As a producer, Dr. Dre is known for having mentored 3 great protégés over the years, ushering Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Kendrick Lamar into both rap and mainstream music stardom at the beginning of the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s, respectively. (And lest we forget, Dre also produced “In Da Club,” the song that launched 50 Cent’s career, too.) Compton-based Lamar’s acclaimed 2012 debut Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was a very good album that demonstrated considerable promise, but it was in no way preparation for 2015‘s To Pimp a Butterfly, a grand, sprawling masterpiece of the highest order. Few albums are this ambitious; to some extent he exhibited this level of prowess and artistic command on his debut, but it was only in flashes (like on “Money Trees,” my favorite song of 2012).
Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City evoked a particular time and place and was highly competent music for sure, but it never quite escaped the shadow cast by Dre and the brand of west coast rap he pioneered, even if it was in no way a g-funk record. In many ways, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was an attempt to deconstruct the myth of the legendary city, or at least provide a more realistic update on the world of the city that had for the most part been left to rot since N.W.A released Straight Outta Compton in 1988. Throughout his debut, Lamar employed a “film clip” approach, dropping in various vérité or documentary-like bytes that took the place of the cinematic skits popularized by Dr. Dre‘s The Chronic. It gave the album a rich, widescreen feel and lent his lyrics additional weight since there was a built-in assumption that he was presenting everything as realistic or even real (even if this wasn’t actually the case).
He expands on this approach on his sophomore effort, To Pimp a Butterfly, which retains some of the vérité style of the first album but largely pushes forward into new territory, incorporating jazzy interludes, more varied production techniques, and frankly just better, more interesting songs (only one track, “Hood Politics,” falls a little flat). Best of all, the music constantly shifts; sometimes there are multiple songs or movements within a single track, including a refrain (“I remember you was conflicted…”) that resurfaces every few tracks throughout the record. Taken together in a 79-minute, 16-track package, it’s quite a whirlwind experience, and a major artistic statement from an exciting young artist who hopefully has even more to offer. It’s hard to imagine him ever topping To Pimp a Butterfly, though — overall, it’s the best hip-hop album since OutKast‘s Stankonia, from way back in 2000.