Hip Hop Culture for Grown-Ups
Words by Walter George, Jr
Back in 2006, Compton’s
The Game was hitting the charts with songs like “One Blood,” and numerous remixes with every rapper ever. He also dropped a favorite mixtape of mine, Black Wall Street Journal, Vol. 1, complete with a number of features from a number of West Coast rappers.
The West Coast rap scene (from an East Coast perspective) was pretty different from today’s vibrant one. Game really was the only West Coast rapper getting real mainstream shine, and even Game had first linked up with 50 Cent and the G-Unit juggernaut.
After his bipolar nature helped lead to his departure from G-Unit, he started pushing a number of West Coast artists, including Jay Rock and one K Dot. When people eventually started talking about a Kendrick Lamar, I was wondering who he was, then I realized that I actually HAD heard dude before. On “The Cypha,” you can hear K Dot and Jay Rock, among others, delivering thug raps and shit. A COMPLETELY different image than what I was led to believe when I started listening to dude last year.
I’ve always been a guy who goes against the grain, so the more Kendrick got hyped, the more I pushed against listening to his work. I finally broke down when the homie Big Ghostfase named Section .80 as one of the best albums of 2011. I have to say…I was very pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t perfect, but I’ll be damned if there weren’t some great moments (my favorites were “Ronald Reagan Era,” “Rigamortus,” and “Hiiipower”). When word of his linking up with Dr. Dre hit the blogosphere, heads almost spontaneously combusted…could we really get dope albums from G.O.O.D. Music, Kendrick, Jay Electronica, Nas, Killer Mike, etc. etc. etc. all in one year? GREAT. So after being disappointed by some of the above artists and being fulfilled by some of the above artists’ works, I was pretty hyped to get into a highly anticipated debut.
If you listen to the entire album, you can tell it’s a “concept album”…it revolves around an incident involving Kendrick as a teen. If you remember when Jay-Z dropped American Gangster, you might remember that he didn’t allow iTunes to sell it track-by-track. His reasoning was that the album was a complete work, and that buying tracks individually would take away from the album’s value and overall theme. Personally, after listening to the album, I kinda felt like that was bullshit, but the album was very dope. Top 5 Jay-Z album, IMO, but not really a “concept album” per se. If Kendrick decided to go the same path with this album, I would WHOLEHEARTEDLY AGREE. Unlike Jay’s album, which I felt had stand-alone tracks that didn’t require the album’s context to be understood or appreciated, Kendrick really made an entire album in which damn near every track is related. If I was to listen to the album and break it down track-by-track, it wouldn’t really be fair to the album, and indeed when I first listened to it while at work, I wasn’t really blown away by much on it. Having some time alone to listen to it without doing anything else though…this is dope. As a blogger and hip-hop head, I feel like we really appreciate focused works. It’s why Rick Ross grew so quickly, and it’s a reason why Reasonable Doubt and Illmatic are considered classics. It’s why we’re so frustrated with the current state of mainstream rap, where you have some singles that aren’t related to the theme of the album at all (if we’re even lucky enough to have an album with a theme) and there’s no cohesion.
As a complete picture, Kendrick’s album accurately reflects how shit just happens in the hood…you can go from riding around with your friends, doing drugs and scheming on fucking some chick…to running into the wrong group of dudes and getting your ass kicked…to attempting retaliation and getting shot at yourself. Once you get into the cycle, it can feel like something you can’t exit; Kendrick wasn’t even an actual gang member (if his rhymes can be believed) yet because he rolled with gang members he was always ending up in fucked up situations.
As an album, it’s pretty dope. There are some “why?” moments on here for me (I don’t like “Poetic Justice” in terms of the story of the album, but it’s not a bad track), but overall, it’s great. I always like when albums trend toward cutting out the extra shit, and at 12 tracks, this is a pretty concise work. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a track released in 2012 that is better than “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” and “good kid” reminds me of the Roy Ayers sample used in Yasiin’s “Brooklyn” (which is a great track by one of my favorite rappers of all time). The fact that the worst song on here to me is “Real” speaks volumes, really, because it’s not a bad song. I almost feel like I’m nitpicking even typing that I didn’t like it. I haven’t checked the production credits, but I really wouldn’t be surprised if, being someone who fucks with Drake, Kendrick had 40 work on most of the tracks…one of Drake’s strengths is having a cohesive sound, and for the most part, Kendrick has followed that formula. The tracks that don’t follow the sound either have reasons (like “Backseat Freestyle” or “Compton”), or aren’t really expected to (like “m.A.A.d. city”). Lyrically, Kendrick consistently laces his tracks with excellent wordplay…while I think he’s only really got 2 flows, he does use them well, and he’s REALLY good at making sure his production fits. There’s no blatant radio grab (unless you want to count “Poetic Justice), no nonsensical features, and not even a “posse” cut including the rest of Black Hippy. An overall lack of miscues.
That being said, I’m glad I was completely and utterly wrong about Kendrick’s debut. After hearing “Swimming Pools,” learning that Lady Gaga was going to be on the album, and finding the “Backseat Freestyle” track, I felt it would be convoluted and “extra.” I still feel like I like Section .80 more as a musical work; I’m not sure anything on his debut is fucking with “Rigamortus” or “Ronald Reagan Era” (although there is nothing as bad as “No Make-Up” on this…) Despite that, good kid, m.A.A.d. city is what we’ve been looking for from a number of artists…focused, concise, dope lyrics, good production, with a nice balance between commercial and underground sounds. He’s set a bar here that could be hard for him to top with his next release, but it’s ALWAYS good to have an artist start off really ambitious and just work from there.
Every time I listen to this album, I like it more. Every time I listen to this album, I hear something else. Every time I listen to this album, I get excited about his next release. Shit is ridiculous. Fuck it, I’ll call this a classic debut.
The moral of the story here is when you tell YOUR story and you tell it in an effective, interesting way, it’s gonna be timeless. It’s so hard for albums released these days to be “classics” because they’re filled with dated references and punchlines that are there just to be there. In my opinion, classic albums are classics BECAUSE they are timeless. When I listen to Reasonable Doubt, the lessons and regrets from that lifestyle are still relevant to today. Black on Both Sides still tells stories of the hood and being Black in America. When you hear God Forgives, I Don’t, for example (and I like Ross), you don’t hear timeless shit. Fifteen years from now, are we gonna still be bumping “911”? A lot of new (and even some established) rappers could learn a lot from Kendrick Lamar about how to craft an exceptional work.