staff picks: kendrick lamar, courtney barnett, death grips

STAFF PICKS: Kendrick Lamar grapples with influence, Courtney Barnett turns her thoughts into anthems

In the first omnibus edition of Staff Picks, we digest Kendrick, find an entry point into Death Grips, and more...

- Mar 25, 2015
Staff Picks is an exploration of the albums the Chart Attack office can't stop streaming.

Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar - The Blacker The Berry

The beating heart of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly is a poem called "Another Nigga." It starts on track 5, "These Walls," and unspools lines at a time, revealing itself in snatches across the back half of the album. It begins: "I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same."

To my mind, the key to the whole puzzle — and TPAB is an intricately layered, unrepentantly conceptual patchwork — is contained in that first line. From the kick-off sample ("Every Nigger Is A Star" by Boris Gardiner) to the conversation between Kendrick and the ghost of Tupac Shakur that concludes the album, To Pimp A Butterfly is a work that grapples with the idea of influence, especially how we decide to employ that power to affect positive change.

His breakthrough, good kid, m.A.A.d city, was a post-gangster rap memoir, leaning on the aesthetics of early G-funk purveyors and their hustling, gang-banging mythos to tell the story of K-Dot, the kid who grew up in that same fabled Compton, but didn't hustle or bang, but instead, sought a different way to be in the world.

How the hell do you follow something like that? Is his real-life tale of industry ascendancy nearly as powerful? Clearly, these questions have haunted Kendrick, too. Good kid ends with a love letter to his city; he always intended to bring the spoils home.

Butterfly pulls the camera back into longview. What are the spoils? What has he learned? What gives the teacher his or her authority? These are the anxieties Kendrick battles in real-time (sometimes, self-loathingly so, as on "u"). He's not just asking these of himself, he's questioning the whole endeavour of art-making. Yeah, he's made money, but can he make change?

Accordingly, the music, too, zooms out. If GKMC was purposively styled in the mode of N.W.A.To Pimp A Butterfly can be said to be post-hip-hop. He and his L.A. sidemen pull freely from all of the traditions that laid its foundation: jazz, funk, soul, R&B, spoken word. When minimal trap music has mounted the genre, here's a sound world of big ideas to play out a discourse of other, possibly bigger ones.

Butterfly is uncompromising and thorny. There's no doublespeak, no big beats in which to hide shallow readings. You're going to be made to think about blackness in contemporary America, and about what the road to equality might look like.

And that dialogue has come centre stage. The voices — some external, many internal to Kendrick — roll out multifaceted, sometimes contradictory worldviews: the material pursuits at home in hip-hop are toxic, thug fantasies engender more violence, "hood politics" are petty, action begins and ends with community.

Whereas chest-puff tracks or could-be club tunes like "Backseat Freestyle" or "Swimming Pools (Drank)" from Good kid, m.A.A.d city might have been enjoyed without catching the wink built into them, Butterfly is uncompromising and thorny. There's no doublespeak, no big beats in which to hide shallow readings. You're going to be made to think about blackness in contemporary America, and about what the road to equality, rocky though it still is, might look like.

Kendrick begins early on — perhaps unfashionably — with the wisdom of his grandma: "Shit don't change until you get up and wash yo' ass." But come the end of it, he's imagined revolution. His influence has not been misused. - Chris Hampton

Courtney BarnettSometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

Courtney Barnett’s debut album is a verbal diary, each song peering into the ordinary and extraordinary events that the Melbourne singer/songwriter has experienced in her long year on the road. From taxidermy kangaroos to the great barrier reef being destroyed, and a man mistaken for suicidal when he’s simply bored — Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit takes all of the meandering thoughts floating around in her head and throws them at a wall, hoping they’ll stick.

Her delivery is charming, the subject matter is simple, but Courtney’s stream-of-consciousness approach to songwriting brings these trivial, everyday occurrences to life. Backing her thoughts are anthems, big and quiet. In total, there’s an excellent 45-minute record spanning love, growth, and organic vegetables that will be festival sing-alongs and campfire soundtracks. All of her songs are packed with heat, and take you on a journey that has no finish line. They just exist and sit still. - Ryan Parker

Death GripsJenny Death

Death Grips - Jenny Death (FULL ALBUM)

Death Grips are an easy band to write off. Between no-showing for festivals, teasing their fans with bogus breakup rumours, planting seeds for future albums that may or may not ever come, they're practically daring you. Coupling difficult, experimental music with trolly stunts can unify a cult, but it can also push away those that aren't in their grip. How can a non-convert give this music the attention it needs when the band is constantly pushing them away?

I used to be that guy. I've called them human memes. I've dismissed their stunts as clickbait. But with Jenny Death, I finally get it. Technically it's the long-promised second piece of the double LP The Powers That B, but other than the band's dubious word, there's not much tying the Bjork-sampling Niggas On The Moon to this cohesive, surprisingly accessible collection of electro-psychedelic-hardcore. Over heavy guitars, hyperactive Zach Hill drums and revving, relatively static (for Death Grips) rhythms and blips, MC Ride's vocals have never sounded better, his dark, suicidal lyrics more discernible.

It's like when Sonic Youth started blending their skewed tunings with pop structures: an entry point. And now that I'm in, I've got a serious rabbit hole to explore. - Richard Trapunski

Lightning Bolt, Fantasy Empire

There was a time in the early 2000s when a small nucleus of acts — Don Caballero, Melt-Banana, whatever Zach Hill was doing — carved a niche into the burgeoning, branching post-hardcore scene hawking a hyperactive, loop-the-looping, breakneck brand of weirdo noise rock. While so many from that glorious, strange scene have moved on, Lightning Bolt, one of its OGs, still periodically emerge with a new transmission (a fiery blurt, really) from that underground.

Fantasy Empire is our latest, though it's no quaint time capsule. It's as abrasive and acrobatic and shocking as Wonderful Rainbow — proof positive that their visceral and high-wire antics (mathy change-ups, blast beats, coarse grit bass fuzz) exist apart from an era. Lightning Bolt, here, represent a very particular rock & roll muscle, maybe a bit underused today, that assumes control at the mechanical level and shakes your whole being vigorously, violently. A force that permits you, compels you, to be wild. - Chris Hampton

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