NYU Prof Says Kendrick Lamar Made the Most Musical Hip-Hop Album Ever

Breaking down the rapper’s highly developed harmonic, melodic and rhythmic vocabulary

To Pimp A Butterfly, the third album from rapper Kendrick Lamar, is the most musical hip-hop album ever made, and establishes Lamar himself as the most instinctually developed MC alive. He and his musical collaborators on this album have figured out how to fully realize the blend of digital and traditional songcraft that folks like The Roots and Andre 3000 have been hinting at for years.

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly

When we look at the evolution of hip-hop, we can see that this day was coming — from hip-hop’s beginnings as an almost anti-music where rappers rhymed over whatever record happened to be playing; to Run-DMC distilling hip-hop down to drums and scratches; on through to the creation of dense sonic landscapes of the Bomb Squad, Prince Paul, Dr. Dre and the RZA, where the musical side of hip-hop manifested itself as an aural pastiche of samples, breaks and sound effects made by cratedigging hunter-gatherers.

What had not truly happened, until Butterfly, is organically-created music by a hybrid digital-and-traditional ensemble who understand the sonic density of what’s come before them but who also have the ability to and know how to grow their own. Butterfly — a rampage through 16 tracks, each containing multiple movements from nonchalant West Coast soul to blistering Impulse-era Coltrane-style free jazz/spoken word — is the product of a generation of musicians (most of whom are also MCs) raised on records like Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising. They play traditional instruments but think like hip-hop producers; they manipulate and compose digitally with a musician’s mentality.

Everyone involved with this project has an extremely highly developed harmonic, melodic and rhythmic vocabulary, and as a result, the math on this record is on a whole ‘nother level. Let’s start with the star of the show, Kendrick Lamar.

The Unteachable Flow

Folks like to throw the word “flow” around when talking about their favorite rappers. But “flow” is actually a very quantifiable variable. It speaks to a rappers rhythmic vocabulary and his or her phrasing. In hip-hop, there are usually 4 beats in a measure or bar. Each beat can be subdivided into 2, 3, 4, 6 or 8 beats in most cases (5, 7 or 9 in others as well). This creates an extremely large number of possible beats for an MC to place a word or start a phrase. Equally, how one acknowledges the negative spaces or rests between the notes will also be a determining factor on whether their words come out sounding like a nursery rhyme or an interesting pattern that is in keeping with the emotional aspirations of the overall message.

On Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar explores a wide range of “flow” styles or rhythmic patterns. These range from free flowing, stream of consciousness bursts like on “For Free?” to sparse, classic Easy-E/NWA style West Coast patterns on “King Kunta.” Lamar is equally at home leaning on the smooth Native Tongue flow of a Q-Tip or Posdnous on “These Walls”; or the more modern rapid-fire, sixteenth-note bravado styles of today on “i.” Whatever the tempo or rhythmic current of the song, Lamar’s ability to start a phrase on any beat and then rest and pick back up on any beat all the while dictating the groove puts him in the same exclusive category as Nas or Biggie, where the rhythmic instinct is so fine-tuned that it sounds effortless.

What really separates great rappers from merely good is the ability to adjust precisely where a word falls within a specific beat. In other words, being able to deliberately lean back on the beat or push ahead of it. This type of subtlety falls into that rarefied category of unteachables. Like speed for athletes, you either got it or you don’t. Our guy Kendrick not only has it, he uses it as a tool to augment the emotional power of his words. He will lean ahead of the beat to emphasize anxiety or lay back behind the beat to create a sense of relaxation.

Listen to how each time he declares his crosstown rivals to be “boo boo” on “Hood Politics,” he leans farther and farther back behind the beat with each “boo boo,” a confidence bordering on bravado. Like: I can show up late for this note and still rock it. Likewise, listen to how he pushes ahead of the beat on the double-timed fourth verse of “Momma” and how it increases the tension surrounding his confusion about women, money and mankind.

Along with his highly developed sense of rhythm, we hear Lamar use a variety of pitches and voices in his rapping to convey a spectrum of emotions. In “Wesley’s Theory,” Kendrick assumes the role of an obnoxious rap superstar with a lazy L.A. style flow. But when the second verse hits, he becomes the taxman, tightening up his delivery and layering his voice as if to convey that the taxman represents an institution. In the song “u,” Lamar’s inner critic speaks in a voice that cracks, sobs and gulps from a bottle, a raw and rare self-assault that’s hard to listen to. On “Hood Politics” he opts for a higher pitched child-like approach as he does again on “You Ain’t Gotta Lie,” where he strolls through the mall with the devil who offers him a Faustian deal to get his mother out of the ghetto. He softens up his consonants and almost slurs his way through “For Sale?” only to let the angst rise to a crescendo on “The Blacker the Berry” and “Mortal Man.” He layers himself for effect at times and then isolates a single voice at others. He flanges his voice on the third verse of “These Walls” which only enhances the sense of hopelessness and dread of the butterfly’s “cocoon” phase.

