To Make a Masterpiece
Kendrick Goes Big, Sufjan Goes Small

At the end of this column you’ll find the First Quarter Report. Basically, it’s a snapshot of my top 10 list as it stands right now. If you’re the kind of person who skips to the end first, you’ve probably already noticed that there’s a tie for the number one slot. And if you’re especially perceptive, you’ll have noted that the tie is between the two albums I’m reviewing this week. No, this has never happened before. Yes, they’re both that good. And I hope I am about to explain why I think they’re both masterpieces, but in very different ways.

There are basically two ways to get to the top of my list. (I promise I won’t make this all about me.) You can be go-for-broke ambitious and actually pull it off, creating something of extraordinary scope that outshines all other efforts in a given year. Or you can make me cry. I have a history of giving the top spot to emotionally resonant pieces of work that move me in ways I can’t describe. There are exceptions here, but if you go deeper or go wider than anyone else, chances are you’ll become my favorite.

These two approaches are almost not even comparable, which is why, now that I’m faced with one of each, I can’t choose between them. Hopefully, in a few hundred words, you’ll see what I mean.

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I’m not sure how to start talking about Kendrick Lamar’s monumental To Pimp a Butterfly.

This is because I hear new and fascinating things every time I listen to it. I’m torn between saying that To Pimp a Butterfly transcends the rap genre, or proves its potential. Longtime readers will know I haven’t had a lot of time for the beats-and-rhymes art form here, but I’ve certainly pointed out records that grab me, from Deltron 3030 in 2000 to the Roots’ amazing And Then You Shoot Your Cousin last year. But I think of rap like jazz – I’m pretty sure I’m only scratching the surface, only hearing the big records, the ones everyone hears.

Which means that, of course, I heard Good Kid m.A.A.d. City, Lamar’s autobiography in song, when it came out two years ago. I’m sad to say I didn’t join in the critical chorus praising this record, and I still find it somewhat flat. But listening back, there is definitely something here in this kid-out-of-Compton story, some spark that I should have caught. Because Lamar’s follow-up, this dense and massive undertaking he called To Pimp a Butterfly, is simply one of the best rap albums I have ever heard. It puts Lamar firmly among the greats – it’s a work worthy of the artists he idolizes, most importantly the late Tupac Shakur.

The ghost of 2Pac haunts this entire album – it concludes with a seven-minute interview with Shakur, conducted in 1994, into which Lamar has interjected himself. That would seem like astonishing hubris if not for the 70 minutes of extraordinary self-examination and insight that precede it. Instead, it feels like the natural conclusion to the album’s themes. To Pimp a Butterfly aims to be an encapsulation of the black American experience, and a reflection on that experience’s impact on the way Lamar has responded to his own fame. The weight of Lamar’s responsibility and his desire to live up to Shakur’s example anchors this album – the start of Lamar’s conversation with Shakur is a poem that is sprinkled throughout the record, each new line leading him to a new place. “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence,” Lamar says. “Sometimes I did the same.”

Throughout Butterfly, Lamar dives deeply into these themes, and the results are often not easy to listen to. “King Kunta” is the only song here that could serve as a hip-hop single – it imagines Kunta Kinte, immortalized in Alex Haley’s Roots, as a rap kingpin, “everybody tryin’ to cut the legs off him.” The rest of the album is dense and often difficult. The powerful “U” is a mad jazz nightmare. It begins with Lamar screaming “loving you is complicated,” and it sounds like it might be a complex anti-love song, but in fact he is shouting into a mirror. The song’s stunning second half lays bare so many of Lamar’s insecurities and feelings of guilt – how he neglected his dying brother, how his fame and money hasn’t dampened his own suicidal feelings.

This follows several songs about Lamar’s travails as an artist, attempting to stay true without being “pimped” by the record industry. This could be self-serving, but Lamar widens it into a meditation on black self-image and pride. “Institutionalized” is about those imprisoned by poverty (the caterpillar in his butterfly metaphor), and how his story shows that even getting out of this situation doesn’t fix everything. The problems are deeper, more ingrained. The smooth “These Walls” is deceptively complicated – its first verse is about the vaginal walls of a woman Lamar is sleeping with, the second verse about the prison cell walls that hold the father of this woman’s child, and the third verse about how the first verse is an abuse of Lamar’s power as a famous rapper. Lamar makes you feel his own guilt by making you feel guilty for enjoying the first verse.

