. There are others on the album, and even better tracks like “Fire Squad” fall victim to some cliche moments. The album doesn’t do enough to bring in some cliche elements into other more, progressive ideas. Most of the album has surprisingly melodic and dense music, but trashy lyrics don’t always fit against them, and it gets jarring. J. Cole’s clearly working on tightening up his ideas and sound, and he’s not there yet, so an album of this stature may have jumped the gun.

“2014 Forest Hills Drive” isn’t going to be remembered as being on the same level as the albums that inspired it. It has some worthy songs, some piercing lyrics and a lot of great music (even the intro has compelling music behind it), but it’s all a little too messy so far. J. Cole doesn’t have the experience to pull this album off yet – just listen to “Note to Self,” the nearly 15-minute, improvised finale, where he namedrops everyone who helped make the album, and continuously tells the listener they don’t need to sit through the credits. It’s a big idea – challenging the listener to keep going. But, it’s also supposed to be fun, and we’re not in on it. J. Cole is coming towards mastering the formula, but it hasn’t quite all come together yet. Challenging me to go on was bold; I gave it a few minutes before I stopped.

-By Andrew McNally

Tinashe – “Aquarius”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Bet” “2 On” “Bated Breath”

There are a number of goals an artist has to have going into a debut album, but maybe the most important is signifying your sound and immediately making it your own. Tinashe does this and more, with her hip-hop/R&B blend and smart lyrics coming together in one of the year’s biggest surprises.

“Aquarius” doesn’t subscribe to any genres. This is growing typical of the hybrid R&B/hip-hop genre that is melting together and becoming it’s own being, but this album is especially inclusive. Tinashe comes out of the gate brimming with confidence, knowing she can pull off any of the ideas that come up. And she does – from sultry R&B, to smooth vocal ballads to a straight DJ Mustard track (“2 On,” which you’ve heard a million times, but it still hasn’t gotten worn out). By the end of the second track, Tinashe has already established herself as a unique voice, unafraid to try things unheard of in older R&B.

That second track, “Bet,” firmly establishes the album’s foundation. The song, distinctly R&B, is also a collaboration with Blood Orange and ends with a very lengthy, ambient guitar solo. It’s the album’s second-longest track, and it takes its sweet time. The song announces for the album that Tinashe is in total control, flowing through different styles and dominating every track. Her vocals are strong and engaging, traditionally sultry in an untraditional format. “Bated Breath” is the album’s best vocal song (and the actual longest track), a seductive ballad in the album’s final act with Tinashe’s voice soaring over the music, and one that stops on a dime halfway through and re-crescendos with an engrossing coda. Compare this with the straight hip-hop of “2 On,” and you get a well-rounded singer. Her lyrics, too, are often smart and occasionally conceptual and subversive. The most notable track is “Pretend,” about trying your hardest to ignore problems in a relationship, even for a minute. A$ap Rocky drops in for a verse, as her deadbeat boyfriend. A$ap Rocky, Future and Schoolboy Q all contribute excellent verses on the album, and are all shown up by Tinashe.

Musically, Tinashe takes as many liberties as she does vocally. The album is mostly slow-moving, melodic and low-key R&B with club beats and ambient rhythms. But it is peppered with guitar, piano, and volume. Each track is it’s own entity, and they’re nearly all distinguishable from each other. “Pretend” excels on an unexpected, minimalistic beat that’s closer to a home recording than it is a radio cut. The album is also divided into pieces, split by five interludes and an outro. Most are little more than minute-long tracks serving to shake up the flow, although the interlude titled “Indigo Child” is itself a rather experimental and slightly haunting track, one that hits the album’s loudest volume.

The album’s only real fault is a slightly bloated running-time of 55:43. Its eighteen tracks do include the six interludes, so it is less daunting than it looks, but it does sag a bit in the midsection. It could do without a few tracks; it could stand to be a little tighter. Still, as it stands, “Aquarius” might be the year’s best debut, and is certainly one of the best hip-hop albums. In a world filled with young TV personalities trying to shed their former status and make it in music – namely Miley and Ariana Grande – Tinashe has quickly emerged as one of the stars (Tinashe, only 21, was known previously not for music but for roles in “The Polar Express” and “Two and a Half Men”). “Aquarius” is an instantly enjoyable and thorough album, one that doesn’t demand multiple listens, but slyly convinces them instead. Tinashe is in total control on her debut, and it’s relentless fun.

