Ed Sheeran “Divide” (2017)

     Today we have another modern pop sensation, British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran and his massively successful third album, “Divide”.  This record was not only the #1 selling album in 2017, but in the modern context of musical streaming, Ed Sheeran is at the top of the list of most streamed artists, and his huge hit “Shape of You” is the most streamed song of all time on some streaming services.  My view of this album is complicated, perhaps more than I thought it would be, and I even have some traumatic memories tied directly to “Shape of You” I will elaborate on.

     Let’s get the negatives out of the way first.  Ed Sheeran is just the most visible artist of an entire movement of dramatically sensitive white male vocalists.  You know these guys, right?  It doesn’t matter whether it is Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, James Bay, Lukas Graham, or the absolute worst offender, Shawn Mendes (Shawn, it’s pronounced Stitches, not Stee-chez). Not only are you CONSTANTLY bombarded by their music everywhere, even at the gym where nobody ever says “let’s get swole and listen to 7 Years”.  Nope, it gets worse.  They are just so incredibly delicate and sensitive, you know every girl hears their music and thinks, “why can’t my guy be more sensitive like Ed?”  It’s not right, it’s painful to listen to, and it’s inescapable.  No song oozes this heart-fluttering want more than “Perfect”, another of the monster hits from “Divide”

    On top of that, sometimes they will deliver a song like “Shape of You”.  Beyond being omnipresent in every corner of life, some of you may even be confronted like one of my coworkers was, when she told me her mom told her how much she loved this song.  Nobody’s parent should ever positively reference a song where the lyrics include the line “and now my bedsheets smell like you”.  Again… it is just wrong.  It isn’t quite as scarring, but one of my local friends also shared that his love for this song is tied to the love for the shape of his wife.  Some thoughts are better left unsaid.

     So now that I have all of that out of the way, I will begrudgingly admit that even though the tone of his voice is sometimes a bit much, Ed Sheeran is a very capable singer and furthermore, like his female counterpart Taylor Swift, he is an effective and talented songwriter.  Taking a bit more time to listen the second time through, I appreciated the autobiographical nature of many of his songs like “Castle on the Hill”, the admittedly touching “Supermarket Flowers”, and a bonus track, “Nancy Mulligan”.  You get the sense that Ed is in fact, a pretty good dude, and despite the fact he is one of the most successful artists on the planet, he effectively portrays himself as just a normal guy who lives life for his friends and family.  It’s hard not to like that aspect of his music, and for that I will give him kudos and praise.  I don’t think I’m ready yet to add “Shape of You” to my playlist, and I probably won’t need to since the entire planet is still streaming it at an alarming rate, but I found a couple of others I will secretly add to my playlist (don’t tell my son) and move on to the next record on the list.

The Rolling Stones “Blue and Lonesome” (2016)

     One of the more interesting and longer-running feuds in rock and roll was re-energized last year when Paul McCartney said the Beatles were better than the Rolling Stones, partly because the Stones were just a “blues cover band”.  Once you listen to the album “Blue and Lonesome”, a sentiment many of us who listen to the blues can relate to, you realize Paul may have been right and wrong at the same time.  Obviously, the Stones have had much more to offer than cover tunes in their almost 60 (!) year career, but this this vintage revisit of their roots, with twelve remarkable blues cover tunes reinforces not only their greatness but their unbelievable staying power as a band.

     Many of the “classic” rock artists continue to record to this day.  McCartney and Ringo, Robert Plant, The Who, Elton John, and yes, the Stones, among many others, but their current music never sees the light of day on classic rock radio, and when playing in concert, it is these new songs that often represent bathroom breaks for fans waiting impatiently for the “classic hits”.  I’ve always felt this to be a bit close-minded and unfair, because many of these artists, well beyond the ones I listed above, are still making interesting and relevant music today, even if it goes largely unnoticed.  For some reason, Ozzy Osbourne, of all musicians, seems to be the only artist from that era to get frequent airtime with new material.  More power to him, and for what it is worth, he did come out with a pretty impressive track featuring Jeff Beck just this year.