Lamar gives these temptations of fame a persona – he calls her Lucy, short for Lucifer, and battles it out with her throughout Butterfly. “Lucy gonna fill your pockets, Lucy gonna move your momma out of Compton,” he raps on “For Sale,” precipitating a trip back home in “Momma” and “Hood Politics” to ground himself. The fantastic “How Much a Dollar Cost” puts Lamar face to face with God in the form of a homeless man asking for money. Lamar, high on his own success, denies him, and God humbles him, an experience that leads into the final third of the album, on which Lamar learns to love himself.

And it is here that the album goes wider, and becomes about more than just Lamar’s own experience. “Complexion” is about loving yourself no matter your skin color. The fierce “The Blacker the Berry” is about how centuries of racism and oppression have led to self-hatred (“It’s evident that I am irrelevant to society, that’s what you’re telling me, penitentiary would only hire me, curse me ‘till I’m dead…”), and it’s paired beautifully with “i,” the flip side of “U.” A striking anthem of positivity and self-love, “i” is the most joyous thing on the album, the culmination of Lamar’s lessons learned. Far from the usual hip-hop boast, this song’s “I love myself” refrain carries with it the relief of losing the weight that Lamar has been carrying all his life.

“i” appears on this record not in its Grammy-winning single form, but in a live version that Lamar interrupts halfway through for a fascinating dissertation on the N-word – Lamar not only retakes the word from the former slave owners, he infuses it with even more power, tying it to an Ethiopian word (negus) meaning “black emperor, king, ruler.” This ties nicely back to “King Kunta,” but with much more wisdom and self-love. It is this Kendrick Lamar who goes to talk with Tupac at the end of closer “Mortal Man,” a song about the responsibility of black voices and those who listen to them. Lamar knows he’s the latest in a long line of black men with a platform, and the album is a promise to use that platform responsibly, with a sense of history and identity. He knows he is a butterfly, and it’s his job to bring new perspectives to the caterpillars, so that one day they too can be butterflies.

I’m so bowled over by the thoughtfulness and thematic complexity of this record that I haven’t even talked about the music. To Pimp a Butterfly is nothing short of a tour through the history of black music, from jazz to funk to soul to hip-hop, some performed with live instruments (bassist Thundercat is tremendous on this record) and some with programmed beats. Songs stop short and redefine themselves, rhythms disintegrate into acid jazz jamming (keyboardist Robert Glasper contributes here), and the record never sits still for a minute. It’s a tour de force, and Lamar’s rapping is mesmerizing, slipping in and out of different voices and conveying every emotion perfectly.

There are so many elements in play on Butterfly, musically and thematically, and it’s almost hard to believe that one 27-year-old man kept it all straight and wove it together so eloquently. There’s more here that I haven’t talked about, and more here that I’m sure I haven’t heard yet. Assessing Butterfly’s ultimate effectiveness is tough for me – I’m not a member of the audience Lamar is speaking to, or the community he is speaking for. But from my perspective, it’s a masterpiece. We’re going to be talking about this record in 10 years, in 20 years, with the same reverence we reserve for the works Lamar idolizes. It really is that good, and that important.

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Where Lamar went big, Sufjan Stevens went small on his new album, Carrie and Lowell. But the results are no less astonishing.

Stevens is known for his daunting ambition – I know several people who can’t make it all the way through his electro-prog nightmare album The Age of Adz, and that’s merely the most complex in a discography that prizes sweeping statements. Stevens is still best known as the man behind 2005’s Illinois, a 74-minute examination of life, loss and faith filtered through the history of the Land of Lincoln. I named Illinois the best album of that year, and the best album of that decade – it’s a remarkable marriage of musical complexity and deep, abiding emotion. I still listen to it regularly.

