Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) and a message from the blogger.

Some years ago I was at a one night only show in London: “A Night Of Political Song”. The assembled performers managed to deliver a 2 hour plus show of political and protest song with nothing by Dylan, nothing by Ochs and only one song, the very last, from Ewan MaColl. One of those performers was Tom Robinson who these days has a show on BBC radio. He talked about enquiries he got from listeners bemoaning the contemporary shortage of protest songs. The problem, he said, was that people his age (our age!) listen to the wrong music.

I will give you a description of what followed. It doesn’t sound like much. A sixty something white bisexual man performed a hip hop song with a unique arrangement that included a clarinet solo.

It was terrific.

Largely because of the song, “Language of Violence”, originally recorded by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. It was a tough, uncompromising, very smart and very well crafted song. A stand out in an evening of fine songs.

It reminded me that hip hop is about more than icing pigs whilst some bitch blows your whistle uh huh, Nigga.

This album includes the word “nigga” a lot. And lots of profanity. But then David Bowies marvellous Blackstar album had one song that included the work “fuck” at least nine times and another that mentions “my cock”.

I bought it because it seemed about time I put some money where my mouth is and bought some hip hop instead of just rubbing AC/DC’s fans faces in various distasteful extracts from their lyrics. And because I remembered Tom Robinson performing “Language of Violence”. A genre that could produce such a potent pro-gay, anti-rape, anti-xenophobia (all in one song) protest song might have more going for it than I’d given it credit for.

As it turns out it was like listening to something from another country. A country where they spoke English but the experience of the people that lived there was completely alien to me. Being a white male South African of a certain age in a month when our universities were burning may have heightened this impression.

I didn’t feel excluded or unwelcome. It wasn’t like there was a “blacks only” sign between me and the music. But a young black man from Compton has lived a very different life from me, having to deal with a very different set of attitudes, assumptions and aspirations and having to look outside of the conventional structures for leadership.

Indeed in terms of sound and production I found it very seductive. And welcoming. The constant clever sound effects, the backwards references to beat generation jazz and to soul hits (most obviously a guitar part lifted and effectively licensed from the Isley Brothers) coupled with a potent contemporary beat and Lamar’s lyrical density makes for an intoxicating mix. I didn’t have to work very hard to like this record.

The profanity might play to firmly held stereotypes, but there’s little of the sexual bravado that hip hop allegedly is rich with. Tellingly in “The Blacker The Berry” he first laments the death of Trayvon Martin and then turns the tables on those of his homies who protest violence from outside their community whilst themselves behaving like thugs.

Lamar is a practicing Christian, and in the midst of the profanity he gives us “How Much a Dollar Cost” which channels Christ’s parables, and discusses his faith during “i”. A character named “Lucy” (a proxy for Satan/temptation) crops up repeatedly, and he references his own internal conflicts and his depression.

There’s a whole lot going on with the ingenious arrangements and Lamar’s determination to pack his lyrics with cleverness and meaning.

There’s real craft here, real intelligence and this record has a whole lot going for it. And I feel like a patronising white shit for talking about a vital, inventive genre in those terms.

I started this blog when I got laid off mid-2014. I figured I’d have more time than I knew what to do with (or wanted to have) and so getting to grips with an album each week and recording that experience seemed like a way to fill time and a corner of my mind, and maybe would be of some interest and assistance to other people looking for a broader experience of music.

But things didn’t go to plan and I promptly found re-employment, at first on a contract but then the contract was converted to a permanent position. This is not a bad problem to have.

The job was in Centurion which meant a commute. And I decided to do a proper commute and use public transport, because my sums showed that it might be a little cheaper and because the traffic is much easier to handle when you’re not driving.

All good, but it takes time out of day. And in the last 15 months the amount of traffic on the roads seems to have grown, people seem to be heading for the office earlier in the morning and for sure the busses and trains have got a lot busier and so even more time is taken out of my day. Now, admittedly, all I can do during the travel time is listen to music., read and catch up with social media. But all my shopping and fixing and mending now has to happen on a weekend. And I am trying to get some of my guitar chops (such as they were) back and before much longer I’m going to have to embark upon a course of study to update my skills and keep myself employable.

