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: Battle of Famous Albums