Album Review: Kendrick Lamar Proves It’s Not Me – It’s Them


kendrick-lamar_atl_ms-rc-38Yeah, yeah. I know. I’m getting old.

I turned 38 this summer and around that time had a conversation about rap music with a friend who is around the same age. We wondered if our advanced years were affecting the way we listened to music. As self-proclaimed rap aficionados and historians, neither of us was blown away by any of the new rap artists that had come out in the last few years. Drake is fine, but for us, it wasn’t like when we first heard Run DMC, N.W.A., The Beastie Boys, Mac Dre, 2Pac, Tribe, Jay-Z, Snoop, Eminem, Outkast, DJ Quik, etc.

For me, the question quickly became, am I just getting old or is music getting worse? I’m sure it happens with every generation, but I always promised myself I would never be a music age-ist. If music is good, it’s good, no matter when it came out and who delivered it.

But why, then, was I not getting exciting about new rap artists while plenty of others were. If some of these artists came out when I was in the 18-25 age range, would I have been more excited and accepting of them?

In the last 10 years, the only new rap music I’ve consistently listened to is from non-new artists like Outkast/Big Boi, Jay-Z, Kanye and Eminem. I tried Drake, but admit to not giving him much of a chance. Was it because I wasn’t personally invested in him from a younger age, or was it because his music wasn’t good enough to blow me away?

kendricklamar-gkmc-deluxe

Thanks to Kendrick Lamar, I now have my answer. And I feel much better.His first major album, Good Kid: M.A.A.D City, dropped on October 22, 2012. After hearing the buzz for a few days, I finally gave the album a listen in late October, and haven’t stopped since. It’s easily the best rap album I’ve heard in years. Almost 10 years in fact. I can’t think of another better or comparable release since Jay’s Black Album in 2003.

Like Green Day, Lamar makes the actual “album” itself important by focusing on a central theme that runs through each song. As the title Good Kid: M.A.A.D City suggests, he’s a decent kid who would normally do the right thing, but is stuck in difficult surroundings. The music takes us on his journey through life as he faces compromising situations, sometimes making the right decisions; sometimes the wrong ones.

This is not the typical point of view from a rapper. It’s usually a “Bad Kid: M.A.A.D City” mindset. Lamar’s take is something people on both sides of the equation can relate to. Like most, I was a good kid growing up, but no doubt, had my share of dumb decisions that could have placed me in serious trouble if one or two small things had gone differently.

Of course, a concept album alone doesn’t make an album great. The music has to be top-notch as well.

For me, great rap music has to be a number of things:

·      Strong instrumentation with a unique sound that always has you bobbing your head, whether it’s slow and smooth, or hard and fast.

·      Creative lyrics that are interesting to listen to, written and rapped in a voice/way that you’ve never heard anywhere else from anyone else.

·      A flow that intensifies both the words and the music it is matched with.

Last and most important is passion. This is what set 2Pac apart from everyone else. He felt strongly about everything he rapped about, whether it was violence, death, love, racism, teenage pregnancy, or even when he was clowning around while hanging around with the Underground.

Passion can come from any mind state. It doesn’t always have to be Public Enemy “shutting ‘em down.” It can be the Pharcyde yearning for past girls passing them by. AMG wanting money from his bitch. Biggie kicking in the door. Tip and Phife buggin’ out about sneakers, Dr. Pepper and crazy boomin’ back bones.

Kendrick Lamar hits a home run on three of those bullet points throughout the album and I’ll give him a double or triple on the instrumentation.

You know those moments in rap that blew you away when you first heard them? *

* side note: for me, some of them were Rapper’s Delight, which was the first time I heard rap, the entire Licensed to Ill and Straight Outta Compton albums,  I Left My Wallet In El Segundo, Don’t Fight The Feelin’, On My Toes, 2Pac’s verse on Same Song, everything Ice Cube did on his first two solo albums, the D.O.C. cassette tape that just looks blank today because I wore out the writing from playing it so much, Kick in the Door, Tonite, 187-Proof … damn, I could go on and one.

I haven’t had any moments like that in rap for a long time … until listening to Good Kid: M.A.A.D City. Before I began getting too excited, I had to remind myself that this is just one album and not yet an overall body of work by an artist. Let’s see what he does from here before we place him on any mantels or Mount Rushmore’s.

To review properly the album, it’s necessary to break down each track in order, to get a sense of the flow and concept/message Lamar made such an effort to put in place.

  1. Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter

We start with an opening prayer from a sinner asking Jesus to save him from his sins and guide him from this point forward. This sinner is Kendrick Lamar, I believe, and he’s saying this prayer following all the events/sins that he is about to lay out on the album.

