To Pimp a Butterfly: Reflections

I haven’t done an album review yet and that isn’t what I’m about to do. But whenever something in music really gets me thinking I gravitate here to write another post; in this case, it’s predictably regarding Kendrick Lamar’s album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” released a week early on March 16. As a disclaimer, I don’t allow myself to read any professional critics’ album reviews online before forming personal opinions, and in any event I don’t find most to be all that thought-provoking. Often times they delve into long-winded analyses of each individual joint on the track list, or else look at the elements of composition and dissect their veracity, from production to delivery to lyricism. Regardless, I’ve spent a couple days mulling over this project and I’m still listening right now as I write — whether that’s because I simply can’t let the music rest, or otherwise, so I can get some inspiration for this post… honestly, each reason is equally valid in its own right. Essentially, reflecting upon my own listening experience, “To Pimp a Butterfly” is both chronically addicting and audaciously inspiring.

The ‘addiction’ part of this equation comes from the fact that the album is an artistic effort that must be actively evaluated as an intellectual masterpiece. I think that hits on one of the great appeals of Kendrick Lamar: to really love what I’m listening to, I first have to comprehend it. The act of understanding what he’s saying and why he’s saying it, how the production behind him buttresses the lyrics and intonation, and in what ways the album works as a whole, is all part of my own personal decision to take part in that intellectual challenge. The beauty of Kendrick Lamar’s music is that the listener is incorporated into its creation and success in making the work take form as an enduring, valued piece of art. Listening to Kendrick is not easy, nor is it free (not just in the sense that I bought it on iTunes without any attempt at copping a leak, all for my desire to pay my dues to the master) — just listen to the first interlude.

On “For Free?”, Kdot repeats seven times: “This dick ain’t free.” It took me about six listens to accept this song as tolerable, and another seven for me to actually appreciate it. One thing Kendrick accomplished with “good kid, m.A.A.d city” is that he permanently convinced us that his version of hip-hop is never rappity-rap; the rhymes are real, they paint a picture, they are Kendrick. With “To Pimp a Butterfly” (TPAB), he pushes us past the picture frame, instead forcing us into the complexities of his own mind: a bold and vulnerable task. So then what exactly is he pointing us to when he says “This dick ain’t free”? Sure, the obvious answer can be confused for a desperate call of masculine pity over the hardships of chasing elusive and easily-judging women, which of course fits right in with the intro to the song, delivered by a salty girl who peppers Kendrick with scalding remarks hearkening back to the infamous conversation on Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” (Oh my god, Becky…). But that doesn’t sound like Kendrick to me, especially taking into account substantial evidence of his recognition of the woes of women trying to make it through any means, with “Keisha’s Song [Her Pain]” on Section.80 and its follow up in “Sing About Me” on GKMC. In the light I’m painting it, the frequent, crude line, delivered in an irritable, almost frantic tone, represents a warning. Kendrick is telling us: “Get ready for what’s coming, I’m gonna flow so hard that this might not even be coherent, and on top of that you won’t even like this song, which is too damn bad. AT LEAST you know it won’t be free, you’ll have to work for it, work to understand it, work to respect it, work to find meaning in it.” In this, Kendrick laughs at the ignorant fool who decides after one time through (“no, I seriously listened to the whole thing, even the 12 minute finale”) that the album wasn’t close to as good as GKMC, and probably not even Section.80. Arguably, the album doesn’t really begin until “King Kunta”, which closes with the first instance of the album’s developing theme: “I remember you was conflicted.” The point that I’m trying to illustrate is that took me more than ten listens to gather my own ideas as to what “For Free?” implies, and all the while I still considered it the worst song on the album, forcing myself into his head. But the point isn’t that the song itself sucks, but that the concept of the song, as it sits in the second slot second on the tracklist, propels the listener forward, intrigued as Kendrick begins to tell his story.

The other bottom line is that it takes time, focus, critical analysis, and complete application to the music to decipher his work. And for the people, for the masses who take part in this exercise of the mind, he’s delivered something so provoking and packed with this stuff that it takes a whole month of listening on repeat in order to finally realize that its worth it to try, cuz this guy is the real deal. That’s what makes TPAB addicting, not because I can immediately say I feel the flow and beat selection, but rather because I am curious enough to let him challenge me. Constantly, it’s like I’m fighting to keep up, like I’m always a step behind what he’s saying or where the beat is going. Basically, it confirms my opinion of Kendrick as a god. The entire time I’ve been plagued by the fact that this isn’t experimentation, but that he’s been working on this for two and a half years and what he’s now released is absolutely air-tight with no loose ends.

