At this point in the year, it seems redundant, even annoying, to again tout Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly as the most important, if not the best, album of 2015. Anyone who follows the lists that accumulate around this time of year knows such designations mean very little. But perhaps this year is different. TPAB's surprise release in March was an event: that day I found myself glued to my Twitter feed, watching critics and others post their first reactions as we collectively experienced Lamar’s new album for the first time. Then came the think pieces: from celebrations of its artistry and explanations for its overwhelming amount of allusions and cultural references, to discussions of how the album links up with different social justice movements and how it may fall short. Along with provoking all this, Lamar's album performed the important work of disrupting familiar channels of white privilege in what felt like the most ambitious way possible.
On To Pimp a Butterfly Lamar isn't interested in preserving a safe space for listeners who choose to remain ignorant of what his album celebrates and what it condemns. For this reason, it remains a challenging, complex listen, from start to finish. To echo an old truism from one of my undergraduate theology classes: when we read scripture we don't simply interpret the text that sits in front of us; that same text also reads us. It's no coincidence that this point applies to TPAB in much the same way it applies to sacred texts. These works question the stability of our reading even as we question the reliability of their account. For listeners like myself, who haven't always known how to appreciate the music of nonwhite cultures (instead spending my youth in the comfortable recesses of indie rock) and whose fandom can very easily slide into appropriation, TPAB’s inaccessibility arrives like a revelation. Established voices will wax poetic about how Lamar's music is a testament to our times, that it represents the turmoil and trauma of what it means to live under white supremacy, as so many great rap albums have done and will continue to do time and again. But what makes TPAB so great is that, in addition to documenting and complicating our representations, it has little patience for its white audience. As kris ex writes,
[Lamar] took all of the acclaim he had received as a critical darling from his major label debut—the rightfully extolled good kid, m.A.A.d city—and doubled down on his Blackness, not for the entertainment of white people, but in near-total disregard for their experience of his conversation. He was Miles Davis playing with his back to the crowd, and in that sense, it's a miracle that this record has found the audiences that it has found.
For those of us who simply want to enjoy music on our own terms TPAB doesn't offer much. Rather, as it moves through what Lamar calls "survivor's guilt" and knits together the fragments of poetic monologue about Lucy (the temptation towards success, fame, or a flight from reality, aka the devil), TPAB confronts its listeners with wave after wave of radical truths, born out of Lamar’s own personal struggle to stay grounded and remain accountable to his community: a story that began on 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city.
I was late to the party. I first heard “Backseat Freestyle” and “Swimming Pools” the way a lot of people did: on the radio, in a social setting, wherever a catchy hook and ubiquitous chorus seemed appropriate. Like so many other casual listeners, I initially wrote off “Swimming Pools” as an ode to youthful debauchery when it was in fact a sharp indictment of substance abuse. It took me longer than most to finally listen to good kid, m.A.A.d city in its entirety, but it soon became clear why the album had been met with such wide acclaim. To hear “Swimming Pools” in its proper context is to Lamar’s this anecdote about drinking as part of a personal narrative, a grim precursor to the heartbreaking epic “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” To hear it any other way is to miss something crucial to its message. The word “context” appears repeatedly on To Pimp a Butterfly, and if that’s not meant to be instructive, I don’t know what is.
Many of the songs on To Pimp a Butterfly are made to stand on their own, but as with most Lamar’s output, they’re richer in context. Even his first single from the album, the controversially sunny “i,” is granted a second life: refashioned as a live performance that extends into a impassioned plea from Lamar to a restless audience. But among TPAB’s many incredible moments and transitions, the sequence of "Complexion (A Zulu Love)” and "The Blacker the Berry,” strikes me as the most brutal, the most honest and disruptive pairing on the album. Over a delayed beat and bassline, the former track finds Lamar negotiating with his ideals of universal human worth, where “complexion don’t mean a thing.” The song slowly builds into celebration of black diversity that culminates in Rapsody’s beautiful final verse. As the track ends, we hear Lamar’s voice reemerge: “Barefoot babies with no cares / Teenage gun toters that don’t play fair, should I get out the car? / I don’t see Compton, I see something much worse / The land of the landmines, the hell that’s on earth.” Then comes “The Blacker the Berry,” Lamar’s unflinching survey of that grim reality: a struggle that not only encompasses the ongoing legacy of racism, but of gang violence, trauma, and a “generational hatred” in which Lamar finds himself complicit. As he emphasized back in April, this song is as personal as it is political. “When I say these it’s for myself, it’s therapeutic for myself, because I still feel that urge and I still feel that anger and that hatred for this man next door.” To Pimp a Butterfly tears down the distance between artist and audience, but it has no time for listeners who aren’t willing to meet it on its own terms.
Other albums from 2015 found their creators grappling with similar kinds of distance, but rarely was it dismantled so effectively or delivered with such urgency. These albums held my attention for other reasons. Apart from To Pimp a Butterfly, no album felt as intimate and attentive as Sufjan Steven’s Carrie & Lowell; no album was as electric and unabashed as Grimes’ Art Angels; and no album made nostalgic self-loathing so attractive as Tame Impala’s Currents.
At the local level, one of my favourite Edmonton artists, Jessica Jalbert, joined forces with Renny Wilson (another former Edmonton stalwart) to make Faith Healer. Their album Cosmic Troubles surpassed my already high expectations with a heady blend of VU-inspired ballads and stoner lullabies. My most memorable concert experience was provided by Regina’s Andy Shauf, who drew a sold out crowd to one of Edmonton’s most remote venues and held us all in quiet reverence for the entirety of his set. As I prepared to leave Edmonton, Vancouver’s Weed released the aptly titled Running Back, which provided just the right soundtrack for my journey back to Winnipeg.
It was a year of transition for me, as I spent significant amounts of time living in four different cities, stumbling my way through new social arrangements while attempting to figure out my next steps. As always, I’ve found comfort and energy in the discovery of new music. These annual lists are a chance for me to take stock of the year; but more than that, they illustrate how all the music I’ve listened to this year has had a key part in shaping it. This music is an inextricable part of 2015, not only because of how it challenged and inspired me, but because it often reflected what mattered most.
10 favourite songs from the past year
- Beach House – Sparks
- Jenny Hval – That Battle is Over
- Braids – Taste
- Thundercat – Them Changes
- Empress Of – How Do You Do It
- Weed – Stay in the Summer
- Tame Impala – The Less I Know the Better
- Vince Staples – Norf Norf
- Grimes – Realiti
- Bjork – Stonemilker
And a full list of my favourite albums from 2015
- Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
- Grimes – Art Angels
- Faith Healer – Cosmic Troubles
- Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
- Tame Impala – Currents
- Andy Shauf – The Bearer of Bad News
- Empress Of – Me
- Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
- Weed – Running Back
- Thundercat – The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam
- Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love
- Beach House – Depression Cherry
- Lower Dens – Escape From Evil
- Viet Cong – Viet Cong
- Deerhunter – Fading Frontier
- Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs
- Joanna Newsome – Divers
- Bjork – Vulnicura
- Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again
- Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, Girl