Where to begin? The Album About Nothing (TAAN), by Wale, and To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB) by Kendrick Lamar, are both excellent albums for very different reasons. TPAB is Kendrick's second album, the highly anticipated follow up to his debut album good kid, m.A.A.d city. He did not disappoint. By contrast, TAAN is Wale's fourth album, and it is certainly his best to date. Wale's album was also highly anticipated since he had developed the reputation of a "bust" in Hip Hop because of poor album sales, and not really breaking into the mainstream as was expected. So both albums had a lot of hype surrounding their release, and needless to say, I pre-ordered these albums as soon as I possibly could.
Kendrick's album came first, and set the bar very high. From the start, Kendrick's album had me groovin', with the old school West Coast influence apparent. But as soon as I started to vibe to the music, his lyrics blew me away. I must have listened to this album about fifteen times through before I started to actually break down the messages in his songs. If you listen to this album, you must listen to it from the first track, all the way through... and then listen again, because it is just that dense. Kendrick struggles with a lot on this album: 1. his own depression on songs like "i" (the single version) and "u"; 2. the survivor's guilt that he feels having made it out of Compton, such as on "i" (the album version) and "Institutionalized"; 3. the labels that have been placed on him since rising to fame, and how he has had to negotiate his identity in the face of his new fame, on songs like "For Free?" and "You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said)".
Let's dive into some lyrics and break down some of his messages.
"i" (single version) -
Everybody lookin at you crazy (crazy!)
What you gon' do? (What you gon' do?)
Lift up yo' head and keep movin
or let the paranoia haunt you
This song preceded the entire album and caused a lot of debate. This song didn't sound like anything on Kendrick's last album, and people criticized the chorus ("I Love Myself!"). But when the album finally came out, this song fell perfectly into place. The above lyrics are Kendrick's thoughts while he was working on the album. The pressure of releasing his sophomore album was only compounded by the adversity he faced, such as losing several friends to gang violence back in Compton. The chorus to "i" is Kendrick's message to himself, since he suffers from depression. Depression is still very misunderstood as a condition. Kendrick has to actively remind himself that he is loved and that he has something to live for. The chorus makes more sense when seen in parallel with the song "u".
I fuckin tell you, you fuckin failure, YOU AIN'T NO LEADER!
I never liked you, forever despise you, I DON'T NEED YOU!
The world don't need you, don't let them deceive you
So clearly there are days where Kendrick feels like "i" and days where he feels like "u". Knowing this can help us deconstruct the rest of the album.
"For Free?" -
[Intro: Woman cursing Kendrick out]
I shouldn't be fuckin with you anyway, I need a baller-ass, boss-ass nigga
Youse an off-brand ass nigga, err'body know it, your homies know it
Everybody fuckin know, fuck you nigga, don't call me no more
The woman in this skit represents several things. Above all, she stands in for the dominant white musical culture of America that is obsessed with commercialism and materialism. Her call for a "baller-ass, boss-ass nigga" represents the new money driven standard in Hip Hop, where artists are paid for "Radio Bangers" or "Strip Club Joints". Since Kendrick is "off-brand" (a.k.a. lyrical and more like "traditional" rap) the woman rejects him. Kendrick is resisting this, having only put out one album, and feeling like the music industry is asking him to compromise his lyrics in order to become a money making machine. Kendrick is aware of this movement in the music industry and wants to resist it on this album by putting out lyrically deep music.
"Blacker the Berry" -
You never liked us anyway, fuck your friendship, I meant it
I'm African, I'm black as the moon, heritage of a small village, pardon my residence
Came from the bottom of mankind
My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide
You hate me, don't you? You hate my people
Your plan is to terminate my culture, you're fuckin evil
I want you to recognize that I'm a proud monkey
You vandalize my perception but can't take style from me
Talk about packing a punch with lyrics. At first, I was puzzled by this song, but after listening to it many (mannnyy) times, it became more obvious what Kendrick was getting at on this song. In the broad sense, the last line is a perfect summary: "You vandalize my perception but can't take style from me". While the Civil Rights Movement succeeded in defeating most legal segregation, our society has not overcome the institutionalized and societal racism that was left. Kendrick attacks this head on, rapping all the stereotypes used against black people and telling the listener that he won't succumb to the negative labels thrown at him. He embraces the labels in order to remove their power and make them ineffective. However, Kendrick is making another argument in this song, one that is much more subtle. Kendrick calls for change within black communities, with regard to how black people treat each other. He ends the song saying:
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street
when gang bangin make me kill a nigga blacker than me?
Kendrick wants to examine the violence that occurs within some black communities and reflect on how he not only confronts stereotypes from the outside world, but also those in Compton.
Wale's album is very different from Kendrick's, but just as complex. To fully understand this album, you first have to know a little about Wale and his career. After several "disappointing" albums (I disagree, but that’s for another article), Wale said he was making this album for his core fans. Wale is known for his lyricism and his emotional depth, which come through in every project he puts out. This album explores his frustration with music and his lack of recognition in the Hip Hop community, as well as his personal thoughts and feelings leading up to this album. Wale also uses an unusual device on this album, the voice of Jerry Seinfeld, who is a fan and listener of Wale, to act as a sort of narrator to the album, as well as Wale’s conscious.