What other rapper does these kinds of things nowadays? Who pushes and pulls on the limits like this? Who dares to step out of character and into many characters? Lamar bears that rap risk-taking alone.

A New Wrecking Crew

But Kendrick Lamar — as much film director on this album as he is an MC — is not the sole author of this great accomplishment. He shares the sonic canvas with a bunch of players and producers who are equally as versed in the language and culture and practiced in their respective disciplines as he is. Pianist Robert Glasper, producer Steven “Flying Lotus” Ellison, bassist/producer Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, producer/multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin and vocalist Lalah Hathaway are all children of musicians and serious students of the game. Their family trees include r&b legends, jazz pioneers and gospel singers. All of these influences find their way onto this record. In fact, the success of their accomplishment galvanizes this collective of musicians and elevates them to a level where they need and deserve a collective name, much like The Funk Brothers of the Motown era or The Wrecking Crew, the famed studio musicians in L.A.

The jazz and soul chops of these musicians create a wild, roller coaster ride of sound. Unlike pop songs that safely and simply inhabit one key, almost all of the songs on this album have shifts away from their tonal centers and use chords and sequences from other keys, just like jazz songs do. It’s not until songs start to wander beyond the borders of the key in which they are written that things start to get interesting and extremely unique. Each sonic texture or chord type elicits a certain emotional response, and supports the subtle messages that Lamar expresses.

Nowhere is this more evident than on “u,” where the chords seem to cascade around and through an ever-elusive tonal center. The slippery nature of the progression completely supports the drunken jabs that Lamar takes at himself. While Kendrick Lamar is not the first person in hip-hop to try to unnerve his listeners with dissonant sounds and cascading harmonic sequences, he is unique in that he is doing it solely with music and instruments rather than layering sounds and samples to create a new “terrordome” of sound.

Flying Lotus, Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner

Butterfly also hits new melodic milestones. Hip-hop is not traditionally known as a “melodic” music; hooks sung out of tune are a staple of the genre. The singing on this record is presented with such care and grace by Kendrick himself as well as Bilal, Anna Wise, Ti$a and Lalah Hathaway. In fact, Lamar constantly blurs the lines between singing and rapping. The note choices he makes on “King Kunta,” for example, are not accidental, but a solid melodic arc. When Lamar layers his voice on the opening hook of “Wesley’s Theory” or “Institutionalized” he is cognizant of what notes he is choosing for each phrase. This is musical evolution taking place right before our ears.

The wide range of rhythmic styles that Kendrick is able to access only shines more when united with the assortment beats, feels and polyrhythms that are present in the tracks themselves. Pretty much every varietal of traditional hip-hop beat is represented here, as is a diverse range of tempos and feels. Things get really interesting the final third of the record where the beat for “How Much A Dollar Cost” has a polyrhythm where two separate rhythmic currents are happening simultaneously, one a group of three beats, the other a group of four. This allows Lamar to lean either way and combine groups of 3 or 6 with groups of 4 and 8 as he navigates the complexity that it creates. This type of polyrhythm (3 against 4) is the rhythmic foundation of Rhumba and other Afro-Cuban styles of music as well as Brazilian Samba but until now has eluded America’s “boom bip” / “four on the floor” rhythmic culture. Its appearance on this record represents a significant advancement in beat making and should not go unnoticed.

You can hear the disjunctive-yet-undeniable groove it creates on “Dollar” as well as on “Hood Politics” in the main body of the song. Another interesting moment occurs towards the end of “The Blacker The Berry,” where the whole groove modulates from hardcore hip-hop break beat to a swung jazz waltz then finally to an African grouping of 6 beats, creating an extremely compelling rhythmic bed for the saxophone and Lalah Hathaway’s scat style ad-libs to ride the song out. This type of metric modulation is also something that until now could only be heard in jazz or other parts of the world. These guys, as well as Kendrick himself, are without a doubt all stone cold rhythmic junkies who get very excited about exploring all of these patterns and quantifying the emotions that they solicit.

Hip-hop is defined by the artist’s ability to create spontaneous rhythmic and lyric content over an attention grabbing rhythm. Jazz is defined by the artist’s ability to create spontaneous melodic content over shifting harmony. It was only a matter of time before these two concepts collide. Next level artists will be able to create lyrical verses that not only explore the rhythmic possibilities of a given tune but also weave melodies through the shifting harmonic sequences. In this endeavor, Kendrick Lamar is a pioneer, and To Pimp A Butterfly is the start of something altogether new.

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Jeff Peretz, pka Sidd Still, is a multi-instrumentalist and producer who has recorded and/or performed with Mark Ronson, Lana Del Rey, Rock Wilder, Tim Robbins and Stanley Clarke. He is a Visiting Professor of Music Theory at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at the Tisch School of the Arts. His books include Zen and the Art of Guitar, Guitar Atlas: Cuba and Guitar Atlas: The Middle East.

Follow Jeff Peretz on Twitter @jeffperetz
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