     Anyway, once in very rare moment, one of these acts brings something forward uniquely enjoyable, and I don’t think there is a record released by any classic rock artist in the last ten years that rivals “Blue and Lonesome”.  If you listen to this album, co-produced by Don Was, it is as if you are magically transported back to 1964 and their first album.  Mick Jagger’s vocals are unbelievably vital, and although his core range was never as wide as someone like McCartney, Plant or Elton, his delivery in his late 70s sounds somehow unchanged through 60 years of performing.  Just as it was in the beginning, his harmonica is also central to their blues foundation.  As timeless as Jagger is, if you see him onstage, his “moves like Jagger” haven’t lost a step either.  Keith Richards and Ron Wood do the majority of the heavy lifting on guitar, with one very special guest appearance, and perhaps most endearing of all, Charlie Watts is outstanding in his last studio album recording.

Back to the Beatles vs. the Stones for just a moment, my friend Mike posed that question to me a while ago, and my first-response answer still stands to this day. If we are judging on their work in the studio alone, I have to give the nod to the songwriting of Lennon and McCartney, with Harrison bringing his own gifts to the party. However, if we are talking a live performance, there is a reason so many consider the Rolling Stones the greatest rock and roll band of all time. The beauty of “Blue and Lonesome” is that it is a studio album that sounds like it could be and should be a live performance, and it was in fact recorded in just three days, the way it used to be done by acts of this caliber.

     There isn’t a weak link on this album and every song is a gift to any blues-based Stones fan.  The album opens with a rocking up-tempo blues beat that was released as a single, “Just Your Fool” by Little Walter.  Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, Otis Hicks, Jimmy Reed and the legendary Willie Dixon all see their songs surface here, and I love that several of these artists reconnect this blog with its earliest roots, completing the circle with an album released in 2016.

     While I will sing the praises of the entire record, there are two songs I have to specifically single out for consideration.  I didn’t know it at that time, but it isn’t surprising to me looking back on it, that these are the two songs that also feature Eric Clapton on slide and lead guitar.  What a masterpiece these songs are to enjoy.  “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing”, written by Miles Grayson and Lermon Horton, is almost too good to be true, and while Clapton is in top form, Matt Clifford also stands out on piano, and Charlie Watts almost steals the show with his unusually thunderous back beat.  No matter how much I already praised his work, you have to acknowledge how good Jagger is on this song as well.

     The album concludes with Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, a song that immediately recaptures my attention as a track Led Zeppelin also covered on their first album.  No matter how biased I may be towards their version, there is no denying how great this effort is, once again featuring Clapton on lead.  And as much as one is tempted to compare two great covers of this song, you can’t ignore the fact that the Stones took their run at this song in their mid 70s.  The power and force of Mick, backed by the subtleness of Keith Richards and Ron Wood wrapping their magic around Clapton’s lead, is truly a spectacle to be taken in.  I spent the night listening to and comparing both performances, and then going all the way back to Willie Dixon for his original home run.  Some nights you just need the blues, and this was a good night to reconnect with some of my favorite music of my past.

     Of all people, it was my son who originally turned me on to this album.  I know my friend Jim is also a devoted advocate for this record as well.  If you have even a hint of appreciation for old British rock blues, you can’t go wrong with “Blue and Lonesome”.  The musical world now belongs to a new, different and very capable generation, but I’m grateful the Stones were able to deliver a new album of old songs that reminds us all where it all started so many years ago.

Bruno Mars “24K Magic” (2016)

     Some artists are so charismatic and entertaining to watch perform live, that a studio album doesn’t necessarily capture their full power as an artist.  I think that might be my take on Bruno Mars and his album “24K Magic”.  There are two phenomenal hits, the title track in particular, and some other decent songs on this record, but for me, the magic of Bruno Mars will always be best defined by his multiple appearances in the Super Bowl Halftime Show.  Since I have seen him there, any other artist has failed to measure up on that same stage. 

