Casey Nugent ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
When it was released on March 15, 2015, Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album To Pimp a Butterfly was met with widespread praise and acclaim. Now almost a full year later it’s up for the top prize, Album at the Year at the 58th Grammy Awards. The competition is tough, with Lamar facing off against Alabama Shakes, Taylor Swift, the Weeknd, and Traveller. But To Pimp a Butterfly’s intense cultural relevance and brilliant musical and production techniques make it the clear choice for this year’s prize.
It’s no surprise that To Pimp a Butterfly is nominated — it has a total score of 96 on Metacritic, which is considered “universal acclaim” by the site. Metacritic also considers it the most acclaimed album of 2015. It appeared on over 100 “Best of 2015” lists, taking the top prize at 51 publications, including Rolling Stone, Billboard, The New York Times, Pitchfork, and Vice.
And there’s a clear reason for the critical acclaim: To Pimp a Butterfly is a tight, clean record that is as close to perfect as it can get. Kendrick Lamar had previously made major waves with Good Kid M.A.A.D City in 2013, and expectations for his third album were high. Lamar delivered in every way. To Pimp a Butterfly is an exercise in complex sampling and production, bringing in elements of funk and jazz across the album. Lamar raps over unconventional samples and instruments throughout the album; of special note is “King Kunta,” which manages to sample “We Want the Funk,” and quote Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” yet remain the coolest and funkiest song on the album.
But it’s the lyrics of To Pimp a Butterfly that set it apart as the clear choice for album of the year. This is unquestionably the most politically and socially relevant album of the year. It’s also one of the most complex lyrical compositions not only of Lamar’s career or 2015, but of recent memory. Lamar deals directly with the ways the music industry destroys young black rappers through money and fame on tracks like “Wesley’s Theory” and “Institutionalized.” He also brings in the theme of black masculinity on the best track of the album, “For Free?” which work simultaneously as a diss track to a woman asking him to spend all his money on her and as an extended metaphor for the way the music industry expects artists, especially black artists, to roll over and bend over backwards to achieve success.
Given the recent diversity controversies that have been plaguing awards shows, it’s worth mentioning the ways the Grammy’s have failed black artists. A black artist hasn’t won a Grammy for Album of the Year in ten years; Herbie Hancock took home the last one, in 2006. Further, a hip hop artist hasn’t won since OutKast got top prize in 2004. There’s no questioning that an album that talks directly about how the music industry frustrates and destroys the artists within it and the ways money and fame harm young black men would be a revolutionary choice for Album of the Year.
It’s also hard to see another album that so encompasses the career of the artist who made it. To Pimp a Butterfly is Lamar’s opus — a work so deep and so thoughtful that tops his previous work in every way. It’s an album that covers every part of the spectrum — it’s both fearful and confident, both humble and bragging, both subdued and unquestionably powerful. It shows everything Lamar has learned in his years in the business. He trips over lyrical tongue twists with deft precision, brings up serious questions in the work, and yet manages to make tracks that feel easy to consume and listen to.
To Pimp a Butterfly is the only clear choice for Album of the Year. It’s the critical favorite across the board, and it’s subject matter make it the most relevant and powerful record of the year. To choose anything else would be a bad misstep on the part of the Grammy’s, and a deep disservice to Lamar and the power and passion he brought to his best album yet.