So finally to my latter claim: inspiration. As I start to compose this paragraph, I’m still listening to TPAB and have just reached the opening 30 seconds of “Hood Politics,” which from the first time listening has been my favorite 16 bars of the entire album. The smooth bass, the acoustic guitar, and straightforward drum pattern.. OOF, oof is all I can say —  but when the instrumental changes course, I used to think to myself every time, “why didn’t Kendrick just rhyme over that for the entire song??” Only now do I acknowledge that that’s the crux of the issue. It’s an unfortunate display of his maturity, unfortunate because two years ago he would’ve murdered that beat, yet today he donates a half-minute of floating supremacy, and then ruthlessly drowns the temporary elation with a journey into his past, laying down words spoken from the vocabulary and thought process of the kid that grew up in Compton. But those thirty seconds were all it took for me to find inspiration: I’ve already spent a lot of time in thought about my next instrumental, which will undoubtedly feature a mash up of those distilled riffs (dropping summer 2015).

Truthfully, I can imagine any given person finding any sort of inspiration from any single song on this album. There are places where that inspiration may take form of motivation to get off your ass and change whatever you are doing that isn’t working (“Institutionalized”), or to denounce the power of selfishness and embrace humility (“How Much A Dollar Cost”), or to heed Kendrick’s final call to action to promote activism among future generations (“Mortal Man”). It doesn’t quite matter what one takes from “To Pimp a Butterfly,” but it’s impossible for a listener to successfully channel Kdot’s rush of raw emotion and social agenda and self-critique in this album and not have some sort of revelation.

Revolutionizing Music

Looking down my blog, “Music Through My Ears,” I wince at the small grey text beneath each post title. It reminds me that I have neglected sharing my ideas with my audience for several months. Writing blog posts is neither a duty nor a catharsis in my eyes, but a practice and interest that marks my personal drive. I am passionate about music, therefore I write. Even so, couldn’t I maintain this appreciation without writing about it on the Internet? Who am I sharing for, I wonder? Above all, for myself.

I realize that the last few months have been filled with intellectual progress, with schoolwork and college essays, successful grades and finished applications. As a high school senior, I’m busy enough, right? No. A part of me grasps a responsibility to share what I feel to a small slice of the public, so in that sense being to busy is understandable. Yet a greater, more personal piece, yearns to simply clarify my ideas.

Regardless, my time away from writing by no means infers that I’ve stopped listening to a broad variety of music, suggesting my favorite songs and albums to friends, or revolving ideas for posts in my head. A month or two ago, I latched onto a blog post concept while listening to a track released on Soundcloud by French producer 20syl. Some of my favorite songs by the Nantes native include a remix of Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud”, a rap classic with CL Smooth, and a remaster of budding English star King Krule’s “Easy Easy.” But this specific production struck me, titled Game Set & Match and paired as a two-part selection united by #tennis, marking the beat-maker as a game-changer in my eyes. If you listen to the original track (the second in the collection), you’ll know what I mean. If you’d rather be lazy and just keep reading, imagine listening to “Technologic” by Daft Punk in the middle of a court at the U.S. Open.

This one song is not what I want to focus on, though. The personal significance of “Game, Set & Match” is that it commenced a train of thought about what truly revolutionizing music means (thus, this post). Think about the most recognizable musicians that influenced generations, the name-brand guys. I’m only born in the 90’s, but off the top I can name bands such as Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Nirvana, singers like Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. But were these stars the real transformers of music itself?

Delving back into the history of Western music, one can mark transitions within Classical (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, etc.), Pop, Rock & Roll, Jazz, Hip-Hop, and every category of music that has ever cropped up into existence. Who are the doers, the mover and shakers, the revolutionaries? By definition, a revolutionary is radically new or innovative; outside or beyond established procedure, principles, etc. To me, a music revolutionary is a figure that transcends the bounds of popular music, heeds only individual inspiration, releases work that is completely original except for its base in music theory (but no prior genre), and changes the minds of music-lovers and listeners to be attracted to his/her new sound.

We can all determine our own interpretations of a genuine “music revolutionary.” But let’s assume my definition is plausible and accurate. Now, how many people can you think of that fit this description? To answer the question with the proper limitations, you have to name the “Fathers of Genres.” And even then, there is always dispute in regard to the forerunner of any type of music.

Take Rap / Hip-Hop for example. A friend of mine from Trinidad & Tobago claims that real rap was born from a place of peace in the streets of Brooklyn, when gangs halted their violent tendencies in favor of breakdancing competitions, opening up Disc Jockeys to spin the turn tables. In this tale, guys spinning their bodies in the streets and DJs mixing beats evolved into rappers spitting bars. Music-wise, some call funk master James Brown the main influencer of recorded rap music, others put faith in Lightnin Rod’s 1973 album “Hustler’s Convention.” And then you get to the more recognized leaders of the lyric-based hip-hop movement, from Chuck D of Public Enemy to Rakim to Sugarhill Gang (check this remix of Rapper’s Delight).