     Riding the wave of the massive hit “Uptown Funk”, which was actually a Mark Ronson song featuring Bruno Mars, this 2016 album and its equally high energy title track reinforced Bruno Mars as the modern-day version of James Brown, Michael Jackson and Prince all merged into one.  His blend of sweet and soulful vocals with an always-present posse of dancing masters made for an audio-visual burst of entertainment, and clubs and radios alike were overwhelmed with interest for this song.  No matter how many times I hear this song or its predecessor “Uptown Funk”, (which is not on this album, just to clarify) I always smile and tend to reach for the volume button. 

     “That’s What I Like” slows down the pace half a beat, but is another big hit delivered in the same style, with similar effect.  The other singles, “Versace on the Floor”, “Chunky” and “Finesse” are less impactful, and honestly, there isn’t too much else on this relatively short (33 minute) album to get excited about, as they are pretty basic pop songs, but the entire record is still a fun play and is probably a dozen times more enjoyable performed live.

     I will keep an open mind every year as I watch the Super Bowl, but until I see otherwise, Bruno Mars will always be the unquestioned king of the Halftime Show, and this collection of hits he strung together makes him one of the most enjoyable and dazzling performers of the last decade.

Drake “Views” (2016)

     Up until recently, I only really knew three things about Drake.  One, he sold and/or streamed a ton of songs in the past decade.  Two, he really likes basketball, and three, I have always known him primarily for his song “Hotline Bling”, which has been a favorite of mine since it was released.  When I started listening to his 2016 album “Views”, I didn’t know that this would be the record where I was reunited with “Hotline Bling”, but I’m glad it was.  In general, I think I enjoyed this record more than the last one we discussed, “Take Care”.  It is still primarily low-fi R&B with a hip-hop flavor, and there are some pretty dark songs on here about relationship failures and breakdowns, but I enjoyed this album more than I expected.

     The record opens with a solid vibe, on the song “Keep the Family Close”.  It starts off with a pretty light and chill feel, but both words and music get much more intense as the song builds.  “Feel No Ways” has a phenomenal beat, and looking back, I’m very surprised this catchy tune wasn’t one of the five singles from the record.  For obvious reasons, I definitely feel an affinity for “Weston Road Flows”, and it has a fairly hypnotic back-track sample that feeds into Drake’s hip-hop side.  “With You” features another Canadian R&B singer, PARTYNEXTDOOR, and I really enjoyed the blend of their vocals and the songwriting on this track.

      “Hotline Bling” brings back some funny memories laughing at and enjoying this song at the same time.  It even provided the fuel for one of the more bizarre covers by my favorite glam rock band, the Struts.  It remains the most memorable standout song of this record, and one of my favorite songs of the last ten years.  I’m glad I got another dose of Drake, and I’m sure I will be giving him a few more streams on my playlist, as if he needs any more commercial success.

“I know when that hotline bling, that can only mean one thing…”

Frank Ocean “Blonde” (2016)

     I have invested some extra time trying to make sense of today’s album, “Blonde” by Frank Ocean.  It is a very highly regarded concept album, compared by some to “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys, and is rated #79 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.  I won’t ever reach that level of affection for this record, and it is a bit of a challenging listen, but like almost all of these records, I found some nuggets I enjoyed.

     Frank Ocean is a talented and soulful singer who has thrived across multiple genres in the past decade.  For this record, there is a lot of electronic distortion and reproduction of his voice, and on some songs, it works, and on others, I find it a bit annoying.  I love how it opens the lead single and first track on the record, “Nikes”.  Yet, on the very next song, “Ivy”, his voice is inexplicably transformed into Phyllis Diller in a S&M machine at the end of the song, and there is nothing I yield from that whatsoever.

