Robert Christgau:
Expert Witness

Kendrick Lamar / Rae Sremmurd / Drake / Far East Movement / J Cole

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly

(Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)

What I admire most and enjoy most about this album is that it addresses African-Americans straight up and leaves the rest of the hip-hop audience to listen in if it wants. It’s a strong, brave, effective bid to reinstate hip-hop as black America’s CNN — more as op-ed than front page, but in the Age of Twitter that’s the hole that needs filling. Fortunately, the concept starts with the music, which eschews party bangers without foregoing groove, sampling rhythm godfathers P-Funk, Michael Jackson, and the Isley Brothers and building a house band around jazz pianist Robert Glasper and what-you-got bassist Thundercat. But it’s even more racially explicit in lyrics that don’t protest racism because what good does that ever do — just assumes it as a condition of life for his people, root cause of the cultural breakdowns he laments and preaches against throughout. Acknowledged only in passing is a mega-success too obvious to go on about, not to mention enjoy — a privilege that’s also a temptation, to which he responds not with hater paranoia but with a depressive anxiety that resurfaces as a narrative hook without ever starting a pity party. Lamar knows he’s got it good. For his people he wants better. Few musicians of any stylistic persuasion are so thoughtful or so ardent. Few musicians have so little need of a hooky review. A MINUS

Rae Sremmurd: Sremm Life


Innocence is relative in Atlanta party-rap. Not only are there too many bitches in this brother duo’s customized fun machine, they admit “I’ve been living life like I lived twice” even though they sound too young for that brand of suicide. But be glad they’re admitting not bragging. And respect them for trying to sound younger than they are no matter how much Auto-Tune they use to get there, because it adds materially to the fun — fun by way of a formula no one had heard until last summer, when it was put in play by the dizzyingly off-kilter “No Flex Zone” and “No Type.” Inevitably, those two tracks stand tall here. But not much taller than the silly “Up Like Trump,” the reverberating “Unlock the Swag,” or the words to live by “Safe Sex Pay Checks.” A MINUS

Drake: If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (Cash Money) So articulate, so intelligent, so (relatively) decent — so how come I perk up when Lil Wayne comes on with his pottymouth absurdities? (“Used To,” “Legend”) ***

Far East Movement: KTown Riot (Cherrytree) Their paradox: a song called “The Illest” that aims to be merely the catchiest (“Grimey Thirsty,” “Bang It to the Curb”) **

J Cole: 2014 Forest Hills Drive (Roc Nation/Columbia) Full of the kind of good intentions the road to irrelevance is paved with (“Wet Dreamz,” “Love Yourz”) *

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Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter at @rxgau.
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