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How Kendrick Lamar’s new album has changed the game for pretty much everyone

Jeff Miers

So Kanye West, Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake have come out publicly with their effusive praise for Kendrick Lamar, who has just released what many critics, this one included, are calling a masterpiece.

That’s all well and good, but here’s the thing – no one should care, at all, what West, Swift and, to a lesser extent, Timberlake have to say about Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly.” The ship has sailed, and they aren’t on it. Lamar has raised the bar, and now everyone in popular music – not just hip-hop – has to deal with him.

West was perhaps attempting damage control when he tweeted the following recently: “Kendrick is an inspiration. Thank you for the vibrations and the spirit. Your meaning, message and execution are gifts to the world.”

That’s true. But those gifts have also underscored the vapidity of West’s own “message,” which, as far as it can be discerned, is a narcissistic minefield, a room full of mirrors, with every one of them reflecting West’s image back at himself.

And Swift? Forget about her. Swift praising Lamar is like Kenny G praising John Coltrane. It’s somehow simultaneously meaningless and absurd.

The cold truth is, neither West nor Swift contributed much of anything of cultural value, despite the fact that they’ve been given the world’s biggest microphones and have had every opportunity to offer something of worth. (West writes about himself, while Swift writes about relationships all but exclusively.)

By contrast, Lamar has released an album of searing complexity and a defiantly challenging stance, both in terms of the thematic material and the music. He grew up in the notoriously dangerous and poverty-ridden streets of Compton, Calif., outside of Los Angeles, but unlike so many others in the world of hip-hop who emerged from similar circumstances, Lamar comes across as thoughtful, if somewhat conflicted and plagued by survivor’s guilt. By most accounts, he’s a bit of a straight-arrow, a young man who eschews drink and drugs, and has had the same girlfriend since high school. He also deals with what are quite likely the country’s biggest issues, race relations and racial inequality, in a nuanced fashion that puts his jet-setting peers to shame.

Lamar seems to have a thing for jazz, too – or at least, for the fiery, complex and virtuosic improvisation and interplay that are major tenets of jazz. This is where Lamar is truly leaving his peers in the dust.

Jon Lehning, a 23-year-old jazz musician and University at Buffalo graduate, believes that Lamar is poised to turn his reign as pop music man-of-the-moment into a culture-changing tenure. Lehning is serious about jazz, and is part of a new breed of young area players concerned for the medium’s future, and eager to find meaningful new hybrids that might aid in both pushing the music forward and keeping it alive for future generations. Lehning – who leads his own Jon Lehning Quartet, and has been seen around town sitting in with the Ellen Pieroni Quartet and Saxophone Colossus, among others – is also quite likely concerned about his own future employment opportunities. The recently published Nielsen 2014 Year-End Report proclaiming jazz to be tied with classical music as “the least-popular genre in the U.S.” can’t have encouraged Lehning and young musicians like him, either.

Lamar is not, strictly speaking, a jazz musician, but “Butterfly” is clearly an album that follows a certain jazz ethic. Just as artists like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and more recently, Robert Glasper and Ambrose Akinmusire sought to fuse jazz methodology with more contemporary rhythmic forms – thereby reuniting the music with its roots, which are decidedly African-American – so, too, has Lamar brought sophistication, density and raw urgency to the increasingly formulaic and bloated form that is today’s hip-hop. By doing so, he has radicalized a genre that, to be brutally honest, has not been radical since the 1990s. He’s also offered a lesson in genuine artistry that might make both Kanye and Beyoncé assume a humble stance.

With “Butterfly” set to debut with incredibly high numbers – by last weekend, the album had already been streamed in the area of 40 million times, and 10 of its songs were in the Top 50 most streamed tracks, worldwide – it seems that, in what is an increasingly rare occurrence, an artist with something complex and challenging to say will have the world’s biggest platform from which to say it.

“He is about to have the most popular record in America, if not the world. And what’s on that record? Jazz, improvisation, real humans playing real instruments,” Lehning said via Facebook. “For better or worse, Lamar has as much social influence as anyone in determining what is cool and worthwhile in music today. ‘Butterfly’ recognizes jazz as having a worthwhile history, and also has allusions to Parliament Funkadelic, James Brown and others. So he’s showing that jazz is still viable in 2015. Maybe the language is changing, but jazz’s language has always changed. There are others who’ve said the same thing, but none with as much cultural currency as Kendrick has.”

Lehning is right. To borrow a phrase from the Who’s Pete Townshend, “The music must change.” Thanks to Lamar, it has. And for the better.


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