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Friday, July 24, 2015

Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly Review - Rap Music Analysis

Let me set the tone for this piece right off the bat: To Pimp A Butterfly is the greatest rap album of all time.

Now, I know a lot of rap albums, and practically study them over and over through playing them not just all the way through in one take, but also on multiple mixes and playlists. For instance, one single song — “How We Do” — occupies 4 different playlists on my computer (a swag one, a Top 10 Dre Beats one, a workout one, and a smoking playlist.) In fact, iTunes tells me that I’ve listened to Cam’ron’s song “Dip-Set Forever” 95 times, which is about 4 minutes long. That works out to 372.4 minutes, or about 6.2 hours. That’s almost a week’s total of listening to only that single song, and that play count doesn’t even take into account how many times I’ve listened to “Dip-Set Forever” elsewhere, like on my iPhone. I mention all of this for two reasons: 1.) To show that I can judge Kendrick’s TPAB against a lot of other rap albums, and 2.) To show what kind of listening treatment To Pimp A Butterfly got from me. 

One of the contexts I want to judge TPAB against is the format of the rap album throughout the genre. Now, for me, the format of rap albums breaks down into two basic categories that really describe a spectrum. First, there are rap albums where every track has a completely different sound from the next one. On the other side are rap albums where every track leads in a very unified manner from one to the next. In the first category falls a lot of the mega-albums, like Lil Wayne’s The Carter III. “A Milli,” by Bangladesh, has an electronic, chopped and screwed sound. Meanwhile, Kanye’s beat “Let The Beat Build” has a soul sample that sets it completely apart from Bangladesh’s production. The fact that these albums sound so different from one track to the next is primarily a result of the fact that there are different producers for every track. 

But then there are albums that largely have only one sound world, and each track then works to explore and expand out that sound world. A great example of that album is Dr. Dre’s Chronic: 2001.It’s no surprise, then, that Dr. Dre produced every song on that album. His ability to guide the album in a single direction means that all the songs sound similar, without ever being repetitive. For example, many of the songs use the minor scale, which gives the album that dark feel, as between “Forgot About Dre” and“Let’s Get High." 

Kendrick’s TPAB, then, is an album that falls into the latter category. It has an incredibly unified sound, even though there are many different producers on it. For example, we have Pharrell, Flyin Lotus, and Boi-1da as credited producers. But it’s actually Sounwave who appears the most on tracks, a total of 7 times. But every track except 1 has more than 1 producer listed in the credits on Wikipedia. In fact, “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” has a grand total of 4 producers listed! But somehow, overall, Kendrick managed to pick beats that all sound related. Jay-Z probably has one of the best ears for a beat in the game — discovering Kanye, discovering 9th Wonder — but Kendrick is right behind him. The difference is Jay-Z follows the sound of his time, while Kendrick, like Kanye,is currently defining it. What I think is interesting about Kendrick’s own unique type of unification is that it doesn’t consist primarily of subgenres of rap, or the sounds of his songs; it actually consists of strictly musical aspects, like harmony. For instance, there are tons of jazzy chords on “For Free?”.

On this song, normal, triadic (3-note) chords are replaced and extended to have lots of notes (into chords that include 4 or even 5 notes.) These extended, spacy chords are reflected all over the album, as on“Institutionalized,” or the opening of “Hood Politics.” Jazz has been in rap for a while, as on Tribe Called Quest’s songs. But those were always samples. TPAB sometimes comes across as a live performance of a jazz quartet where the lead singer just happens to be rapping. But, of course, most of those aesthetic choices were made by session musicians, not Kendrick himself, who almost definitely doesn’t know any harmonic music theory. In this way, then, Kendrick shows the ability to guide his unofficial artistic collective as well as RZA did Wu-Tang, or Dr. Dre did Aftermath records. RZA coached all 9 members of his clan to huge success, making all of their beats and business decisions (such as what label each group member, like Raekwon, would sign with.) Dr. Dre, meanwhile, also obviously made beats for Snoop Dogg, N.W.A., and others, but he also launched Aftermath Records, which directly or indirectly discovered Eminem, 50 Cent, and Game. Kendrick, in picking unified beats and session musicians that worked great together, displays the same kind of foresight and genius. 

I’ve always thought it interesting that rap is almost inherently a collaborative process. No one blinks twice when a producer makes a beat and then gives it to a rapper, with almost no interaction or aesthetic discussion between the two. In fact, 50 Cent wrote the raps for “In Da Club” without ever having heard the beat. This would make almost no sense in other arts, or musical arts. For instance, classical composers write their own complete music, and then give it to musicians to play. Kendrick seems to be an excellent mediator of this relationship. In fact, I wanted to pitch an article to one of my freelance media outlets, WatchLoud or Pigeons and Planes, that would be a complete review of To Pimp A Butterfly without ever mentioning Kendrick Lamar once. That’s how essential part I think the session musicians and unheralded or unnamed contributors are to this project. 

As for Kendrick’s rap itself, this album continues a general theme in Kendrick’s music. Since Section.80, and down through good kid, m.A.A.d city on to To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick has slowly simplified his technical style. Since “Rigamortis” on Section.80, Kendrick hasn’t ever utilized a musical motive to the same complex, sophisticated extent, an idea that I covered for Pigeons and Planes here. But, somehow, this doesn’t really matter to me. That’s because his poetic message is so strong. There are some interesting musical aspects to it though. 

But he does do something melodically (strictly musically) that I’ve only heard once before, from Pharoahe Monch. I want to compare Kendrick’s own rap verses and the variations form in classical music. In classical music, variations is a form where a composer takes a small idea and creates a series of somewhat different sections of music that places that small idea in extremely different contexts. The idea is to show that the composer can come up with a great melodic idea that is flexible and inventive enough to appear in tons of different places, like an imitative canon, or a dance. Such an example is the “Variations On A Shaker Melody” form Aaron Copeland’s masterful 1944 piece “Appalachian Spring,” which you can hear here. 

If you listen closely, you can tell that sometimes the opening musical idea is played quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes in by one group of instruments, sometimes by another, and so on. In this way, the entire piece is unified, and Copeland displays his versatility and originality. 

I noticed on TPAB that Kendrick does something similar. On the opening song “Wesley’s Theory”, he raps these words: 

What you want? 
You a house or a car?
Forty acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar?
Anythin', see, my name is Uncle Sam, I'm your dog
Motherfucker, you can live at the mall… 

This song “Wesley’s Theory” has a musical speed of 120 Beats Per Minute (BPM.) This speed is quite fast for a rap song. 

Later on in the album, on the song “Alright”, Kendrick actually raps an extremely, unmistakably similar verse: 

“What you want, you a house, you a car?
40 acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar?
Anything, see my name is Lucy, I'm your dog
Motherfucker, you can live at the mall…” 

But the speed of “Alright” is actually much slower than when that same exact verse is rapped on “Wesley’s Theory.” The speed of “Alright” is 56 BPM, much less than the 112 BPM of “Alright.” It’s also important to mention that the musical rhythms from one song to the next on those bars are also the same, allowing the astute listener to recognize them as the same melodic idea. In this way, then — by placing the same melodic idea in a new musical context — Kendrick is engaging with the variations form in a way that rappers often don’t. 

So, yes. That whole 1500 page article is actually only a small, small part of why I think To Pimp A Butterflyis the greatest rap album of all time.