When i was growing up in LA, i fell in love with underground hip-hop. I still remember the first time i heard DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… I remember seeing Gang Starr in 1999 when i didn’t even know who they were. I remember listening to A Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm every morning when i went to school in my buddy Logan’s blue Toyota Paseo. I remember when my friend Pouneh gave me a copy of the De La Soul Stakes Is High tape that i played ’til it broke. I’ll never forget how and when i fell in love with hip-hop. Living in L.A., i was in the hotbed of it and if you rejected the commercial sound (which i typically did) the underground sound was readily available. Hip-Hop was a big part of my life growing up. Nothing got past me and my friends…we knew it all.
But as time passed, hip-hop started shifting. The underground was fading and sounds were becoming stale. It was hard to find something that hadn’t been done before. So i started gravitating away from hip-hop and into electronica and indie rock. I used to say “hip-hop is dead and i feel like i’m the guy who closed the door and turned out the lights.” I was sour. But through the years, i always kept hope that something would bring forth a revival. And it’s obvious that this revival couldn’t come from the underground. It had to come from the top and trickle back down. I’ll be the first to admit, i’m a hip-hop snob…takes a lot for me to respect new hip-hop. That’s not to say there haven’t been some hip-hop projects over the last 5-7 years that piqued my interest, but they’re few and far between. In 2012, things started changing…
A few albums dropped this year that offered a glimmer of hope. They offered shades of the old school story tellers. The MC’s who had to tell their story and justify why they do this and almost plead with people to understand why they’re doing this hop-hop thing. That plea is the rawest emotion in hip-hop. It’s the struggle of coming up and the hope that they’ll make it big. Ironically, getting caught up in that ascent is what stunted the growth of the genre. But the heartfelt explanation of a rise from the bottom to the top while remaining fluent, respectful and real once you get there, is the mark of a true MC. 25 year old Kendrick Lamar from Compton, CA is one of these MC’s.
Straight up…. good kid, m.A.A.d. city (GKMC) is the best true hip-hop album of the year. No fusions, not R&B, just pure beats and an MC. GKMC is a collection of stories that Kendrick lived through growing up in Compton. The album is reminiscent of Prince Paul’s iconic ‘Prince Among Thieves,’ a hip-hop themed saga on an album, where Paul’s MC (Tariq) makes his way through the hood to get money to record a demo for the RZA. In Kendrick’s life story, the RZA is replaced with Dr. Dre, who’s helped him in his rise to hip-hop prominence.
On GKMC’s second track, Kendrick introduces us to his vernacular with ‘Bitch Don’t Kill my Vibe‘:
The beat is immediately infectious. We smirk at his blasé request, as he establishes himself as a confident MC and explains that he’s found himself in the music. Here’s the bridge:
I can feel the changes
I can feel the new people around me just want to be famous
You can see that my city found me then put me on stages
To me that’s amazing
To you that’s a quick check with all disrespect let me say this
He is his city. He bleeds Compton and his very nature as an MC is empty without his “city.” Moreover, his self-realization is human and he remains humble.
On ‘Money Trees,’ we start to understand what he aspired to be growing up. The permeating notion in the ghetto that “The one in front of the gun lives forever”:
“It go Halle Berry or hallelujah
Pick your poison tell me what you doing
Everybody gon’ respect the shooter
But the one in front of the gun lives forever
And I been hustling all day, this a way, that a way
Through canals and alleyways, just to say
Money trees is the perfect place for shade and that’s just how I feel
A dollar might just fuck your main bitch that’s just how I feel
A dollar might say fuck them niggas that you came with that’s just how I feel
A dollar might just make that lane switch that’s just how I feel
A dollar might turn to a million and we all rich that’s just how I feel”
Might be the realest hook on the album. This is our window into the younger Kendrick’s brain. The youthful hope of coming up and rising out of the hood. I could sit here and dissect lyrics by this dude for so long, but i strongly urge you to click the hyperlinked song titles and spend some time with the RapGenius explanations of this guy’s words, cause he’s a fucking poet. His poetry is the product of where he came from, his socialization as a byproduct of his surroundings, those influencing him, God and his family. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he grew up idolizing 2Pac, cause this is a page outta his book.
But GKMC isn’t just about a struggle. He has fun with us and talks about his ladies. On ‘Poetic Justice’ he tells his girl:
“I recognize your fragrance (hol’ up!)
You ain’t never gotta say shit (woo!)
And I know your taste is
A little bit (mmm) high maintenance (ooh)”
That’s style…Super money…And then he shows off the expanse of his diction and fluency with:
“Every time I write these words they become a taboo
Making sure my punctuation curve, every letter is true
Living my life in the margin and that metaphor was proof
I’m talking poetic justice, poetic justice”
And there’s that self-realization again and justification of why he lays it down the way he does. This is where we start to feel like Kendrick might be onto something. Like who is this guy? For me, this was the point where i said to myself: “Where the hell did this come from? Hip-hop doesn’t sound like this anymore.” And i held it closer….
Easily, the most complex and amazing track on this album and arguably the song of the year, is ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’. Three stories in one 12 minute track. Kendrick tells stories of people he knew growing up who are now dead. How they were eaten up by their environment and how their paths shaped Kendrick’s….How telling their story is important to him and necessary for the world to know. How they comprise reality, whether we want to accept it or not. Through imagery and unique metaphors, he holds nothing back:
Note the skits littered throughout the track, as they provide the drama to Kendrick’s tales. At the end of the song, Kendrick and his friends are led by an old woman in prayer to god, to cleanse them of their sins. And we witness his repent.. for the way he’s grown up and how he wants to pay respect to those sins through his music…
Lastly, this album isn’t truly complete without the Bonus Disc on the deluxe edition (on my Spotify Best of 2012 playlist), with the spectacular single ‘The Recipe’ feat Dr. Dre and ‘Black Boy Fly’, where he raps about the former UCLA star and now NBA player that went to the same high school as him:
“I used to be jealous of Arron Afflalo
I used to be jealous of Arron Afflalo
He was the one to follow
He was the only leader foreseeing brighter tomorrows”
Just a cool song and further insight into the mentality of these kids growing up…
Kendrick feels the responsibility to tell his story. The story of where he’s from. The story of who came up with him. Hip-Hop is the vessel for his gospel and he’s made it. He sets himself apart by not just being a clever MC but also an intelligent dude. A hip-hop record hasn’t done this to me in years. Where i just want to keep listening to it over and over again and dissecting its never ending stories and depth. When it’s all said and done, good kid, m.A.A.d city will go down as one of the most important hip-hop albums of all-time and Kendrick might go down as the man who re-invented the genre in the shadows of the classics.
#4 Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city