Hip Hop

To Pimp A Butterfly (CD)

Kendrick Lamar’s breakthrough second album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, left such an impression that hype for a follow-up has been through the roof. So forgive the Compton rapper if he kind of Beyonce’d To Pimp a Butterfly, teasing singles before announcing a release date and suddenly putting it out a week early. Pulling the rug out from hype and inevitable backlash, it gives us a change to all hear To Pimp a Butterfly at once, in all its glory. Butterfly doubles down on the idiosyncrasies of good kid, eschewing club-friendly tracks in favor of those that cast a light on Lamar’s pure skills as a rapper and wordsmith—always celebrated, yet perhaps distracted by stellar production and good kid’s concept-album style—as well as his ability to put together a layered and compelling album. Tracks like the “For Free” interlude are showcases for Lamar’s dexterity, while “u’s” desperate, verge-on-tears delivery find him at his most vulnerable —Drake’s never done anything like this. The production across To Pimp a Butterfly, courtesy of such luminaries as Flying Lotus and Thundercat, like those artists’ work (and similarly to D’Angelo’s recently released Black Messiah), effortlessly melds hip-hop, R&B and jazz on excellent tracks like the off-kilter “Institutionalized” and gorgeous “These Walls” to exist in some mystery middle space, without drawing attention away from Lamar’s star power. While headier tracks dominate the album, Lamar unleashes a couple of huge singles at the album’s closing. At first, “i” could come off as Lamar’s “sell out” track, catchy enough to sit alongside Pharrell’s “Happy” as a crowd-friendly that sands off his rough edges, but it serves as a bit of a breather here, dressed up in The Isley Brothers’ unstoppable “Who’s That Lady,” though Lamar’s lyrics remain deeply dark, exposing his own depression, and a spoken word passage that delves into a discussion on racial slurs adds context. Following the reclaiming of racial stereotypes on the absolutely killer “The Blacker the Berry,” To Pimp a Butterfly ends ultimately feeling conflicted yet triumphant. It’s a deep, complicated work, yet not one that feels the slightest bit overstuffed or overwrought. Kendrick Lamar successfully defies all expectations yet again, on what’s sure to be one of the year’s best albums.

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MartyrLoserKing (CD)

In the great tradition of Gil Scott Heron and 2Pac, Saul Williams doesn't approach lyrics lightly. He grabs you by the throat and confronts you with the ugliness and aftermath of the post-9/11 world of endless war. Williams himself personally described the album as "connecting the dots between the Arab Spring, the Civil Rights Movement and now" with a fiery and sharp delivery that slams your ears, a complete 180 from his previous dancier album, Volcanic Sunlight. The album's single, "Burundi," is angrily bitter in its furious depiction of an endlessly problematic world with economic issues, empty technological advancements, cruel treatment of young black men by authority figures, and unethical repression of entire groups of people. Warpaint's Emily Kokal supplies a strange harmonic background against the powerful track that adds a beauty to an otherwise tough song. And Williams doesn't go for feel-good positivity or easy answers. He knows that our system is rotten from the core and wants to make it clear that this tough world we live in needs to change. This is our gospel music for a world that always feels on fire; a sonic cataclysm that's something to move to and live by.

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Shadow Of A Doubt (CD)

We’ve been waiting for Freddie Gibbs’ new album since his gritty vocals graced last year’s Pinata, his dynamite collaboration with Madlib. And he doesn’t disappoint—Gibbs’ latest is a contender for underground rap album of the year. Over a digital bounce, Gibbs establishes his powerful presence early on with “Fuckin’ Up the Count” (“Gangsta shit in my DNA, I just can’t explain that/Even if I die tell my enemies I remain that”). His collaboration with Black Thought proves inspired on “Extradite,” as Mikhail’s beat blends ’70s soul with “Twilight Zone” organs while Gibbs and Black Thought’s words spill out like rolling dice. Like similarly great albums released this year by Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples, Shadow of a Doubt is grim but enlivening—seek the hard-hitting “Packages” as proof. Gibbs is the quintessential thirtysomething rapper who’s toiled in the underground only to see younger guys get the glory—if there’s any justice, Shadow of a Doubt should make that a thing of the past.

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Livin' Foul (CD)

Freed from major label shackles, Wax is running afoul in the world of underground hip hop. Discovering what being over-the-hill feels like (meaning being over 21), Wax preaches the contradictory nature of trying to be an adult, but still wanting to drink and party like you did when you were 18. Tough stuff!

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Ingleworld 3 (CD)

2015 might be the greatest year for hip hop. Numerous essential, original releases have rounded up the calendar and Skeme's third album keeps the train going. Cruel and unrelenting, Skeme pounds you (literally) with tough imagery and pure animal-like ferociousness in an album that you spar with, not listen to. A knockout.

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Run the Jewels 2 (CD)

Run The Jewels, the super talented hip-hop power duo of El-P and Killer Mike, outdid themselves in 2014 with their anticipated follow up to last year's excellent self-titled debut on Fool's Gold. For the all killer no filler sequel, released via Nas' newly launched Mass Appeal Records and simply entitled RTJ2 or Run The Jewels 2, they turn up the sonic and lyrical assault with an in your face album that is as much rock as it is hip-hop and, while only eleven songs deep, it satisfies on every level, leaving listeners longing for more. If only for the pitch-perfect second single and best song on the album "Oh My Darling Don’t Cry," this album would be worth buying but everything on here kicks ass. As E-Lit at Amoeba Berkeley noted, Run The Jewels is better than anything either El-P or Killer Mike have done individually up to this point in their respective careers - and they've each done some amazing work! RTJ2's select featured guests include Zack de la Rocha, Travis Barker, Diane Coffee, and BOOTS.

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Stereotypes (CD)

Kevin Sylvester and Wilner Baptiste like to break stereotypes as much as they like to subvert social and sonic norms. With each wielding a violin, they shred away on their instrument against heavy beats and drum-machines clashing in cool cocophony. Who knew hip-hop and classical would work so well together?

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