To Pimp A Butterfly (2015, Interscope)
Kendrick, whose body had pretty much been encased in gold by the music world at large after only his second record (or his first major release), remained dormant for a few years, save for a few key show-stealing features on some radio hits, an opening slot for the Yeezus tour, and a world-stopping verse on “Control.” Which, the latter — whatever. XXL and Source readers alike (yes, somehow, these magazines are still in print and people still read them) turned their heads 360 degrees and then some, Kendrick’s bar-heavy screed instilling a sense of excitement in them and speculation of a rebirth of bar-for-bar competition between rappers.
That definitely didn’t happen, because, well — we’re way past that. When’s the last time rap was purely based on having Mad Bars Yo? Maybe it’s the contrarian in me (hmm…nope it’s not) — I do not want to see the “lyrical rappers” mentioned by Kendrick on “Control” in a giant rap battle to see Who’s The Best. What is this, 1981?
And so, thank god that none of that boring prick waving exists on To Pimp A Butterfly, where even on tracks like “King Kunta,” the braggadocio (god I hate that word) doesn’t sit too long in “I’m the best rapper” territory, Kendrick instead directing the energy towards “stop using ghostwriters” and “you fucking hacks.” There’s some righteousness I can get behind! I want to help myself — and others, of course — be better.
Otherwise, we’re listening to some pretty deep soul-searching and internal conflict here, guided by some incredibly talented and famous session musicians. Here, the Butterfly Band opts out of mando superstar features, leaving all the verse work almost exclusively to Kendrick, save for a Snoop Dogg hook here and an extended Rhapsody verse there.
Take single “i,” the funky hit appearing in sequence almost an entire year after floating on radio airwaves. “i” is — within the context of the album at large — recorded as a live performance, presumably cut short by a physical altercation within the audience. Kendrick begins his plea. “Not on my time! Not on my time!” Audience members talk amongst themselves while he pleads for them to “appreciate the little bit of life we got left […] And, I say this because..I love niggas. I love niggas, bro.” The less stoic proponents of young black lives may feel a tightness in their throat. He recites a poem to the now-pacified spectators. Too often is Lamar pigeonholed within the bubble of “concious rap,” where this particular recording — regardless of it being real or not — is resonant on a level far beyond choir-preaching disguised as clever rhyming. Kendrick and his team — using only sound — craft a vivid and powerful scene.
And I guess that factors into the biggest accomplishment out of this collection here: the outright refusal to tick boxes off today’s major-label rap record checklist, instead crafting something sharpened and absolutely sure of itself. Something to dance to, to ponder, to wallow in, to feel inspired by.
Listen: “For Sale (Interlude)” – The world-famous rapper faces himself within the hall of mirrors. This is some real internal struggle shit. Kendrick and the band ride utter helplessness to rapturous joy within the space of four and a half minutes.
Have One On Me (2010, Drag City)
Sometime in 2009, Joanna Newsom underwent surgery on her vocal nodules after years of touring on very long and densely lyrical songs. So, you’ll quickly notice, if you’ve heard her earlier work, a pretty dramatic change in the sound of her voice on record, a triple album that runs just over two hours and is worth every second of listening.
I recall getting really stoned and walking through fields, this record playing through my earbuds connected to my smartphone. Those two things were the only things connecting me to the 21st century. Just taken by the harp and the voice of Joanna, I felt a weird rush over my body, and it seemed as if I had traveled to a much earlier time on Earth, like the Renaissance or something.
And then, of course, you have what are obviously love and breakup songs, the literary content of those don’t try to get too hip on; that’s a bit voyeuristic and unnecessary to me. The emotion is conveyed more than well enough to negate tabloid-esque speculation. Take notes, Taylor Swift.
Years after my Emotional Time Travel experience, while reading about Have One On Me on the internet, I discovered that Side C track “You And Me Bess” was based on the story of Dick Turpin, a 16th century highwayman charged with horse theft and sentenced to hanging. Of course it is! Music ripped straight from the DNA master tape. What a talent. I don’t have much more to say about this — I don’t really think about it. I just feel it.
Listen: “You And Me Bess”
The Go! Team
Thunder, Lightning, Strike (2004/5; Memphis, Columbia)
Found sound collages — a la …Endtroducing and Since I Left You — are labyrinths of sampled material. The Avalanches themselves went on record as saying that it would be completely impossible to discern every single one of the over five hundred samples on their 1999 debut. The Go! Team takes a different approach to sampling. On Thunder, Lightning, Strike, a record created in Pro Tools on the personal computer of band leader/then-only-member Ian Parton, live instrumentation is dubbed over sample work, in an ostensible effort to create theme songs you would hear on television in the 80s. Parton plays all the various instruments on the record. Interestingly enough, when it came time to form a band, Parton commissioned two drummers (one to handle the sampled percussion and one to play the rock drums) as well as a female British-Nigerian rapper known as Ninja (to freestyle rap in place of the sampled vocals; Ninja a rock star in her own right who plays the master of ceremonies very well) to tour with these unique sample-based records. It’s one thing to make records with your computer and a sampler. It’s another to get a band together and swimmingly interpret them for a live setting to entertaining results.
