Having to choose an album to review for this competition was next to impossible for me. After all, I listen to and enjoy equally practically every genre of music - with interests from classical to jazz to punk rock to folk to pop, at any given time it's impossible to tell if I'll be listening to Bach, Bowie or Boris Vian. But there's no album, other than 'To Pimp A Butterfly' by Kendrick Lamar, that can combine elements from every single one of these genres with such painful and searing beauty, eloquence and fluency.
Lamar's third studio album, 'To Pimp A Butterfly' is an explosive combination of colour, tone, raging humanity, lyrical genius and unique musicality - and it's not just music. Music stops playing when you press pause; Lamar's songs refuse to release you. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that his music only really starts when you take your headphones out, and the full force of all the textural ingenuity, richness and lyrical flair strikes you - five steps behind the artist. As it should be. Because music should never just be about entertainment - it should electrify you, make you feel some of the vividness of the artist's burning creativity and the principles that drive them. Not one of Lamar's songs has failed to make me feel intrigued, as a musician and as a social activist. But even outside of the enchanting music that he crafts, outside of the lyrics which radicalised the racial narrative of America, I connect to him on a purely human level - because nobody is better at expressing universal humanity.
What I think is sometimes ignored about 'To Pimp A Butterfly', amongst the conversations about its social significance and its status as a hallmark in the African-American musical tradition, is its innate musicality. When I started listening to rap and began discussing it with friends and family, I found that it wasn't treated in the same way by those with an intellectual interest in music as other genres - there was a constant tendency to say that despite lyrical merits, it wasn't sophisticated musically, and it couldn't be enjoyed in the same manner in which one might enjoy other genres. Even despite the fact that I have had a much more thorough musical education than most people, that I am proficient in practice and in theory, my generally valued opinion was not sufficient to convince those around me that Lamar's album could be as beautifully intricate and musically considered as any. I have often wondered about this prejudice, which cannot reside lastingly in discussions on musical merit. It is discriminatory, sweeping and, most importantly, massively inaccurate - and it is a travesty to apply it to Lamar's music.
I've mentioned before that Lamar draws on a massive variety of influences for this album. From the clear influence of Davis-esque jazz on 'u' and 'How Much A Dollar Cost' (which sounds remarkably like 'Sketches of Spain') to the Jewish folk themes in 'Institutionalized', it is clear that nobody can create such a vivid patchwork of influences as Lamar, a feature particularly prevalent within this album. But what has always impressed me the most is his use of texture: his choice of samples and ability to subvert their meaning, the addition of dissonant harmonies and their resolutions, the layering of any number of different melodies, rhythms and timbres - and the fact that it constantly shifts, never remaining in one texture long enough for the listener to get to grips with its intricacies. Not one song in the album adheres to the conventional pop verse-chorus structure of much modern music. His use of spoken word always contributes positively to the music rather than diminishing it. And the continual tributes to the forerunners of his music (funk, soul, jazz) through his sound and sampling are both touching and flawlessly integrated. The album embodies subtlety in music, incorporating sophisticated technique but presenting it utterly casually and unassumingly.
Having said this, it is impossible to not acknowledge the pure genius of the lyricism in 'To Pimp A Butterfly'. Lamar's lyrics are, just like his music, injected with a million social, literary and historical references - and still achieve the remarkable linguistic wordplay that rap has become famous for. 'King Kunta', for instance, is rich with cultural reference, with various critics reading reference to Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man', Achebe's 'Things Fall Apart' and Alex Haley's 'Roots' within the lyrics. 'How Much A Dollar Cost' is a retelling of the Biblical parable of 'The Sheep and the Goats' (Matthew 25:31-46), evaluating the metaphorical value of wealth and the concepts of merit and goodness. 'i' and 'u' are mirror images of one another, the first functioning as a rallying call for self-confidence and love, whilst the second (one of the most visceral, emotionally raw and beautiful songs I've ever heard) illustrates Lamar's darker thoughts, his depression and self-disgust, highlighting ideas about fame, personal responsibility and love. 'The Blacker the Berry' is an anthem of race, tackling with searing anger the injustices that black people still face in modern America. And the contrasting bright optimism that characterises 'Alright' was adopted by the Black Lives Matter movement immediately, being chanted by crowds all around America in the summer of protest in 2015.
I cannot ever imagine forgetting the music within this album. It has diffused through some of the most emotionally confusing moments of my life, offering support and help yet never allowing me to become so comfortable that I forget about those less fortunate than me, whom we all have a responsibility to fight for. For me, this is what makes 'To Pimp A Butterfly' such an intensely powerful album: it's not only a collage of some of the most extraordinary musical and linguistic beauty I've ever encountered, but it's also protest music in the manner of Dylan or Springsteen, a rallying call for the social change and equality that is more necessary now than ever.