Fresh from receiving the keys to his native city of Compton, rapper Kendrick Lamar was awarded 5 Grammys at the 58th Annual Awards with a clean sweep of the rap category on Monday night. The Top Dawg Entertainment figurehead also took to the stage to perform at the ceremony and didn’t hold a single thing back. Performing songs from last year’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ such as ‘Blacker the Berry’ and ‘Alright’ in his now familiar medley style Lamar was backed with jazzy live instrumentation and surrounded with, what some have called ‘controversial’ imagery. Most notably Kendrick entered the stage wearing chains and concluded his performance with another never before heard verse from his ‘untitled’ series and a map of Africa marked with the words ‘Compton’ shining on screen behind him. Despite missing out, albeit expectedly, to Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran in the album and song of the year categories Kendrick still has every reason to celebrate what has been a landmark year for him.
The universal acclaim, his most recent album ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ has gained from both critics and fans in the short time since its release has likely surprised even Lamar himself. And given its flawless instrumentals, dense lyrics and amazing concept and structure one would expect the album will only continue to age well into the future. Whilst Lamar’s ascension to Grammy winning artist is rooted in the late 2000s it’s in the last 5 years that Kendrick has seen his popularity soar into the mainstream and its his most recent record ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ which has seen him dominate this year’s Grammys and solidified his status as one of this decade’s most heralded musicians. With ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’s’ one year anniversary just around the corner in the rest of this article I’ll be discussing my three favourite songs from his third studio album and just why they’re so great.
Wesley’s Theory feat. George Clinton and Thundercat (prod. by Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Sounwave & Flippa):
The dizzying opening track of ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ has Kendrick rapping from the standpoint of several characters throughout to convey the financial struggles many successful black artists encounter in modern America. The song’s first verse sees him dialling up some of hip hop’s worst stereotypes to the full playing the cocky but naive rapper wishing to blow his newly found fortune on jewels and cars. In the second verse we hear from the personification of capitalist America a.k.a. Uncle Sam who encourages the rapper’s free spending ways telling him to “cop everything two times”. Uncle Sam signs off by promising to “Wesley Snipe” the rapper before 35, referencing Wesley Snipes famous financial slip ups, for which he was jailed. The lyrics and structure of this song alone make it incredible but the features and production from Thundercat, George Clinton and Flying Lotus are what makes this track a real standout and Kendrick’s quirkiest song yet.
How Much A Dollar Cost feat. James Fauntleroy and Ronald Isley (prod. by LoveDragon):
Famously Barack Obama’s favourite song of 2015, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’s’ 11th track sees Kendrick further sharpening his already astonishing storytelling abilities as showcased on his last two albums with tracks like ‘Keisha’s Song’ and ‘m.A.A.d City’. This time he’s at a gas station in South Africa and a homeless man is begging him for 10 rand-roughly equivalent to 1 US dollar. Kendrick rejects the mans pleas for money coldly declaring he won’t “contribute money just for his pipe”. The homeless man begins to recite passages of the Bible to Kendrick, specifically Exodus:14, but despite now feeling guilty he still refuses to give the man money claiming his “selfishness is what got him here” and “every nickel is his to keep”. The song concludes with the homeless man revealing himself to Kendrick as God and telling him his stubborn refusal to give him a dollar has cost him a place in heaven.
The Blacker The Berry (prod. by Boi-1da, KOZ and Terrence Martin):
If the release of ‘i’ had die hard hip hop fans wondering if Kendrick would try to appeal to mainstream tastes on his next album then ‘The Blacker The Berry’ smashed any such notion into a million pieces. Unlike ‘i’, ‘The Blacker The Berry’ is not a feel good track and it didn’t win Kendrick any Grammys. In place of lyrics embracing self love and acceptance Kendrick snarls ferociously about self hatred, racism, black stereotypes and black on black crime over what, in my opinion, was the hardest and meanest hip hop beat of last year. Combine this with Jamaican vocalist Assassin’s booming chorus and the song’s jazzy outro serving to cool the listener off from the 4 and a half minute rampage and the result is Kendrick Lamar’s best song to date.
Of course every song from ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is incredible in it’s own right, but these are just my picks, what are yours? You can catch Kendrick being presented with the Grammy for best rap album here.