These are not bad problems to have compared to an unemployed man from Kendrick Lamar’s neck of the woods or a refugee in Alexander or Cosmo City. I have a regular job, money invested for my retirement, a house that’s paid for and etc.

But still, time turns out to be very important and precious now. I can’t get any more of it, but I can re-prioritise how I spend it. And this blog has to be one of the victims. I don’t want to close it down, but I also can’t keep on updating it with new content each week (and occasionally resenting having to do that). So it’s now an irregular blog.

Thanks for your attention. I hope I will get around to updates, just not so regularly, and that you will pop in from time to time.


Gil Scott-Heron – I’m New Here (2010)

I’d long vaguely known that Gil Scott-Heron was around and doing a sort of half-sung half-spoken politicised thing. Oh… and he had a song with the splendid title “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Full stop.

One of the great things about this day-and-age is that it’s never too late to start exploring somebody who you’ve been hearing about for years without actually hearing. I’d seen this album come up in one of Richard Haslop’s “best of” lists. I didn’t check the details properly. This is the last album that Scott-Heron released in his lifetime. 15 months after he released this album he was dead. Talk about starting at the wrong end…

Not only was this his last album, but it came after a long lay-off. He’d been very ill (he had HIV) and had had spells in jail on charges stemming from a drug conviction. Sixteen years… so much had changed in that time that this might not be that typical an album.

In any event, I have no greater context to set it in. It’s the first time I’ve given Scott-Heron a concerted listening. But I’ll tell you, I intend to listen to some more.

He’s regarded as one of the precursors of hip-hop with his half-spoken vocal style. Here he doesn’t just suggest hip-hop, he goes right out and does it. And the results are potent and impressive.

In 2010 I went to a show in London that presented a sampling of political song – both current and historic. One of the high points was Tom Robinson who did a song written by Michael Franti of Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. The song was “Language Of Violence” and it shook me with it’s power and intelligence. It made a point that maybe shouldn’t need making – that hip hop is more than just chanting “yo” and “muddafucka”, misogyny and gratuitous sexualisation.

Not that rock fans have much room for complaint: Rock has a prominent streak of sexism and sexually dubious lyrics (not to mention over-the-top clothing), but we all know it can be and is more than that. We should make the same allowances for other genres.

So here we have hip-hop with real power and intelligence. And skill. Even when Heron’s not what you’d actually call singing (because pitch is not important and is de-emphasised) there’s effective and skilful use of timing in his performances, his delivery carefully synchronised with the underlying rhythmic structure so as to allow the words, the real payload, to hit their mark.

It’s mostly  a stark affair with stripped down arrangements that offer enough but no more. After an opening monologue (backed by a looped sample of a Kanye West song) he delivers a deliciously potent and bang up-to-date cover of Robert Johnson’s “Me And The Devil”. The arrangement still works in a repeating blues lick, and Scott-Heron’s smoky baritone vocals are well judged and recorded so that they are intimate and seductive to the ear. Indeed Scott-Heron’s voice is a major sonic and musical weapon on this album – and he knows it.

“Me And The Devil” is a bit more sung than most tracks. “New York Is Killing Me” leans more towards the spoken (whilst still possessing timing and rhythm) and makes clever use of a looped sample of syncopated hand claps (as occasionally heard in 50s East Coast street music). The striking title track juxtaposes another skilfully delivered (and recorded) baritone vocal with an acoustic guitar track that reminded me of Nick Drake in his most pared down mode.

It’s all beautifully judged and delivered and very satisfying. The vocals are very much the point of it all – central to what he does and beguiling whilst also carrying each song’s message.

Or it would be very satisfying if it were just a bit longer. It clocks in at under half an hour, and about 5 minutes of that is the book-ending monologues and various spoken interludes (that don’t stay interesting as long as the music does). Another 10 or 15 minutes and he’d convince instead of leaving us thinking that we were just getting warmed up.

The quality is very high, though, and so it’s enough to work the old trick of leaving the audience wanting more – which may be the effect he wanted to achieve and certainly the effect that he does achieve.