      There are multiple spoken word tracks on the record, which I’m sure have some context and meaning but leave me a little confused.  We appear to have his mom repeatedly telling him not to do drugs on “Be Yourself”, and on “Facebook Story”, the thick European accent reminds me of “Giorgio by Moroder” by Daft Punk.  They are entertaining, but I can’t say I understand their placement and context here.

     As I detected on “Lemonade”, I heard fragments of other classics seeping through on two successive songs on this record, and the songwriting credits confirmed my suspicions.  “Close to You” is in fact a highly reworked transformation of the same song performed by the Carpenters and written by Burt Bacharach, and as I listened to “White Ferrari”, I was sure I heard elements of “Here, There and Everywhere” by the Beatles, which was reinforced by the omnipresent Lennon & McCartney in the songwriting credits.

      In total, I would say this album is a bit too abstract for me, but I did really like “Nikes” and some of the other highlights I referenced above.  I know my son is a huge Frank Ocean fan, and I can see some similarities in style with Drake, although Frank Ocean is a much more evolved singer.  This is certainly representative of the music of the time, and I’m glad I invested the effort to get to know it well.

Beyonce “Lemonade” (2016)

     My expectations for “Lemonade” by Beyonce were pretty low, as I don’t usually gravitate to modern R&B music.  I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed the musical diversity of this highly acclaimed album, which is rated #32 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.  It appears most people associate this record with the relationship difficulties she was experiencing with her husband Jay-Z at the time, and he is notably absent from the entire record, either as a performer or producer.  I’m only speculating here, but I wonder if the album title is an extension of the saying, “When life gives you lemons…”.  True or not, this record has some really interesting songs that showcase her versatility and remarkable talents.

     Among my favorites are the subdued but catchy melody “Hold Up”, “Sorry”, a tune where she is pretty angry and not terribly remorseful for her emotions, “Daddy Lessons”, which incorporates a mix of Dixieland Jazz with a slice of country, and “Freedom”, a powerful song with a strong performance from Kendrick Lamar.  “Formation” is another intense and funky track, and I also really enjoyed “Love Drought”, which I’m really surprised wasn’t released as a single.

     Another unusual song that works well is her collaboration with Jack White on “Don’t Hurt Yourself”.  An odd pairing perhaps, but this song really blends them well, and I remember thinking the drums sound a lot like “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin.  My instincts were proven correct when I saw the songwriting credits and saw all four members of Zeppelin credited on the songwriting, even though at most, the song mixes in the amazing drums of John Bonham on sample.  As much as Led Zeppelin has “borrowed” from other artists, I think this was a pretty generous credit, but that trivia aside, this song is another unexpected highlight, as well as another side of angry Beyonce I haven’t seen before.

     As I said, I don’t naturally gravitate towards Beyonce or her style of music, but I really love the way she branched out here, and I fully understand why it was so successful commercially and critically.

The Struts “Everybody Wants” (2016)

     Lots of music comes and goes for me, but at the end of it all, my heart still comes back to the basics of guitar-based rock and roll.  Unfortunately, by 2015, that genre was fading fast, at least in the mainstream world of popular music as hip-hop, R&B and other electronic genres took hold, along with a highly diversified mix of artists.  There were still hard rock bands and various strains of guitar rock, but most of it was pretty intense and was closely connected to the roots of metal and grunge and was frankly a bit depressing.  Thankfully for me, I was driving one morning on I-95 south of Jacksonville, and  I just happened to turn on the radio and heard this funky riff-mix of guitar, bass, drums with a hint of synthesizer that changed my life.

