To Pimp a Butterfly
Name a hip-hop masterpiece, an album of stunning creativity and game-changing vision, from the past 10 years. Having trouble? That’s because, in the main, hip-hop’s greatest influence over the past decade hasn’t really been heard in hip-hop, but in other forms that have fully assimilated the genre as one of myriad available influences.
The one exception to this general observation would have to be “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” the 2012 debut from Compton, Calif.’s Kendrick Lamar, throughout which the virtuosic young wordsmith and rhythmist stood in stark contrast to the guileless braggadocio that has largely become rap’s stock in trade, instead offering an intelligent camera’s-eye view of a city in turmoil, and the emotional havoc that turmoil wreaks on said city’s inhabitants. Lamar arrived as a ray of light in a dismal, seedy and heavily curtained room.
Turns out “good kid” was pretty much just a practice run, though, as good as it was. With “To Pimp A Butterfly,” Lamar has made an artistic leap not unlike the one perpetrated by Radiohead between “OK Computer” and “Kid A” – he has redefined his own working methods, and in the process, expanded an entire idiom’s horizon of possibilities. He didn’t do it alone, of course.
Lamar is a frantically inventive rapper, a man who rhymes as if he’s trying desperately to keep pace with the speed of his own imagination, and that rare writer able to see nuance and subtlety within a culture that values neither. Hefty tomes could be penned regarding issues of contemporary blackness, survivor’s guilt, the need for vigilance in the battle against the temptation to sell out, the abundance of sharks in the music business cesspool, and the dichotomy between white liberal notions of acceptable rebellion and African-American reality, all of which form part of “Butterfly’s” mosaic. Dense, fascinating material viewed through the prism of dizzying ingenuity, all of it.
But it’s the music that hits the hardest here, and the manner in which Lamar both oversees and steers that music through his textual concerns. The list of musical collaborators includes producer Flying Lotus, neo-soul/fusion bassist Thundercat, pianist Glasper, saxophonist Kamasi Washington, singers Lalah Hathaway and Bilal and George Clinton. They help to mold an album that incorporates the influence of ‘70s funk, soul, R&B, acid jazz, the Last Poets, Afrika Bambaataa, Fela Kuti and Radiohead, to name a few. The biggest influence of all seems to be Flying Lotus, who appears as producer on only one track, but who hangs over all 80 minutes of “To Pimp a Butterfly” like some sort of twisted-but-benevolent patriarch. Ultimately, it’s the way that Lamar has assimilated the hyper-virtuosic influence of Lotus into his own vision that makes this album such a gravity-defying intellectual and visceral face-melter.
- Jeff Miers
All I Know: Duets with Dave Stryker and Jeremy Allen
“You Don’t Know What Love Is” is one of the small but authentic miracles of what we’ve come to call the Great American Songbook. It was originally written to make its debut in an Abbott and Costello movie but it never made it. Just as incredibly, it did make its debut in a Ritz Brothers movie.
It is one of the greatest American torch songs of all time – “gloom in the raw” composer Alec Wilder admiringly called the integrity of Gene de Paul’s melody. Even more powerful was the lyric of Don Raye, who also gave us “The House of Blue Lights” and the similarly stark “Just for a Thrill.”
What 30-something singer Rachel Caswell does with it on her second disc is truly remarkable. The disc is a series of duets – most with superb guitarist Dave Stryker, a veteran of the Buffalo News Jazz at the Albright-Knox series, and some with bassist Jeremy Allen. It is Allen playing double time with whom Caswell sings “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Despite Allen’s double time and Caswell’s own scat-singing improvisation in the middle, the song doesn’t completely lose the power and majesty that Billie Holiday found. It is a terrific performance by the singer, whose taste is impeccable. Listen to what she does with “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” “For All We Know,” its kissing cousin Jimmy Webb’s “All I Know,” and “One for My Baby.”
To carry off a complete record of duets like this requires a singer of perfect intonation and virtually infallible taste, as well as no small amount of the essential jazz swing that once caused musicians to call Ella Fitzgerald “Lady Time.”
It is no secret that jazz is no longer a hugely popular music in terms of money flowing into its venues and media. Singers have long since been its major successes which has made female jazz singers, especially younger ones, a glut on the market.
Amid far too many singers who are forgettable in a variety of negligible ways, Caswell is a memorable standout. She’s one worth a devoted following.
– Jeff Simon
Easter at Ephesus
Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles
The best-selling Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles are soaring again with a lovely disc of songs relevant to Easter, plus a few in honor of Ascension and Pentecost. I was especially happy to see it because considering how important a feast Easter is, the season is fleeting and the Easter hymns we hear are few. The sisters generously give us 27 hymns and chants. Among them are “Alle Psallite Cum Luya,” with that marvelous medieval drone sound, and “The Clouds of Night,” an English text put to the wonderful German hymn “Lass uns erfreuen.” Here was a revelation: “Regina Caeli Jubila,” a 12th century chant, is the exact melody that Michael Praetorius made into “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” That is a Christmas carol I love and I never knew that the melody went so far back.
Other recognizable hymns are “Alleluia! The Strive is O’er,” the ancient “Ye Sons and Daughters” and the “Come Holy Ghost” by the great Jesuit musical scholar Father Louis Lambillotte, who also gave us “Panis Angelicus” and “On This Day, O Beautiful Mother.” The nuns in this order are mostly young and as on their hit Advent disc, their voices have a bright, sweet sound, very uniform throughout the disc. Two hymns I desperately wanted to hear and did not are “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” (with text by Elizabeth Leeson, not to be confused with the popular “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” which is on this CD) and “Alleluia, Alleluia, Let the Holy Anthem Rise,” a majestic hymn which seems to be available only on cruddy amateurish performances on YouTube. Perhaps for next Easter?
– Mary Kunz Goldman
Mozart 5, Vieuxtemps 4
Hahn has a laid-back lyricism that brings out bittersweet notes in these two very different concertos. The Mozart is known for its “Turkish” interlude, which is performed here with remarkable percussive zing – but listening, I was more struck by the wistful minuet theme. It’s hard to explain what makes that simple, courtly melody put a lump in your throat, but it does, and Hahn plays it with a beguiling directness. She also brings a lovely songful approach to the beautiful Adagio. (That Adagio is funny – after an unpromising beginning, it turns into music of sublime beauty.) In the Vieuxtemps concerto, Hahn is up to the demands of high romanticism. What a slow movement the concerto has: subtitled Adagio religioso. Hahn plays the whole fiery concerto with conviction and intensity. This is marvelous, super-romantic music we should hear more often.
– Mary Kunz Goldman