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

The National – “Trouble Will Find Me”

(Photo Credit: Rolling Stone Magazine)

(Photo Credit: Rolling Stone Magazine)

Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Sea of Love,” “Demons”

With a title like “Trouble Will Find Me” and two opening tracks called “I Should Live in Salt” and “Demons,” the National give the immediate impression that their sixth album will be more of the same introspective and self-demonizing alt-rock that has brought them this far. And in many ways, the album is a continuation. Singer Matt Berninger is 42 now, so this is no time to drop the cynicism and open up. The National have always relied on sad, relateable lyrics to drive their songs close to home. “Trouble Will Find Me” continues the gloom, but after all these years, Berninger has begun to expand his horizon a bit.

Songs like “Sea of Love,” which might be my favorite song of the year so far, rallies about a situation filled with bad choices, a typical National song. What is not typical of the National, however, is some moments of dark humor and some namedrops across the record (Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album being one, to bring home the sadness). The National’s best albums, the two that preceded “Trouble,” relied on slight changes from the previous album, to make a separate but familiar listen. While the previous changes have been largely musical, “Trouble”s change relies more in lyric. Berninger seems to be making an attempt to bring himself closer to the listener, although the National have always been an engrossing band already. Still, Berninger sings about his own troubles, just ones that he relates to the listeners. The album’s cover, an interesting one on it’s one, serves as a symbol for these troubles as Berninger is swallowed by his inner demons and can only look to himself for help. Somehow, he makes us all understand.

The National have never been stupendous musically, and “Trouble” is no different, as the band focuses on the emotional impact of the lyrics. “Sea of Love”s pounding rhythm is one of their loudest songs, and is kind of a surprise on the album. But a majority of the songs are moderate-volume, guitar- or piano-driven tracks with repetitive music and lyrics, the band’s style. Sufjan Stevens, Richard Reed Parry and St. Vincent are among the album’s guest stars, with St. Vincent providing brief but powerful vocals on “Sea of Love.” The album may run a little long, and it feels a little anticlimactic after “Sea of Love”s boom, but the National have a way to always stay in the listener’s head. “Trouble Will Find Me” does this even more than their previous albums, and it might just be their best one yet.

-Andrew McNally