-By Andrew McNally

Wiz Khalifa – “Blacc Hollywood”

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Promises” “Stayin Out All Night”

The best hip-hop albums are either wide-ranging, embracing different emotions and musical styles (“Beyonce”), or are directly consistent, pulling all of their material from the personae of the people behind it (“Straight Outta Compton”). “Blacc Hollywood” is neither of these, and it isn’t a great hip-hop album because of it. Rather, “Blacc Hollywood” starts with a call, a semi-political, semi-social trumpeting of the new ‘Blacc Hollywood,’ before quickly diverging into inconsistent weed songs and rough-childhood ballads. “Blacc Hollywood” wants desperately to have a point, but it never does.

The biggest fault with “Blacc Hollywood” is the lack of any flow. Khalifa tries to embrace different influences with the pairing of ballad “Promises” and weed song “KK” close to the beginning, but it only comes off as two disagreeing songs that don’t fit at all. It isn’t laziness – it’s ambition and ideas, without knowing how to execute them. The ideas on “Blacc Hollywood” compete rather than complement. “House in the Hills,” a ballad about not wanting to raise his son in the world he was raised in, doesn’t sound complete with the vain club banger “We Dem Boyz” popping up three songs earlier. This early disconnect faults the album’s second half, which is more consistent but less noticeable.

Indeed, Khalifa’s writing on this album isn’t that remarkable. “We Dem Boyz” has been getting airplay since it’s release in February, but there’s really nothing to the song. It’s a glorified chorus with little change for 3:45. His personal songs are honest and gut-punching, but the others are often too predictable (look no further than “Ass Drop”). Later album track “Stayin Out All Night” is helped by a huge, fuzzy, banging beat, but it’s in the middle of a string of forgettable songs.

Some guest spots do help the album – Ty Dolla $ign shows up on two different tracks, as do fellow Taylor Gang rappers Juicy J, Chevy Woods and Project Pat. Curren$y shows up on the honest “House in the Hills,” and Nicki Minaj drops a spot on the largely excellent closer, “True Colors.” (Unfortunately, a proposed collaboration with Adele was never more than an idea – how weird would that be? Bring new meaning to “Rolling in the Deep”).

So “Blacc Hollywood” isn’t Khalifa at his best. He’s more treading water – fueling a fanbase with self-serving bangers and ballads without offering anything great or consistent. It doesn’t come to a point, and it doesn’t flow like a hip-hop album should. Khalifa sounds fine on his own, but there isn’t anything noteworthy going on around him. As confused as it is average, “Blacc Hollywood” deserves a spin or two at a house party, but little more than that.

-By Andrew McNally

Future – “Honest”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “My Momma” “Benz Friendz (Whatchutola)”

Future’s second album isn’t entirely filled with winners, but it’s certainly unpredictable. Future, aka Nayvadius Cash, uses some brooding and synthy music to create a dark atmosphere around his music. But at the same time, it’s rhythmic and full of catchy hip-hop beats and occasional meaty samples. It matches the lyrics, which alternate between dirty and explicit to nods to personal struggles.

“Honest” could almost be described as “moody,” because of it’s seemingly inherent dark nature, but the title wouldn’t be right. The album is deceiving. Although it has many honest moments (hence the title), Future creates a unique and well-rounded atmosphere, one that’s human, with qualities both good and bad. The music’s dark but palpable nature not only reflects that, but it’s consistent throughout the album.

Future’s rapping remains the best part of his music, often frantic and unpredictable. He has a knack for dropping words in at select moments and creating his own vocal rhythms alternate to the music. It contributes to the trippy feel, with sometimes competing rhythms. Lyrically, Future is in complete control. He switches from explicit, like on opener “Look Ahead,” and on single “Move That Dope,” to tales of divorce settlements and upbringings (the affecting “I Won” and the personal “My Momma”).

He also has some A-list guest stars, who drop in for some inconsistent but sometimes great spots – Andre 3000 drops in on one the album’s best songs, “Benz Friends (Whatchutola),” and Wiz Khalifa guests on one of the most honest songs, “My Momma.” Drake and Kanye both show up, the former providing a memorable but short spot on an interlude, the latter contributing the album’s deepest story, “I Won.” Elsewhere, Pharrell, Casino and Pusha T are largely wasted on the overlong and tepid “Move That Dope,” but even securing their spots cements Future’s stance in the future of hip-hop. The only time the album sags is it’s midpoint, with a couple straight songs without guest spots, but it’s saved by the rich solo track “Covered in Money” and the collaboration with Andre 3000.

*One small issue I want to address with the album is that “Look Ahead” samples Amadou & Mariam’s “Dougou Badia,” and the duo seems to be getting no credit for their sample. I usually don’t pick up on things like this, but the sample is used as the whole basis of the song. They might have chosen not to get credit, I have no idea, I just want to put credit where credit is due because I defend Amadou & Mariam at all costs. Otherwise, “Honest” is a great album that creates a whole world without getting stuck in it, and helps to prove that Future’s name is well-chosen – he seems to be ahead of everyone else right now.

-By Andrew McNally