Battle of Famous Albums, Part 5: Kendrick Lamar


Battle of Famous Albums can only happen when a band has two records that stand out in their discography and that are generally in very close competition with each other in terms of popularity and critical reception. If the band has more than two peaks, it won’t apply. Nor if one of the two peaks is regarded as much higher.

After a series of mixtapes and EP’s, 2011 finally saw the release of Kendrick Lamar’s debut album. Named Section.80 as a play on both the concept of inner city housing (Section 8) and the decade Lamar grew up in (1980s), it established him as a worthy carrier of the West Coast torch. We already knew that Compton was no easy environment to grow up in, but we didn’t mind another rapper writing about the city’s morbid and sorrowful tales, especially if done with the poetic touch, rhyming ability and ever-changing flow that Kendrick obviously possessed right from the start.

But just like Nirvana’s Bleach, Section.80 was still a product of its surroundings. Kendrick had yet to truly transcend that and achieve worldwide appeal. His Nevermind came the following year with the signing to the major label that is Dr. Dre’s Aftermath and with the release of good kid, m.A.A.d city as his second album. And it is not hard to understand why it got rave reviews right from the go – the events related here still take place in Lamar’s home-town, but at the same time, the underlying themes are much more relatable. Kendrick raps about peer pressure, addiction, self-empowerment, and death among others, and he does this in such a way that it is both specific and universal. The whole album reads like a movie, with skits tying everything together (even the cover says “A short film by Kendrick Lamar”). But this is not one of those albums where the quality of the individual songs is abandoned in favor of the concept – no, most of them also work on their own as proven by the 4 singles good kid, m.A.A.d city generated. All in all, a resounding success.

Kendrick then took 3 years to make sure that his next album would be a worthy follow-up. The decision of releasing i as the lead single even before the album itself came out reads like a deliberate attempt to mess with the fans – it is possibly the most positive song Kendrick ever recorded, leading many to question whether he was moving away from the grimy tales towards a more anthemic sound. All such complaints were nulled once To Pimp a Butterfly came out and i was placed at the near end of it, a much needed dose of optimism to conclude the dark story. Everything seemingly positive that the protagonist is going through seems to also have a dark side; yes, making it big is every musician’s dream, but then there’s the record labels who can’t wait to fuck you over. Attractive girls will finally pay attention to you, but how many of them are after your money only? And one can rely on his faith to think that everything’s all right, but the temptations are always lurking the corner. After so many ups and downs, “I love myself” seems to be the only positive lesson that makes sense, because true happiness does come from inside.

But what the ill-fated release of i also announced was the fact that To Pimp a Butterfly would be an album that demanded to be listened from beginning to end. There are no lows and highs anymore (maybe with the slight exception of The Blacker the Berry, a song that also works as a stand-alone), which makes it a more difficult listen at first, but it eventually all pays off. It is a complete piece of work from beginning to end, a quite rare feat for a hip-hop album. Another way in which it stands out from its predecessor is the production; good kid, m.A.A.d city still relied heavily on trap-influenced beats, whereas a unique combination of jazz, funk and soul greets us on To Pimp a Butterfly. In fact, I read somewhere that Kendrick has always had this type of sound in mind ever since he started out but considered it too risky of a move.

Going big and experimental on To Pimp a Butterfly paid off, and I think this will remain a classic no matter how many other masterpieces will Kendrick release. I’ve spent so many years of my life regretting not being there to witness the release and immediate impact of albums such as say The Dark Side of the Moon or London Calling, without realizing that right now different, but equally influential artists are taking music to places it’s never been before. Luckily, I’ve been here to witness To Pimp a Butterfly, so my choice is easy.

Categories: Album Reviews


11 replies

  1. You nailed it: “Kendrick raps about peer pressure, addiction, self-empowerment, and death among others, and he does this in such a way that it is both specific and universal. ”

    I’ve yet to hear Butterfly, but it’s here and I mean to get to it shortly, so after I do, I’ll try to remember to come back and vote in your poll!

    GREAT post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve only listened to “To Pimp A Butterfly” and it was number 3 in my top 20 albums of 2015. It’s great that Kendrick continues to release music that has a certain originality hip hop music has been missing for years.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve missed this KL bus, I’m afraid. Read a lot of very positive things, but still need to investigate what this chap has to offer. From what you’ve written here, it’s quite a bit! Will let you know how I get on when I catch this bus!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As a musician myself I come from the generation before rap. For so long there was nothing I heard that didn’t make me want to turn my radio off. I thought, where is the music? In the past few years, since it didn’t seem to be going away, and there were artists who didn’t always rap about violence and bitches, I started taking a more objective view and stopped automatically turning it off and listening to what was being said I will look up this artist based on your review and give it an honest listen and my honest opinion


    • There’s a lot of great hip-hop out there. Just like there is a lot of shit hip-hop. Like any other genre. I only started really listening about two years ago and a lot of it blew my mind and changed everything I thought I knew about the genre.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree. Some of it I can’t understand what the attraction is. I know every generation has their own thing and it felt like music had run out of options and rap was all that was left. I tried to imagine these kids going to their 20 year class reunion and listening to their golden oldies and their kids cringing. Just like the generation (my generation) who had parents who hated the Beatles and thought the music would never last. But then some of it started to change and there was some actual music mixed in and some of the lyrics changed and had something to say that wasn’t all violence. So I started to take the time to listen to some artists. I listened to one yesterday on soundcloud. He put up 5 tunes and it had a good mix of sounds along with it still being hip hop and he had the potential of a beautiful baritone voice – but many hip hop artists are completely untrained and think they don’t need any and most aren’t musicians because the music and beat is repetitious. This man had a voice, but he had no clue when and how to breathe. He is capable of much more than he realizes. So I sent him a message and told him that. Rappers don’t sing. They speak, but he has a voice he should be singing with. Get control of it. I’ll see if he answers back. I usually stick my nose into places I’ve not been asked to go!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Heard both, like both a lot. But “To Pimp A Butterfly” is a few notches above.

    Liked by 1 person


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