"The Intro About Nothing" -
And on top it's lonely so keep your homies right by your side
And if life is short then we'll be the shorts of the Fab Five
Severed ties with any nigga who covet mine
And all the stunting got me looking ugly in momma's eyes
But I gotta do it, these niggas need provocative music
Wale doesn't waste time and jumps straight into what he's feeling about his album. He speaks about keeping his friends close and trying to condense the people around him to only those who he trusts. Wale has always been one to take criticism harshly (he actively responds to random people on twitter who send hate his way), and in the lead up to this album he spoke about how he's had to overcome anxiety and dealing with the public response to his music.
"The Middle Finger" -
Fightin' for my respect, receive it or nothin' else
Preachin' and geekin', I kinda think that I'm Malcolm X
MDMA in my juice, jaws tired and thru
Now I'm sweatin' cause the bitches, they perspired me to
Are you judgin' me now? Do you fuck with me now?
Miscarried my first child, ain't finna come out
Fuck the therapy route, where the syrup and loud?
The major event that Wale describes on this album is a miscarriage that he and his former girlfriend went through, and he describes how he turned to liquor and drugs to overcome his sadness afterwards. This, on top of the anxiety he has developed, led to his reliance on drugs just to put on a "normal" or "happy" face in his public appearances. Unlike Kendrick, who explores problems outside the self, Wale is much more introspective. His music reflects his own flaws and insecurities. How many people can say that they can deal with the miscarriage of their first child in a healthy way? Wale has the emotional and intellectual depth to actually reflect on these topics through his music, which is hard enough to do, but to make it sound dope and having people groove to it, that's even more impressive.
"The Glass Egg" -
It's right, it's like life is like a glass egg
Tryna maintain while coming to fame and keeping your last friends
Yeah, you know that balance of
Cause who on your back or who got your back
Wale’s critics have called these topics shallow and trivial, but Wale tries to examine them in a broad way. Wale is concerning with the fact that when artists dedicate themselves to their work, they often lose their friends, and the opposite is the same, if they focus on their friends, then their art suffers. We all know that feeling of, can I trust this person or are we just superficial friends? Will they stay with me even if I don’t have a lot of time for them? Wale has rapped extensively about the changes that people go through when fame enters the equation, and it is truly a tricky thing to navigate.
And the reason why this matters is because if you are a fan of music and of an artist, their product depends on their life, their happiness and their mental health. Artist can change drastically depending on what's going on in their lives (cough Kendrick cough) and if you want to continue listening to their music, you better hope they take care of themselves.
"The Matrimony" -
I'll admit it, let me be hypothetic
The day I find a woman I prolly be scared to share it
The idea of me finding love would run somebody off
Went from fallin' in love to drunk and fallin' apart
This is hard, tryna find some time to move on
Cause when we lost our baby, I got shady she got too dark
On this song, Wale reflects the most and considers his future. He sees his own flaws and worries about being able to support a healthy relationship with a woman. He doesn't want to commit to something he can't follow through with, and it’s only after having bottomed out and having to pick himself up again that he feels he's closer to that place where he can share his life with a woman. More generally, men are discouraged from engaging with their feelings, and if they are not the "manly", "macho" man, then they are considered weak/soft/gay/lame. This is especially common in Hip Hop, where emotions are commonly called "female traits", and male rappers are expected to be heartless fighters that show no weaknesses. Wale explores his thoughts and feelings, and by the end of his album he has certainly matured. He serves as a new model of masculinity – one that is self-reflective and emotionally engaged.
Hip Hop itself is in a transition period, from the crack era in rap during the 90s, moving towards a different focus. There are more rappers today who are breaking away from the old forms of masculinity laid out by Hip Hop in the 90s, such as J. Cole, Joey Bada$$ and for those of you who consider him a rapper, Drake. They are creating a new standard, a new message in Hip Hop, which doesn’t rely on narrow views of women, and that explores relationships in a whole different way. Wale finds strength from engaging with his emotions, and while some criticize him for it, he is leading the change within the art form.
Comparing the albums, Kendrick explores his personal troubles in an external sense, outside himself, outside Compton, and he struggles with problems on a large scale. Wale deals with his personal emotions, but does so internally, examining his personal thoughts and relationships. Both artists on their albums share a sort of frustration, a kind of depression, and a struggle with the world around them, but they approach them from very different angles. There is no "winner" or "better album" in this comparison. The point is that lyrical density and content comes in all forms, and that as a Hip Hop consumer, it is important to understand and appreciate the difference in these styles. Equally as important is appreciating the fact that an artist does actually have content on their albums and doesn't just have a few "club bangerz" or "pop" songs. Much respect and love to Wale and Kendrick. They have added to Hip Hop in very meaningful ways.