Nothing is good enough when compared to the perfect album.
I was 16 in 2015 when Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp A Butterfly. I didn’t really listen to rap music before then. My music taste consisted mainly of pop-style tunes that sat a little below the Top 40. I was working on broadening my music taste, trying out some different genres. I was tangentially aware of Kendrick, I’d heard ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’ a few times, but hadn’t listened to much of his work beyond it. I sort of assumed he was just another party rapper from that experience alone.
When one of my friends professed their love for To Pimp A Butterfly on Facebook, saying something along the lines of “everyone can stop making music now, because Kendrick has won”, I thought I’d check it out.
TPAB isn’t really like any other albums. It’s a “conscious” rap album, full of ponderings on the role of black people in culture and life, told by Kendrick over jazz-infused beats. K-dot meets God in the form of a beggar on ‘How Much A Dollar Cost’ (Barack Obama’s favourite song of the year), exposes his own hypocrisy on ‘The Blacker The Berry’, and writes the quintessential protest song for Black Lives Matter with ‘Alright’. He aggressively reclaims the N word, which as a 16-year-old white guy who went to one of the most privileged and white schools in a nation on the bottom of the world made me very uncomfortable. A lot of it made me uncomfortable, actually.
What I’m talking about here is probably the album of the decade, if not the century. It redefined a genre for a generation. There isn’t a weak link on the album, despite its length, and it addresses the issues in the world in a way that one can hardly imagine anyone else doing. It’s a revolutionary album, and it was the first rap record I ever properly listened to.
I loved To Pimp A Butterfly, and I still do, but it created a real problem when I went to further my rap music diet, because there just isn’t anything out there that measures up to those expectations. When I listened to TPAB the first time, that was what I thought all rap was. That’s not the case. Even Kendrick can’t live up to it, and DAMN., while a good album, was not a great one in the same way. When Kendrick finds it difficult to satisfactorily follow up his own album, there’s just no way that other rap darlings like Young Thug or Drake can make anything that measures up to it.
Because I was introduced to rap through perhaps its greatest work, I know what it can be and I hold a new album against that standard. To Pimp A Butterfly showed me how great a rap album can be, but it diminished everything that followed. I’ll keep looking.