The music begins and we are introduced through Lamar’s rap lyrics into the world of an innocent teenager. At a house party, he is told his name is not Kendrick but “handsome” by a girl whose “ass came with a hump from the jump, she was a camel.” Like any teenager complimented by a girl like this, he of course wants to ride this particular camel like Arabians.

As he describes his conversation with the camel cutie, we learn a little about Kendrick: he’s from Compton, he’s skeptical that this girl has a family history in gang-banging (he’s a Good Kid, remember), like most kids though, getting laid takes precedent over any outside risks such sex may bring.

In heat like a cactus, Kendrick begs Sherane to let him come over and she consents. He grabs his grandma-ma’s car keys and heads out.

“I’m two blocks away, 250 feet and six steps from where she stay, She waving me across the street, I pulled up, a smile on my face, And then I see, two niggas, two black hoodies, I froze as my phone rang …”

And we cut away from Lamar and to the sound of the phone ringing. It goes to voicemail and it’s his mom looking for the car.

Why did the song stop right before we found out about the actions of the guys in the hoodies? Did Sherane set Kendrick up to be robbed? Were they not after him and it was just a coincidence?

I think the point Lamar is trying to make by cutting the story short is to place us in his shoes of never knowing what may happen next. We don’t come back to this situation until the sixth song on the album. And even then, we are provided no answers.

The track ends with the voicemail, as his mom and dad argue back and forth, with the dad telling her to hang up so he can put his oldies back on. “You’re killing my muthafuckin’ vibe,” he says. Leading to …

2. Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe

Love the start of this song as we pick up again with the sinner looking for forgiveness. Great words here and Lamar delivers them with a unique multi-layered voice sung to a melody that will stick in your head all day.

“I am a sinner, Who’s probably gonna sin again, Lord forgive me, Lord forgive me, Things I don’t understand, Sometimes I need to be alone, bitch don’t kill my vibe, bitch don’t kill my vibe, I can feel your energy from two planets away, I got my drink I got my music, I will share it but today, I’m yellin’, Bitch don’t kill my vibe …”

And the drum beat kicks in and I am immediately sold on this Kendrick Lamar guy. Great, great song right here.

Now, out of all the words in the English dictionary, “bitch” is one of my least favorites, but only when used in reference to women. I actually enjoy it when it’s used in a humorous way or as a derogatory insult for men. And like “fuck,” it is short and to the point and just sounds good when you hear it. Why do you think it’s become Jesse Pinkman’s catch phrase? Why do you think I tell my 7-year-old son to “stop being such a bitch” when he’s whining about shit? (okay, I just say that in my head)

In this example, Lamar is discussing his new-found rap ability that has garnered him some attention. He’s using the word “bitch” to describe those in his community that are trying to hold him back.

Bitch is a shallow term, but everything else about this song is deep. As evidence:

“We live in a world on two different axles, You live in a world, you living behind the mirror, I know what you scared of, the feeling of feeling emotions inferior, This shit is vital, I know you had to, Die in a pitiful vain, tell me a watch and a chain, Is way more believable, give me a feasible gain, Rather a seasonal name, I’ll let the people know this is something you can blame, On yourselves you can remain, stuck in a box, I’ma break out and then hide every lock, 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 …”

Lamar’s flow on the song changes pace at an unbelievable rate. His speed ranges from Usain Bolt to Michael Johnson, Roger Bannister, Steve Prefonatine and Haile Gebrselassie … all within a single verse.

Strings are introduced to end what I would label a masterpiece of a song.

3. Backseat Freestyle

Lamar follows a masterpiece with a banger. This one was immediately inserted into my workout mix and I can’t stop saying my name in place of Martin and Kendrick’s during “Martin Had a Dream! Kendrick Have a Dream!”

There’s not much to this song in terms of a message or how it fits into the album. It’s basically him over exaggerating while detailing how crazy things can potentially get when he makes it big as a rapper. Fucking a lot of women for 72 hours with a dick as big as the Eifel Tower, popping pills in the lobby, racing in his Maserati, etc.

But this song is less about the words and more about it’s sound and the hyped-up flow Lamar delivers. It was great the first time I heard it and gets better every time I blast it in my car or while I run on the treadmill.

4. The Art of Peer Pressure

One reason I don’t like giving my opinion on an album after just a few listens is that some of my favorite songs are ones that have grown on me over time. I wasn’t blown away by this song when I first heard, but now, it’s one of my favorites.

Lamar does a great job sucking you into a song with his intros, and this song is no exception with his “everybody, everybody …” flow.

More than any other, this song epitomizes the message of the album’s concept of a good kid in a bad situation:

“Really, I’m a sober soul, but I’m with the homies right now.”

“Really, I’m a peacemaker, but I’m with the homies right now.”