But Stevens has never cut as deeply as he has with his new one. It’s reminiscent of 2004’s Seven Swans – it’s a slight 44 minutes, performed on acoustic guitar and subtle keys, never rising above a gentle whisper. The instrumentation fits the theme – the album is named after and dedicated to Stevens’ mother and stepfather, both pictured on the album cover. Carrie died in 2012 of stomach cancer, and was always a difficult presence in Stevens’ life – she abandoned him repeatedly as a child, staying mainly for a period of five years during which she was married to Lowell. The album is Stevens’ attempt to wrestle with his complex reaction to his mother’s death, and lay it all bare.

My first trip through this album was one of the most emotional musical experiences I’ve had in a very long time. It’s an album of confusion, pain, forgiveness and love through it all. It’s filled with memories, some fleshed out and some flashing by in glimpses – the swimming teacher who couldn’t pronounce Sufjan’s name in “Eugene,” for instance – and references that are specific, and yet hit home unerringly. It’s a troubled, tormented album, one that opens a vein and lets it bleed. These songs explore the hazy memories of childhood and the pain of adulthood like little else I’ve heard.

The album begins with “Death With Dignity,” one of several songs to directly discuss Carrie’s death. “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you and I want to be near you, but every road leads to an end,” Stevens sings. “You’ll never see us again.” The amazing “Fourth of July” goes deeper into the same experience, Stevens sitting by his mother’s bedside and reflecting on what she has taught him (“Make the most of your life, while it is rife, we’re all gonna die…”). “The Only Thing” begins with Stevens’ admission of suicidal thoughts, and finds him wondering if his mother ever loved him. “Should I tear my heart out now? Everything I feel returns to you somehow, I want to save you from your sorrow…”

Many of these songs delve into those five happy years, which Stevens calls his “season of hope.” Family trips to Oregon, exploring covered bridges and pear trees, loving and being loved. Adult Stevens tries to hold on to these, but is wracked with guilt over not forging a closer relationship with his mother. His faith sustains him (“Jesus, I need you, be near, come shield me,” he sings on “John My Beloved”), until it doesn’t – “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” is simply devastating near the end of this record, trawling through the depths of his despair. The whispered “fuck me, I’m falling apart” in the final verse might be the saddest moment here.

There isn’t much hope to be had on Carrie and Lowell – the birth of Stevens’ niece, detailed in “Should Have Known Better,” provides one of the few shafts of light – and in the end, it leaves Stevens desperate and reaching for connection. “There’s only a shadow of me, in a manner of speaking I’m dead,” he sings on “John My Beloved,” and the album leaves you no choice but to believe him. It’s heartrending. These songs are the most honest and powerful that Stevens has given us, and the sparse music leaves him nowhere to hide. The result is as emotionally complex as it is musically bare, and it leaves you shattered and haunted.

I’m not sure I’m ever going to forget the experience of hearing Carrie and Lowell. That’s how deeply this album affected me. It is a devastatingly honest piece of work, and in its simple yet complicated pain, it is one of the very best things Sufjan Stevens has made. I don’t know how often I can listen to it, though, because it hurts. It hurts me down to my soul. And it makes me want to love the people I love more intensely, more frequently, more fully. That is the best thing any art can inspire.

* * * * *

So here it is, my First Quarter Report. In addition to the two albums tied for the number one spot, you’ll see three here that I have not yet reviewed. I’ll get to two of them next week, and I have an idea for the third that might require me to hang on to it for a bit. But all three of them belong here, trust me. As the Doctor has been known to say, I’ll explain later.

Here’s the list as it stands now.

#10. Laura Marling, Short Movie.
#9. The Decemberists, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World.
#8. Steven Wilson, Hand. Cannot. Erase.
#7. Riki Michele, Push.
#6. Aqualung, 10 Futures.
#5. Copeland, Ixora.
#4. Timbre, Sun and Moon.
#3. Quiet Company, Transgressor.
#2. Punch Brothers, The Phosphorescent Blues.
#1: (Tie) Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly; Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell.

Now I have eight months to choose between Lamar and Stevens, unless something even better comes along. That would be miraculous, but I believe in miracles. Where you from, you sexy thing?

Next week, two of the albums up there. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.