     There have been several bands who I have embraced so significantly that they became embedded in my lifestyle, and I’m grateful to celebrate the UK glam-rock, classic-rock, whatever you want to call them-rock band who is bringing a fresh sound to an iconic brand of music, the Struts.  From Derby in the United Kingdom, this band has recorded several albums and spent the last decade on the road, and as a faithful and committed fan, I have seen them live 15 times, in 13 different venues, in 7 different states.  Their shows are enthusiastically high-energy, led by today’s perfect front-man and showman, Luke Spiller.  A guitar band has to have a strong guitarist, and the songwriting, playing and singing of Adam Slack is equally essential to the success of the band.  Jed Elliott on bass, and Gethin Davies on drums joined the band after Luke and Adam and are superior showmen and performers in their own right.  In total, this band is just too much fun, whether it be live on stage or on record.  I always hope for them to really blow up in popularity, but for now, I also consider myself equally blessed to be able to see them in so many different intimate clubs that have become a part of my lifestyle and fiber as a music fan.

     Their debut album was released to the U.S. in 2016 after its 2014 debut in the UK and is one of my favorite albums of all time.  If I could only take ten (probably even five) records to a desert island, this would be one of them.  As I noted above, my attention was first captured by the funky rocker that is “Kiss This”, and after I purchased the CD and listened to the entire album, I was instantly hooked.

     Oddly enough, if I HAD to pick a least-favorite song, and that would be a challenge here, it would probably be the opener, “Roll Up”.  It is a true set-opener as it announces the band’s arrival, but the hook from this song just doesn’t completely grab me the way the others do.  However, from that point on, it is just song after song of highly infectious tracks that are hard rocking, but with pop sensibility, somewhat reminiscent of the way David Lee Roth worked with Eddie Van Halen to record rocking songs that people enjoyed dancing and bouncing to just as much.

     “Could Have Been Me” is the second song, and usually is the last song they play in a live show.  By far their most streamed song, it’s hard not to embrace the message of the lyrics.  “Don’t wanna live as an untold story, Rather go out in a blaze of glory…    I wanna live better days, Never look back and say, Could Have Been Me!”  Amen, Luke.

     Next is “Kiss This”, which to this day still rates as my all-time favorite Struts song.  The crunchy riff is phenomenal, and when augmented by Jed on bass, this song just sends me into a frenzy, whether I’m at a show or not. 

     The hits keep coming with “Put Your Money on Me”, which is probably their best pop-rock song.  If you see Luke Spiller in person or on stage, there is a hint of androgyny in his delivery, and after showing my parents a video of the Struts performing this awesome song, my mom told me she was confused by two women kissing at the beginning of the video.  Of course, we know that A), there is nothing wrong with that even if it were so, and B), it was just Luke and his then-girlfriend.  That absurdity aside, it really is a great hook and often the first song I play for potential new Struts listeners.

     They display their diversity with the breakup ballad “Mary Go Round”, which has proven to be a fan favorite for sing-along at live shows as they usually play it with just Adam on acoustic guitar accompanying Luke.  The quality of songs on this first album is remarkably consistent, and in a different era, I have to think many of these songs, this one included, would have been massive radio hits.

     The next two songs are sassy and a bit on the provocative side, and excellent up-tempo numbers.  “Dirty Sexy Money” is another staple of their current live show, and while “The Ol’ Switcheroo” is slightly less familiar, it is a hilarious perspective on the longing eyes of two different couples.  “She Makes Me Feel Like” is perhaps a bit more wholesome in its theme yet, if possible, even more happy and catchy in its delivery.

     “Young Stars” is more of an anthemic rocker, even more so than many of these others, but they all play really well to a house full of enthusiastic fans.  This one has another lyrical misstep for me, as I thought for years Luke was embracing technology and singing “I was buffering”, when it was in fact, “I was born for it”.  Unlike many of his peers, his British accent almost always shines through in his vocals, which completely adds to the charm and appeal of the Struts.

      Two last songs I will highlight are “These Times Are Changing” and “Where Did She Go”.  Both are raucous tracks that are perfect for crowd sing-along, and “Where Did She Go” served for many years as their “human fireworks” track, when Luke would have the entire crowd get on the ground, then burst into crazy jumping at his demand.  Ahh.. to be a rock star and have the audience in the palm of your hands.