“I got the blunt in my mouth. Usually I’m drug free, but shit, I’m with the homies.”

“I never was a gangbanger, I mean, I never was a stranger to the funk 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.”

The beat of this song is great – the use of synthesizers reminds me of the West Coast rap styles of the early 90s. I also enjoy how the song completely changes direction musically at the 1-minute mark.

While he’s doing a bunch of bad shit and ends up being chased by the police while out-and-about with his friends, Kendrick is brought back into reality with a phone call from his mom. She is checking up and asking him what he’s doing. He tells her he’s just “kickin’ it” but feels like he should have admitted he’s about to catch his first offense. But while on the phone, his friend driving the car evades the police and they get a way.

The song ends with his friends talking, making fun of Kendrick, who has passed out from smoking too much weed. They say they should drop him off at his mom’s house before they get into some more shit, completing their illegal mission; insinuating they are being protective of the good kid Kendrick.

5. Money Trees (Ft. Jay Rock)

Lamar begins the next song sounding like a completely different person, vocally that is. This kid changes his voice like Jaqen H’ghar changes his face.

He picks up where “The Art of Peer Pressure” left off. This is a story about he and his friends dreaming of making money, growing money trees, by robbing from the rich and giving to themselves. They want to live like famous rappers do.

He calls out E-40 as someone he looked up to and wanted to be like. At first, he thought the only way to get money like Earl Stevens (E-40) was to steal it. But then, he recalls how his Uncle Toney was a casualty of this type of war and took two bullets to the head. And it was his Uncle Toney who told him he could make a living off being a rapper. But he never concludes this thought and refuses, yet again, to give us any easy answers.

After the chorus (“Everybody gonna respect the shooter, but the one in front of the gun lives forever” – i.e. he respects the person who’s killed more than the person who killed him), Lamar hands the song off to Jay Rock who concludes it with the same “make money illegally” type of message while dreaming of doing things in a safer manner and getting “shaded under a money tree.”

6. Poetic Justice (Ft. Drake)

Lamar brings in Drake to help him with this catchy ode to a female, who for Kendrick, is Sherane. Nothing special here, just a young guy drooling over the opposite sex. Lamar’s skill with words and his vocal stylistics make what could have been an average song something more.

The song ends with an interlude that brings us back to the two guys in hoodies from the “Sherane” opener. They are asking Kendrick what he is doing in their neighborhood, is he there for Sherane? They want to know where he stays, and where everyone in his family stays. They tell him to get out of his van or they are going to snatch him out. And again, we move on before finding out what happens next.

7. good kid

This is not one of my favorites, but again, Lamar’s voice and rhyming skills make this song worth listening to. Pharrell Williams produced what I found do be a pretty weak instrumental and does a bad imitation of Marvin Gaye during the hook:

“Mass hallucination baby, Ill education baby, Want to reconnect with your elation, This is your station baby.”

No thanks.

Unfortunately, Pharrell gets in the way of some great observations by Lamar regarding the overriding theme of the album.

8. m.A.A.d city (Ft. MC Eiht)

Lamar quickly recovers with what has become my new favorite track.

Once again, he reels us in with a great opening chant:
“If Pirus and Crips all got along, They’d probably gun me down by the end of this song, Seem like the whole city go against me, Every time I’m in the street I hear … YOCK, YOCK, YOCK, YOCK!”

We then get the two kids in the hoodies asking Kendrick where he and his family stay.

The beat is something that could have easily been turned into a “Walk it out” waste of a song by lesser talent, but Lamar takes this song to another level right off the bat. He comes in with a brand new vocal sound, taking us through “a trip down memory lane” as he describes his experience growing up in a mad city.  He immediately points out that it’s not just another story about some guy slanging crack or moving cocaine. This is his story.

Lamar absolutely kills it with his verse on this track – his flow, his voice, his words are some of the best to ever be heard on a rap song.

The pinnacle comes around the 1:30 mark of the song when he says, “Aw man, God damn, All hell broke loose, You killed my cousin back in ’94, Fuck yo’ truce.”

I talked earlier about passion being the most import ingredient for a rapper. A wild craving seems to be oozing from Lamar’s veins on this song. Words squeeze through his throat like they were frozen Play-Doh being forcefully driven through the play-set of an overly aggressive man-child.

Knowing how potentially great the song could be, Lamar pushes the envelope even more. Rather than settling for the standard second verse, he breaks the song off at the 2:34 mark and gives it a Part II, complete with a new beat and a guest appearance. But he refuses to go mainstream with his guest and picks the absolute perfect rapper to appear with him: MC Eiht, who hasn’t done anything relevant in years. But the timeline this album is covering was during the height of Eiht’s reign as Compton’s most respected and credible rapper.