This type of progression only leaves me tracking my own footprints in an endless circle. The truth is, there are no real revolutionaries. Public Enemy was no more revolutionary to rap than Beethoven or John Coltrane. Each new ‘player’ in the game brings a different take to an already existing, rapidly evolving sound. Each new puzzle piece must link to one already set on the table. Rap could not exist without Jazz, Rock would never have taken off without Blues, Gospel, Bluegrass, and R&B. I think my definition still holds though, with one simple change. Just scratch the requirement that a music revolutionary “heeds only individual inspiration.” Inspiration can come from anywhere: the wind in the trees, a teacher, classical music, or even a tennis court (shoutout 20syl). A revolutionary must only believe in his personal vision and ambition, the rest will come naturally.

I’m just waiting to see what the world has in stock for the future of music.

Music Update

Penthouse Penthouse – Besides EP

Penthouse Penthouse makes some insanely smooth and easy-listening electronic music, I definitely consider the LA-based duo an inspiration for my future attempts at producing. Something about their heavy-hitting bass combined with a constant vibe — I haven’t found in any other producer’s music to date. I can name Kaytranada, Stwo, Mr. Carmack, Sango, Flume, and more, as incredible musical creators in the modern-day electronic context, and while I gravitate toward that umbrella of production-type, Penthouse really does bring a unique feel to a Soundcloud culture populated by same-sounding producers.

Some of my favorite single tracks include: Private Jet, What U Sippin On, and Let Me See That

This new EP just came out yesterday — there’s a collab with Stwo that is off the charts, two of their best previously-released tracks have been buffed up, and a JNTHN STEIN (bassist) feature on the closer is clean. I highly suggest a listen.

Is iTunes Irrelevant?

But that’s just daily routine, the streets are cooped fiends / Whether the hoops or the booth, brothers shoot dreams / Better choose the right scheme / Cause you could think you’re cool with your nice things, but get wiped clean for ice creams when the lights beam…”  Joey Bada$$ – Daily Routine (1999)

Let me take you through my daily routine, in pretty stark contrast to Joey’s.

Every day from Monday to Friday, I wake up too early — sometime around 6:45 a.m. Thankfully, I don’t actually get rudely awoken by the buzz of an iPhone or shrill of an alarm, I actually rise in the dark mornings by natural means. Natural means is getting shaken to semi-consciousness by my dad, proceeding to being rudely awoken several times over the next 20 minutes, before I finally get out of bed. The students out there with me in the game know it’s tough.

After a quick breakfast of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, or otherwise some OJ, I get in the whip for a 25 minute mob to school. Living in LA, driving is truly a part of life that I cherish most — a car ride is a space of free time to think and listen to music (especially early mornings and late nights). Back to when I actually get in the car, I immediately turn on my phone’s bluetooth to connect my music to the sound system… and then I open the Soundcloud app to play music.

I believe this is an age where most young people realize that listening to music on the radio is an absolutely ridiculous form of in-car entertainment — in my eyes, I can’t choose what I listen to, I’m bombarded by advertisements every ten minutes (give or take), and when I change the station after an ad hits (yet again), the next station is either on an ad or playing the very song I just heard on the previous station. My one exception to the no-radio rule is listening to 89.9 KCRW, which is a sect of NPR in LA, and which broadcasts interesting news stories, breaking news, and some great music (shoutout Jason Bentley with ‘Morning Becomes Eclectic’). I also greatly enjoy Satellite Radio, but my car doesn’t have the technology; still, in a decade, when SAT replaces the radio, I bet kids tune in, as it is a viable alternative with variety and no ads (my personal favorite is the Bruce Springsteen-only channel).

So now that I’ve ruled out music from the radio, what are the other choices, how about the iTunes library?

What I’m starting to believe, at least pertaining to my habits and the tendencies of my friends, is that iTunes has lost it’s use as well, especially when considering the majority of my time listening to music is in the car. From a broad perspective, it’s been about 13 years since iTunes was created, and free online music has been around since before then. Obviously, taking the time to go on the iTunes store, buying a singular song for either $0.99 or $1.29 or a new album for over 10 bucks, downloading that song into your iTunes library, and at long last syncing it on to your phone to use in the car, is really an outdated process that requires unnecessary time, effort, and money. In the past, programs such as Limewire, Frostbite, and Youtube–>MP3 kept the iTunes library relevant even in the presence of free online music. In today’s world, using iTunes instead of free alternatives (now embodied by Soundcloud, Spotify, Hype Machine), doesn’t make sense in the slightest.