     If you haven’t heard the Struts, “Everything Wants” is a fabulous place to start.  Even today, it is my favorite of their three records, and many of these hits remain the backbone of their spectacular live show.  Go see them live, enjoy the records, but as Luke Spiller would famously say, “Remember the name the Struts!”

Adele “25” (2015)

     The next round of chart domination comes next from Adele, as we have the #1 selling album for 2015 AND 2016, “25”.  Each of her albums are titled with the convention of her current age, so it is four years since her massive hit “21”.  Obviously, this was also a major hit, and of the three albums to be #1 for two years in a row, since 1970, two of them came from Adele.  I was a little surprised to not see this one in the Rolling Stone Top 500.  The only reason I can assume is that critics may have thought this was just more of the same, soulful adult contemporary that spans a wide array of audiences without breaking too much new ground.  That is certainly how I see this record.

     Many times, I say the first song really sets the tone for the album, and that is the case here to some degree, and I consider that a bit unfortunate.  “Hello” was the first single and a major hit, but it is just a little bleak and depressing for my tastes, even as her vocals on this song are remarkable.  It is somewhat representative of the entire Adele catalog, and I think that is why I can only listen to so much Adele.  There are times in life where sadness takes hold, we all know that, but how about a little sunshine now and then? 

     The same mindset applies to “When We Were Young”.  It just brings me down.  This song also has another lyrical misread on my part.  For a sometime, I thought the word movie, which is used a dozen times or more, was moonbeam.  I’m glad I cleared that one up.

     Her other biggest hit from this record is also a breakup song, but at least it has some life to it.  The first time I heard “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)”,  I remember someone said to me, “Listen, an actual Adele song that isn’t miserable”, and that has always stuck with me.  It does have a very sassy chorus and the harmony vocals add a lot of energy to this track, one of my favorites on the record.

     There are a couple of other highlights I will call out.  “Water Under the Bridge” actually opens as a Kate Bush “Running Up that Hill” sound-alike and carries a strong melody and tempo throughout the entire song.  “All I Ask” is a pretty and simple song, but for some of my digs, I can’t deny the creative talent of Adele her, and I learned a bit more about both of these songs with a little more research.  One, they both stand out as singles 4 & 5 from the record, so that makes sense, even though I don’t recall them from that time period, and “All I Ask” was actually cowritten by Bruno Mars, which makes sense given its sound.  It reminds me a lot of “When I Was Your Man”

     Adele is an amazing singer and a gifted performer on every level.  I do like it when she switches up the pace a bit, but that observation aside, I can fully appreciate the massive commercial appeal of this record.

Tame Impala “Currents” (2015)

     Today brought a completely unexpected surprise with the Australian “band” Tame Impala, which is almost exclusively Kevin Parker, particularly on this record, “Currents”.  I’m still not exactly sure why I chose to add this one, even though it is rated #382 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, but I sure am glad I did.  The sound takes me back to 1980s British synthesized new wave, but instead it is 2015 and the origin is Australia.  Even as a legacy guitarist, this album is heavily synth-based and Parker does a fantastic job creating a vibe and a mood that extends through the entire record.  If I had to compare them to some other artists, two that come to mind are New Order and Cocteau Twins.

     The album opens with “Let It Happen”, which was the 1st single and certainly defines the sound for the rest of the record.  Next comes the song “Nangs”, with some very hypnotic synthesizer, I really love the aura of this tune.    “The Moment” is a great pop song, very up-tempo, and I’m honestly surprised this wasn’t released as one of the four singles from the album.

     The next two songs are very similar in sound.  “Yes I’m Changing” and “Eventually”, which was the 3rd single released, have a similar feel and sound that is true to the larger album.  I particularly appreciate the slow beauty of “Yes I’m Changing”.

     As I tried to recall the music of this act, I looked at the highest streamed songs and saw “The Less I Know the Better”, with over 1 billion plays on my service alone.  The irony here is I think this song, which was the 4th and last single released, is somewhat of a mood-breaker, as it is more of a straight-forward rocker, and one of my least favorite songs on a really strong total release.