The new beat also reflects the sound of one of that period’s greatest albums; Ice Cube’s Death Certificate. More specifically, two of his classics from that album; Alive On Arrival and A Bird in the Hand.

The connection’s made clear when Lamar quotes Cube in “A Bird in the Hand” by starting off with, “Fresh outta school ‘cause I was a high school grad” then switches it up with, “sleeping in the living room of my mamma’s pad.”

Eiht is obviously inspired and delivers one of his greatest bars since, “Streiht Up Menace.”

Lamar ends with some spoken words about the fine line between being a good or bad person as his voice morphs into different people several times.

“Compton, U.S.A., made me an angel on angel dust.” And the early 90s style rap synthesizers kick in with some add record scratches for good measure.

Rap music does not get much better than this right here.

9. Swimming Pools (Drank)

Lamar takes us back to our teenage years when peer pressure caused us all to drink way more than we should have. But for him, it was worse, as he grew up with family members who had serious drinking problems. Lamar takes the mindset of a drunk dude as he talks to himself through multiple voices and personalities, going from a sprinter type of flow to slowing it down to a marathon runner and even a slow walker.

Brilliant song that would make Sybil proud.

10. Sing About Me / I’m Dying Of Thirst

You know someone is in the midst of something very special when you get a song like this. A 12-minute opus by an artist reflecting on not only his troubles, but of those around him.

In begins with what sounds like a message he received from one of his friends, now dead, asking that Kendrick when makes it big, he promises to sing about him.

His next verse is the work of a virtuoso at the top of his craft. Lamar is rapping in the voice of a prostitute who is telling him she’s upset he used her deceased sister as an example in a previous “Brenda’s Got A Baby” type of song Lamar wrote. She walks us through her rough upbringing and life as a prostitute.

“Three niggas in one room, first time I was tossed, And I’m exhausted, But fuck that ‘Sorry for your loss shit’, My sister died in vain, but what point are you trying to gain, If you can’t fit the pumps I’m walkin’?, I’ll wait …”

She asks that he not talk about her in any future songs, then tells him that despite previous issues, she now feels great physically. Of course, it’s only her opinion, and she refuses to be seen by a doctor. She thinks she’ll live longer than most and never fade away.

Lamar continues to rap in her voice and, what do you know, her voice slowly fades away into nothingness as the music continues. We don’t know for sure that she’s dead, but of course she is. At the hands of some man or some disease. Either way, Lamar has her both literally and metaphorically fade away.

In the third verse, Lamar speaks to his own troubles before addressing the people in his first two verses. In the end, he hopes that someone will sing about him after he is gone, saying he has done more good than bad.

We fade into the second part, Dying of Thirst, where Lamar and his friends are tired of their situation. He compares himself to Cuba Gooding’s character, Tre, in Boyz N the Hood. Most other rappers compare themselves to the gangsters in that movie. Well played.

“You dying of thirst, so jump in that water, and pray that it works.” In this case, religion and following a righteous path make up the water (holy water), which is the only way to keep from dying of thirst.

We get another prayer to end the song and the hope of starting a new life.

11. Real (Ft. Anna Wise)

Next we get a basic song and basic melody as Lamar waxes poetic about being true to yourself, opposed to your hood or your reputation. This one’s more likely to make fans of Langston Hughes proud than it is fans of rap music. “Real” marks the end of the concept portion of the main album. It closes with his mom giving him some sound advice as he moves away from home and onto his career in music:

“I hope you come back, and learn from your mistakes, Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let ‘em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back, with your words of encouragement, and that’s the best way to give back to your city. And I love you Kendrick. If I don’t hear you knocking on the door, you know where I usually leave the key. Alright? Talk to you later, bye.”

Makes you think that if everyone had a mom like Kendrick’s, the world wouldn’t be so bad.

12. Compton (Ft. Dr. Dre)

Nas once said making hits is easy. This is what Lamar had to be thinking when he put this track on the album. It comes off as a song they threw in at the last-minute to make sure there was some radio play.

Bonus Tracks

13. The Recipe (Ft. Dr. Dre)

An ode to Lamar’s city, my favorite thing about this song is it reminds me of the Dre/D.O.C. classic, “The Formula.” A slow and smooth solid song.

14. Black Boy Fly

I really like this song and it fits the concept of the album, so I’m not sure why it’s not included with the main tracks. However, it’s pretty well-known in the NBA community because of Lamar’s discussion of Arron Afflalo. The song centers on a young Kendrick looking up to those in his community and his hopes that he could one day reach their heights.

15. Now Or Never (Ft. Mary J. Blige)

A catchy, but cliché, R&B song featuring the queen of R&B herself. He is concluding the album by saying that once he makes it big, he will remember where he came from, appreciate his success and never take it for granted.

I guess we shall see.

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