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Review: Sufjan Stevens and Kendrick Lamar

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Senior Sam Gunn offers a fresh perspective on some of today’s best new music. This month, Sam listens in on Sufjan Stevens and Kendrick Lamar.

 

“Carrie & Lowell” – Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens is lost. Despite having been an indie music darling from early in his career, multi-instrumentalist Stevens is only now finding himself through the cathartic experience of music. The death of his estranged mother in 2012 prompted a spiraling confusion that consumed Stevens, who commented, “At the time, part of me felt that I was possessed by her spirit and that there were certain destructive behaviors that were manifestations of her possession.” Shortly after his emergence from the shadows of loss and sorrow, Stevens crafted one of the most intimate, striking, breathtaking and poetic albums ever.

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“Carrie & Lowell” is as terse and punctual as it is vacant and glassy. The crystalline acoustic guitar and soft electronic accents feel like a fully orchestrated ensemble has been stripped to its thematic core, where only the bare essentials stand to illuminate the human experience. While Sufjan is best known for his excessive and grand masterpieces of overwhelming sonic proportions — which are often vignettes of historical or even fictional characters — he instead opts for the closeness of a whispering, fleeting sound that carries the weight of his memories. A majority of the album was recorded in Stevens’s apartment, and the whir of the air conditioning and the chilling buzz of the steel strings on his guitar only serve to accentuate the purely poetic nature of the lyrics.

Throughout his career, Sufjan had been planting the seeds for this tragic, flowering album. “Carrie and Lowell” is the unpacking of the fear, regret, pain and anguish of a disorienting childhood and a cultish, secular exposure to God, spirituality and life. No longer hidden behind the veil of circumlocutions and fictitious narrative, Sufjan Stevens reveals his uncanny ability to illustrate what it means to be alive.

Sam’s score: 10/10

Sam’s favorite tracks: “Death With Dignity,” “Eugene,” “Should Have Known Better,” “My Blue Bucket of Gold”

 

“To Pimp A Butterfly” – Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar is angry. In the face of racial tensions and his own ascent to success, Kendrick reflects on what exactly the black experience in America is all about. Better yet, he delivers his progressive lyrics through a funky, rich, stylistic work of art. The opening sample perfectly illustrates the attitude that Kendrick adopts throughout the record; as the album progresses, each song only bolsters the ideas presented in this opening blip. What makes “To Pimp A Butterfly” so different from other rap albums is its nuance. The talents of Kendrick Lamar are immediately clear; his rapid flow and mix of gut-busting lines are enough to separate him from the pack of new-wave rappers. However, the more subversive elements of this record are the cadence and tone of Kendrick’s voice, which fluctuates heavily between tracks and appears to stand as a reminder that the same person can be multi-faceted, especially ideologically.

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The production on Kendrick’s new record is unsurprisingly brilliant. Flying Lotus and Thundercat collaborate on funky, bass-driven beats with a jazzy feel on some of the less intense tracks. From the subtle use of drums during the dialogue-heavy skits to the gripping, adrenaline-filled tempos behind Kendrick’s verses, this album is a clean listen all the way through.

The cornerstone of the album is the poem that Kendrick constructs at the end of each song. As the album progresses, Kendrick builds further on his poem, pausing at certain lines, which would in turn indicate the theme of the next track. Upon first listen, this element can seem gimmicky and arrogant, as a rapper simply assumes that the listener wants to hear some seemingly random compilation of thoughts. But on the last track—which is a hefty 12 minutes long—it all comes together, and the metaphor behind the puzzling album title is as gorgeous as any hip-hop fan could hope for. Kendrick Lamar delivers his second masterpiece with this quintessential record.

Sam’s score: 9.4/10

Sam’s favorite tracks: “King Koonta,” “Mortal Man,” “How Much A Dollar Cost”

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