     “Past Life” is an odd, techno-based song, and on “Disciples”, you can really appreciate the prominent falsetto as the pace accelerates.  “Cause I’m a Man” slows it back down, and it is just very impressive how lush and full in sound all of these melodies evolve into.

     As much as I enjoyed all of these songs, Parker saved the best for last on “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”.  This one hits heavier, with an almost-funky keyboard riff, and it bounces with a perfect thump.  In total, I can’t say that I was familiar with Tame Impala prior to this listen, but I can honestly see myself adding almost every song to my master playlist, and I will ultimately look back at this as one of my favorite discoveries of the entire experience.

Kendrick Lamar “To Pimp A Butterfly” (2015)

     Returning today to the world of hip-hop, we have the next release from Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp a Butterfly”.  Lamar is probably the most highly regarded hip-hop artist of the last decade, with each release coming with great expectations and anticipation.  To his large core fanbase, this album was a major success, and it was also a critically acclaimed album, coming in at #19 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     As I listened to this record several times, I was challenged and confronted with a complicated reality.  There is only one song on this album that comes across with even a hint of pop sensibility or infectious hooks, and that is the first single, “i”.  Perfectly incorporating a sample from “That Lady” by the Isley Brothers, I embraced this song several years ago as my favorite Kendrick Lamar song.  The MC work is stellar, and this song runs at a pace that truly showcases his talent as a performer.

     While there were other highlights along the way, I find myself looking at this record the same way as I do with a Miles Davis jazz album, and that isn’t just because there is a lot of jazz feel to this record.  What I believe it reflects is that I can tell this intellectual and spiritual delivery is somehow more than I can fully process, as if I’m not smart enough, sophisticated enough, or capable enough of connecting on this higher plane with Lamar.  I mean that with 100% sincerity and authenticity.  The incorporation of the recurring and building spoken word (“I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same…”) helps amplify Lamar’s struggles with temptation, and the overall theme of this record moves at a dizzying pace as Lamar drops intense story after intense story.

     Among the most impactful tracks were me included the opener “Wesley’s Theory”, which kicks off with some George Clinton woven in.  “King Kunta” is another powerful song, embedding both Michael Jackson and James Brown in his own inimitable style.  I loved Snoop Dogg’s low-key delivery on “Institutionalized”, and “Alright”, with help from Pharell Williams, is another of the high points on this record.  “Hood Politics” opens with a Steely Dan-esque vibe that I would have loved to see extend through the song, but unfortunately it went in a more abrasive direction, which probably makes sense given the title and theme of the song.

     “The Blacker the Berry” shares a title with a Harlem renaissance novel, and I will confess it also had me fondly recalling a similar line from the song “Run and Tell That”, one of the very best musical theater songs I have ever seen, as presented in Hairspray.    The message and meaning of this song were even more direct and timely.  Lamar’s delivery is thunderous on this track, as he is joined by Assassin and Lalah Hathaway, and it references the murder of Trayvon Martin, a racially motivated killing that happened just miles away from where my own son went to high school. It isn’t lost on me, ten years after that murder, that he and Martin were essentially the same age.

     For all these moments of greatness, there are other tracks I just can’t quite latch on to, and there is nothing wrong with that.  I can’t even begin to comprehend the world Lamar grew up in coming from Compton, so I’m not shocked that songs like “For Free? Interlude” and “u” leave me a bit bewildered.  They are not easy listens, and frankly just above my ability to comprehend, not unlike a Miles Davis masterpiece.

     I had to make sure I invested the time and effort to go as far as I could with this one.  Not only is it one of the most influential and highly regarded albums of the last ten years, but it is also an all-time favorite of my son, and I owed it to him (and myself) to do my very best on this record.  I’m glad I was able to build on my enthusiasm for “i” with several other impressive songs and gain a much greater understanding of Kendrick Lamar along the way.