The saturday-morning-cartoon label? Fine. The Go! Team went on to write songs that sounded less like The A-Team or CHiPS, and I can’t fault the 70s babies for making that association. These, to me — if they are theme songs, then they are veritable upgrades. The Go! Team are a product of golden-era television jingle writing, 70s funk music, early 80s hip hop culture (think Wild Style), 90s shoegaze music, and 80s noise rock like Sonic Youth. And so, I find it rather trite to simply label this brilliant time/world-spanning collage of sound “80s theme music” and leave it at that.
Thunder, Lightning, Strike is a decidedly lo-fi collection. Audiophiles and sound engineers may be offended. Fuck them. There’s a very Kevin Shields approach here. On MBV’s Loveless: every sound on the record is compressing in on itself until everything sounds like it’s coming from one track. This is where you get the “hundreds of guitars” theories concerning that particular album when there’s only one or two at most. Something similar is happening on Thunder — the sum of cacophony is formed by each part of ragged, red-level noise. The result is a homogeneous audio creation for the lizard brain. Of course, Shields would later remix a Go! Team track on follow-up Proof of Youth.
Above all, Thunder, Lightning, Strike is joy in a can. Every part of it is raucous, innocuous, cute, motivating, affirming.
Listen: “Huddle Formation” – Disembodied voices of cheerleaders chanting over a kazoo. If you think you have a cooler idea, where’s your Mercury Prize nomination?
Strawberry Jam (2007, Domino)
Animal Collective — ever-changing; in style, in lineup, in sound — wanted to make a record (according to Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox) that “sounded like [an airline packet of strawberry jam].” Slick, saccharine, bright; futuristic, maybe? Well, a listen to the first five minutes of the record (“Peacebone”) and you may just declare the mission accomplished. Especially prominent here is the atmospheric, glitchy electronic work of Brian “Geologist” Weitz, bringing already oddball songs into aural insanity. Then, there’s the almost tribal percussion of Panda Bear, and the trademark yelps and screams of Dave “Avey Tare” Portner, the McCartney to Panda’s Lennon. Or the other way around. Or neither. I don’t know.
Anyway, though the record has its highs and lows, it is at its best when it’s heavy. Perfectly do the Collective’s dichotomous penchants for pop experimentalism and freakout psychedelia fuse on “For Reverend Green” a pounding, 7/8 rocker. Portner screams over his heavily distorted guitar while Panda Bear harmonizes like Brian Wilson over his own drumming. Like the next record, these guys are great at 1. colorizing the most common of chord progressions and 2. building and releasing tension like any electronic dance musician or DJ worth his salt.
And then there’s centerpiece “Fireworks:” Avey Tare and Panda Bear are at their best when mutually harmonizing (see Sung Tongs). The drumming, rolling, syncopated; flutters across the track just as the guitar work does. “Fireworks,” clocking in around seven minutes, is one of the Animal Collective’s most popular songs. If the world (or, the FCC) made any sense at all it would be played on alternative rock radio. Anyway, we here at the Sea of Perspectives salute the Animal Collective and all their sonic trials.
The experimental movements — “#1” and “Cuckoo Cuckoo” — fit in just fine.
Listen: “For Reverend Green”
Halcyon Digest (2010, 4AD)
People have been gushing about Deerhunter for a long time, and well — this is kind of embarrassing — I never got into them until a few months ago, at the behest of Apple Music, which kept recommending Halcyon Digest to me almost every day of the week.
The fanfare is appropriate. These guys are making smart rock music. Particularly clever about this collection of songs is what seems to be an emulation of electronic dance music played by a rock band. Drummer Moses Archuleta is quite the time-keeper, providing the trance-like pulse — and the band follows suit. No flashy guitar work here!
A DJ could literally take this record and play it, and do nothing. You’ll hear DJ remixes of non-electronic songs, and they have only the climactic bits to pull from in order to create the “drop” or the “breakdown” or whatever (this usually accompanied by the DJ’s trademark drum patterns/synth patches). Almost every song on this record builds and fades like an electronic dance track.
One of our favorite things to hear in the whole wide world is a band finding a ridiculous groove and staying within it for a long time. So, of course, “Desire Lines” is probably our favorite (tied with “Coronado”).
Venturing into psychedelic territory are they on “Helicopter,” a pitiful number on a Russian human trafficking victim. Though, yknow, sometimes the drugs do play on us in terrible ways and we keep no company. Remember to appreciate life! This record’s definitely saying that.
Listen: “Coronado” – There’s a tenor sax on here that is absolutely fucking mental, and its line is being played by the guitar as well. It’s beautiful. Deerhunter benefits from a drummer with excellent timing and a producer/engineer with an ear like Steve Albini. Everything about this is perfect.