Taking a look at Spotify, Hype Machine, or Soundcloud, you’ll find free music platforms without the need to download the music, instead enabling the user to stream songs directly to be played. Not only that, but the use of “Starred” in Spotify or “Likes” in Hype Machine and Soundcloud, along with playlist features in general, have essentially replaced the iTunes playlist. Aside from the fact that using an app like Soundcloud in the car requires data usage, I find it far preferable and more convenient to use these apps over the old man of iTunes. Adding in the use of Social Networking, which connects your own likes and playlists to your friends and a broader musically-driven audience, and finally considering the ability to post your own music without any difficulty or payment, Soundcloud to me has completely replaced iTunes in my day-to-day life.

So with that being said, I guess an interesting question is if I feel that I’ve lost anything by no longer using iTunes as my primary medium of listening to music? Yes, absolutely. It’s interesting, listening to Soundcloud is like reading the New York Times every morning: it’s up to date, it’s constantly evolving and growing, there’s always more material to choose from. In contrast, iTunes is an enormous compilation of rock and jazz dating back a half-century to present day electronic music, and it’s really the platform for established artists who are selling their albums to an audience that is willing to keep buying. I’ll admit, sometimes I fully realize that I can listen to a complete album online for free, but I’ll buy it on iTunes anyway so that I can have it there as a representation in my permanent library, and partly as a means of supporting the artist. But even with this argument in hand, Spotify has taken over as an essentially free alternative, as I can get music released under record labels even more easily than I can on iTunes (just be sure to play the next song a second before the end, I hate listening to ads).

To me, iTunes is already irrelevant, after I’ve moved on and found the world of free, online music, and even more importantly its intertwinement with social media. If it’s not irrelevant on a larger scale for everyone, give it five more years and we’ll see what happens.

Music Fills Voids

I put a lot of thought into the continuity of these posts. I hold and kind of cherish this idea that each post, whether separated by a day, week, or month, should relate in some way to the prior one. Not really the subject matter, just getting back to an interesting note that I might not have fully explained before. The purpose of this, in my ears, is for you to be able to start from post one and go through to my most recent entry, the collection of which paints a picture, a story, or in my case, a sort of personal album/playlist.

So on this note, I wanted to elaborate for a quick second on a broad and slightly idealist idea that I mentioned in my last “musing,” when I said music has a way of “filling empty voids.” In the context of the rest of what I was saying, you probably didn’t even have to pause for that to settle in and hold some meaning. In a way it really is all about context. Or I guess it’s also about how each person perceives and understands various situations and ideas differently.

For this idea, I want to give you a specific example. You’re driving back from a long day at work or school or soccer practice or whatever you do that you drive home from after a long day. So you’re in the car, just you and the car, just sitting and driving? To me, a car without music is truly an “empty void.” And music really does fill that void, I can go on an hour car drive and be satisfied by bumping a soundcloud playlist (here’s one I’ve made), or going back to oldschool rap albums (I got suggested by a friend to go back and listen to this 213 album, the OG rap trio of Snoop, Nate Dogg, and Warren G), or even vibing to some jazz. I could do whatever. Just wanted to put it out there and pose the question as to what music does for you. Hit me on my twitter or leave a comment below with your ideas.

Musings (vol. 2)

Taking a second to clarify a bit of the last post… I had the idea to talk about the creative process because it’s a part of every art form that everyone experiences differently, I wanted to share its significance  “through my ears.” You may have thought: why Duke Ellington? He’s famous for unique chord changes. You also may have thought: how did I pull “art is channeled passion” out of the hat? Ah, referring to a not-so-weekly tweet I do called Quote of the Week, in which I make up a quote and tag a famous musician or public figure as it’s originator: i.e. this tweet.

It’s kind of funny having music as an interest and talking about it on social media. Sometimes I feel like the world revolves around music, not because of its vast importance, but for its inherent existence in everyone’s daily life. Maybe it is because of its vast importance, I don’t know — music has an ability of connecting people, breaking down societal barriers, filling empty voids. To me, it sounds simple — if the world has about 7 billion people, and 95% love music, I should be able to create a lot of conversation by posting about it. How does it sound to you?

Musings (vol. 1)

The creative process. It can start anywhere: watching a TV commercial and catching a curious chord progression in the background music, driving down the PCH with the image of the sun setting on the water etched in your memory, reading a 1920’s literary classic and putting your own pen down to paper. For me, it’s when no one is home. That’s when I feel compelled to sit down at the piano and clash diminished and dominants with simple harmonic chords, stuff that just doesn’t fit in the real world. I guess standards exist for a reason though, but it’s not that they’re to be held, but rather to be deceived. I bet Duke Ellington would agree. Either way, when I sit down at the piano or pick up my vibes mallets and go, all I really do is let the creativity flow. So here’s my process: art is channeled passion, so channel it.vibes-mallets