In recent weeks, hip-hop’s relationship with jazz and funk seems to have pivoted away from appropriation and more towards appreciation — and it’s about damn time. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly emerged from its secretive studio cocoon last month an instant classic, if such a thing exists.
The album starts as many rap records before it have, with an old sample ripped from a ’70s record, in this case Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger Is a Star.” But a mere 45 seconds later, we’re presented with the genre-mashing “Wesley’s Theory,” featuring P-Funk pioneer George Clinton and leftfield jazz purveyor Flying Lotus. This isn’t Dre or Snoop borrowing bouncy old Bootsy lines, but something special and original that blends artistic inspiration with dream fulfillment. Later, on album highlight “How Much a Dollar Cost,” the legendary Ron Isley delivers a remarkable coda worthy of his 60-something years making music. A merging of old and new, the record also introduced scores of hip-hop fans to formidable contemporary jazz players Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, and Thundercat, all three of whom played a major role in helping define To Pimp a Butterfly’s organic sound.
Though some might bristle at the thought, there’s scarcely any shade between this album and Cherry Bomb, the album out this week from the merry millennial prankster and ribald rap raconteur Tyler, The Creator. Apart from their acutely obvious surface-level similarity — the semi-surprise album drop — musically the two records share both DNA and a flair for heterogeneous intergenerational collaboration. Across its 13 tracks, Cherry Bomb teams Tyler with soul jazz legends like Roy Ayers and Leon Ware and modern artists like Alice Smith and Cole Alexander of The Black Lips. Where Kendrick had Bilal and Anna Wise, Tyler has Boyz II Men’s Wanya Morris and Kali Uchis.
Unlike Kendrick, Tyler at least prepared fans for his artistic vision. He has long used Twitter as a hyperactive means to narrowcast to his audience, dropping grammatical nightmares of self-promotion and potty-mouthed non sequiturs, typically in ALL CAPS. But he’s often used the platform to stan hard for the artists whose music he loves, from Roy Ayers to N.E.R.D. Sometimes it’s a YouTube link; others it’s purely a declaration. Even now, Twitter effectively serves as the liner notes for Cherry Bomb, with Tyler enthusiastically name-dropping those who contributed. His well-documented passion for artists like Ayers is no different than Kendrick’s feelings about George Clinton.
The primary difference, then, is about presentation (the artist’s) and perception (yours). Even before the “Control” verse became the first crowdsourced self-fulfilling prophecy, Kendrick made a name for himself off one track whose repeated vulgarian refrain was “bitch don’t kill my vibe,” not to mention others that dreamed up swimming pools full of liquor and having a skyscraper-sized erection. Those who’d rush to defend the just poetics of good kid, m.A.A.d city likely wouldn’t afford Tyler the same courtesy. Many people sized him up and subsequently summed him up based on 2011’s Goblin, his nu-horrorcore breakthrough released less than two months before Kendrick’s Section.80. Raised within a half-hour’s drive of one another in greater Los Angeles, the two artists are peers whether you want them to be or not.
Lyrically, of course, Kendrick maintains the upper hand. On the record and in interviews around the release of To Pimp a Butterfly, he’s emerged as a socially conscious voice of his generation, astutely protesting the injustices large and small in Black American Life. But to suggest Tyler lacks any of this awareness on Cherry Bomb is to make critical mistakes, the first of which is demonstrating an ignorance of his verses. While Kendrick has used his album to proselytize, tapping into the rightful outrage felt in the wake of police shooting after police shooting, Tyler comes at societal problems from a different view. Like Curtis Mayfield before him, he spends much of “Run” chastising his gangbanger friends, hoping to discourage others from doing so. On “Cherry Bomb,” he’s railing against the demands of uniformity, something much of his audience of Odd Futurians can relate to.
The greater fault, however, comes from underestimating Tyler as a credible voice of his generation. The hope of many is that Kendrick’s empowering words combined with expediency and social nature of the modern news media will keep young people from being demonstrably inactive about issues of race in America. But Tyler’s fanbase has outgrown the cult label many critics (including myself) have branded them with, and perhaps it’s time to consider that they’re more representative of American youth than other subcultures. As they’ve shown in following along with just about everything he does, they’re deeply interested in what Tyler has to say. If he grows and they grow with him, the cultural possibilities are staggering.
To speak of maturation when discussing the musical career of Tyler, The Creator is to invite flatulation in one’s face. Still the finest record in his discography, Wolf was nonetheless the product of a juvenile delinquent mindset. (Revisit the title track’s nihilistic neener-neener litany of fuck-yous for a reminder.) Cherry Bomb, curiously, isn’t. As evidenced by sex romp “Blow My Load,” Tyler’s hardly abandoned the profane, as that would betray both his following and his brand. But perhaps the Odd Future leader is maturing, musically and otherwise. If a willful outsider like Tyler can get the attention and respect of artists across generations (such as Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and Schoolboy Q, who guest on Cherry Bomb), there’s no telling what he can do with all that power.