Snoop Dogg – “BUSH”

Grade: C

Key Tracks: “Peaches N Cream” “Run Away”

There’s a question I’ve had about ridiculously famous rappers for a while – what path do they follow, when they grow older? Classic rock singers like Rod Stewart and even Bob Dylan have been going the route of covers albums, so I’ve been wondering where a rapper like Snoop might go. Turns out, he doesn’t really know either. “BUSH,” his thirteenth album, meanders around basic funky rhythms with the aura of a man who hasn’t given up, but just doesn’t feel he has anything new to say.

It’s safe to say that the music that Snoop has put out in this millennium hasn’t tried to be revolutionary. “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” even as a potential candidate for one of hip-hop’s greatest songs, doesn’t try to prove anything. His Snoop Lion phase didn’t prove anything we didn’t already know (nor was it taken very seriously). So now that we’re 15 years into this century and Snoop Dogg is ever-increasingly just a family man, his music has taken a natural progression towards the fun and breezy. It often is, but it begs to wonder why it exists in the first place.

After a midtempo intro with Stevie Wonder, the next four songs on “BUSH” are all Snoop solo, and they could all really use the kick of someone else. “This City” serves as the best, centered around a hypnotic vibraphone rhythm, going on only slightly too long. The weakest of the four is “R U A Freak?,” with some groan-worthy punny lyrics and an uncredited appearance from Charlie Wilson so prevalent that I’m honestly not sure Snoop even shows up on the track.

There are brighter points later on the album. At the sixth of ten tracks, “Peaches N Cream” is the first one that really feels inspired. It’s the only song that credits Charlie Wilson, although he shows up on four tracks. “Run Away” features a surprising collaboration with Gwen Stefani, who channels her No Doubt years instead of her solo pop career. She adds a late spark to the album that’s missing elsewhere. And the album’s finale, “I’m Ya Dogg,” has guest verses from Rick Ross and Kendrick “some of ya’ll share bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two-man cell” Lamar, who called it himself – although the song is great, and really the album’s only true rap track, Snoop takes a vocal backseat and gets lost in the mix.

The funk revival of 2015 doesn’t seem like something planned, more coincidental. Snoop, Lamar, and Mark Ronson have all released funk-heavy albums, but each with a foundation coming from a different place. It’s going strong nonetheless, and the music is at least funky. Wonder is wasted in a lifeless opener, but “BUSH” does have it’s funky moments at times. It’s fun, and I think that’s all that Snoop’s going for now. If so, then it’s a minor success. But even so, he seems too content to be releasing placeholder, schlocky albums. This is the man who was vaguely involved in murder charges; the man with a drug rap sheet longer than Willie Nelson’s. It doesn’t seem right that he has settled into such a steady and easy life that he can release self-serving, basic funk. From reggae on “Reincarnated” to funk on “BUSH,” it seems like Snoop is closer to forfeiting the rap game rather than leaving it behind. But, it answers my question. When a successful rap artist can make enough and settle down, provided they didn’t marry Beyonce, then what are they to do? Keep it easy.

-By Andrew McNally

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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