One thing or another kept me from firstly, acquiring this album (Which I’d heard about since its release in October) and then reviewing it. (I’ve had it for two weeks) As a result I’m coming in WAY behind, and everybody probably knows about the album at this point now anyway, but I might as well draw further attention to it; why not? It deserves to traverse your ear canals at least once, and as I found, it’s better to experience the album late than never. For me personally, it’s the sort of album I hoped would come along soon, and I’m glad it did. I’m constantly bemoaning the state of modern day hip hop and the likes of Lil’ Wayne, 50 Cent and so on who hog the mainstream and appear to represent the genre to the unfamiliar, and I seem to champion the underground, people who bring plenty of new things to the genre and get nowhere commercially. It was a dream that someone with sensibility and intelligence would come along and capture a lot of attention, say a lot of important things and get acknowledged for it, thus uniting creativity and commercial success without compromising themselves. It was necessary, I believe, and it took a long time in coming, but I’m certain Kendrick Lamar achieved this with good kid, m.A.A.d city, probably the most anticipated and self-assured debut album in the genre since Illmatic.
The subtitle of the album reads “a short film by Kendrick Lamar,” and this is indeed the way the album plays out, with moments of action, tension, playfulness, tragedy and lust, separated by short sequences of dialogue that serve to draw us deeper into the web of the story. Lamar’s home city of Compton features prominently in the narrative, (even getting its own song, the final one) and instead of seeking to glorify it by song, he instead draws us into his complex world through a series of uneasy stories and scenarios, with often unflattering descriptions and subtle denunciations of events. Evident right from onset, the first track Sherane, a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter is Kendrick’s reminiscence of a late teen romance, compounded at the end by a possible threat from his girl’s cousin. He describes the situation with a respect for detail, leaving none of the unflattering details out, (“We know a lot ‘bout each other, her mother was a crack addict/she live with her granny and her younger two brothers”) and he shows a reflective maturity by not merely focusing on the physicality of the relationship and celebrating the sex. Instead, the tale of young lust is interrupted at the end with a phone call at the end of the track from his mother, telling him to come home and reminding him he has to get to school the next day or else he ”won’t pass to the next grade.” Unlike the West Coast Hip Hop of yore where hedonistic rapping about drink and women was celebrated inconsequentially, here Kendrick uses it as merely an element that makes up the complex body of his life. He’s still interested in it of course (“17 with nothing but pussy stuck on my mental”) but it’s not the be-all and end-all, and when he’s had his fun, he still has to return to school. Thus a more realistic picture of his life begins to unravel, and we’re drawn in with his honesty and the direct presentation of his life, without exaggeration or overglorification. His position comes across as one with the insightful and compassionate eye of an East Coast rapper, concerned about social injustice and the danger of falling into the wrong crowd, but living the lifestyle of a West Coast rapper, perhaps reluctantly. Notable subjects he raps about include the usual: sex, alcohol, money, drugs and inner city life, but each of these topics is given an unusually sensitive treatment, as evidenced the above, to begin with, but is explored in great depth for the entire album. The Art Of Peer Pressure for example, is a masterpiece of narrative and tension, with Lamar spinning a narrative of his near-disastrous day driving around “with the homies,” where his well-meaning intentions become overpowered by the pressure to join in with his friends’ activities, which in this song include drinking, taking drugs, violence and robbery. Once again, instead of using these topics to boast about his prowess and status, he uses them to suggest that although these activities are embedded in his lifestyle, they’re not embedded in his nature. On his violence: “I never was a gangbanger, I mean I was never stranger to the folk neither, I really doubt it/Rush a nigga quick and then we laugh about it/That’s ironic, ‘cause I’ve never been violent, until I’m with the homies.”
|Kendrick Lamar by Ben Millar|
Money Trees, a sort of 21st Century C.R.E.A.M, explains the complex nature of being rich: you escape the poverty and can live comfortably, but you can end up relying too much on the superficial, thus foregoing a spiritual connection with God. (“It go Halle Berry, or Hallelujah”) Despite these problems, having money is useful. (“Money trees I the perfect place for shade and that’s just how I feel”) On one of the singles Swimming Pools (Drank), Lamar recites another reflective tale of his younger self indulging in excessive drinking at a party and chronicling the mindset and pressure that says you simply have to get drunk. You can’t have one or even a few: everything is excess, everything is a challenge, and not necessarily an enjoyable or rewarding one. Once again, Kendrick appears as an outsider going along with it, observing everyone around him chastising him for “babysitting only two or three shots” and suggesting filling up a swimming pool with alcohol and “dive in.” The implication is that it’ll be more fun, girls will flock, and the experience will be enhanced… instead, Kendrick relays a reminiscence of his alcoholic grandfather that serves as a warning, then continues to narrate as his conscience, then his more intoxicated self feeling worse and worse, realizing his own hypocrisy for going along with something he doesn’t enjoy… all of this contrasted with the chorus about diving into a pool of liquour. It’s powerful stuff: the irony of course being that, as a single, it’s likely that this song has been played in club filled with individuals pushing their bodies to excess, singing along to the song, with no idea of the message it’s relaying.
The concept of good kid and m.A.A.d city, (m.A.A.d being My Angel’s on Angel Dust, or My Angry Adolescence Divided, as well as the obvious “mad” implication) are clearly explored throughout, as mentioned, with Kendrick often playing the sensitive, skeptical outsider to the “maadness” of the people around him in his city. Lyrically, it’s prominent, but even in terms of the beats, one gets a sense of unease and paranoia. The beats are among the most drum and bass-heavy hip-hop beats I’ve heard, with throbbing basslines and deep-hitting kick drums. They’re the sort of beat made to be played on your convertible as you cruise around Compton in the sunshine. However, the instrumentation is often soft and disquieting, suggesting Kendrick’s cautious approach to the direct aggressiveness of the drums. Poetic Justice, for example, is based around a Janet Jackson vocal sample, which softly lies just below the rapping, and Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst opens with a background of jazzy guitar and sweeping strings. The contrast between these softer instruments and the deep bass frequencies, as well as the heavy subject matter given an outsider’s treatment by Lamar are all cleverly utilized in creating the fully encompassing atmosphere of a Compton neighbourhood filled with both pleasure and heartache.
Ultimately, Kendrick’s message can best be seen in the 12-minute epic Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst. Actually two songs, the second of which I’m Dying of Thirst is Kendrick’s most direct, with the constant rat race of gang culture, black-on-black violence and meaningless deaths becoming too much for Kendrick, and he realizes he’s dying of spiritual thirst, and needs “water, holy water.” The song ends with a skit where an old woman leads a group of violent young youths in the sinner’s prayer, accepting Jesus as their savior and vowing to live their lives differently. With this, Lamar says, lies hope for anybody caught up in anything that just seems to be too much for them. Life is full of pressures and potential pitfalls, but the message is to realize this, and to do the right thing. Too many people don’t do the right thing, despite knowing better, and therein lies the tragedy. I believe Lamar is trying to present a disillusioned picture of the idealized West Coast lifestyle, and to make people aware that they always have a way out. That’s as much as he can do, at the end of the day it’s up to the individual. But if he helps just one person from straying down the wrong path, I believe his efforts have been worthwhile.
Words – Adam.