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.


Tom Robinson – Only The Now (2015)

Robinson’s been quiet for a long time in terms of touring and record releases. His last album of new material was back in 1996. Since then he’s played infrequent gigs, been an award winning radio presenter and raised a family. Now, in the year in which he qualifies for a bus pass, he has released a very good record and will hit the road again.

Robinson’s always had a political edge to his art, and the “single” (if we can still call it that) from this album is a stirring, angry and very up to date protest song “The Mighty Sword of Justice” inspired by a cut in legal aid. In interviews Robinson has said that it costs a hundred and fifty pounds to plead guilty, nearly five times that to plead innocent. The point is not new – “There’s one law for the rich, and another one for the poor” – but the details in the lyrics (and all the references are British) bring it bang up to date. Robinson is joined by Billy Bragg, who writes and sings one verse, another outspoken performer. The performance is terriffic. It’s an old-fashioned protest song, easy to sing, feels good to sing, and it’ll stick in the mind far better than a pamphlet.

There’s also a rant about a banker who got a life line from the government without extending any leniency to his clients, and a portrayal of a suicide bomber. Strong stuff, very current yet also par for the course for Robinson.

But the dominant mood on this album is poignant remembrance, a thread which leads to a superb, dreamy cover of John Lennon’s “In My Life” with a guest vocal and marvellous guitar arrangement by Martin Carthy, another senior figure of British music. This pairing may seem incongruous given their histories – punk and pop for Robinson whilst Carthy is a giant of English folk song – but the two have worked together previously and in the seventies the often vocally political folk movement found much common ground with the politically vocal punk and two-tone movements. So Carthy and Robinson is not as unlikely a pairing as may be thought, and a very effective one.

Rounding off an assembly of elder statsmen, not to mention the plain elderly, is actor Ian McKellan who can’t sing and doesn’t try to. He provides the voice of God on “Holy Smoke” (about using pages from the Bible to roll a joint) but adds rather less to “One Way Street” though, as he gets to recite, “the fact that someone’s older doesn’t always make them wrong.”

“Don’t Jump, Don’t Fall” could be biographical or auto-biographical, deals with the joint problems of depression and suicide (Robinson is a long time activist in these fields), and has a gorgeously heart-breaking chorus.

Robinson closes the album with the fond, hopeful title track which seems directed towards his wife and children yet also has a more universal appeal.

Gerry Diver’s production makes the most of the songs without overwhelming them, and juxtaposes contemporary touches with a retro – but not contrived – sound. Robinson’s voice audibly has some miles on it, but it only aids the sincerity of his delivery. The song writing is strong – even the minor tracks offer interest.

List all these attributes and it’s clear that this is a fine album, with many genuinely moving movements and near perfect pop thrills on “Mighty Sword of Justice” and “Cry Out”.

What’s not to like here? Even if you have no great history with Robinson (I don’t) this is an appealing, high quality record and one of the best new things you will hear this year – even if you’re not on the wrong side of forty.