The pantheon of West Coast hip-hop has, for years, included only four lyrically esteemed and legendary individuals: N.W.A. cohorts Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, the age-defying Snoop Dogg and the one and only Tupac Shakur. Those four — and only those four — comprise the Mount Rushmore of left coast rap. Arguments for inclusion to the pantheon can be made for many (Mac Dre, Ice T and Nate Dogg, to name a few), but those arguments can, at their most persuasive, result merely in an honorable mention.
Simply put, in the nearly 20 years since Pac’s murder, no emcee has proven worthy of carrying the torch once held by these historical greats. That is, until now.
Kendrick Lamar is worthy.
Kendrick “K-Dot” Lamar is, following the renowned tradition of Snoop Dogg and Eminem, the latest protégé of Dre, who thankfully took some time off from selling overpriced headphones to officially sign Lamar to his Aftermath Entertainment label in March.
He was characterized as a prodigy spitting honesty — a direct result of his environment, with music that spawned out of true struggle instead of the will of faceless billionaire record executives. He was, for all intents and purposes, branded as the anti-Drake. This dichotomy eventually led to the two artists collaborating on Lamar’s first major label album, good kid m.A.A.d city, released last week to resounding critical praise. Lamar’s debut is a concept album that, through recurring characters and themes, tells the story of a young K-Dot attempting, and failing, to escape the influence of his hometown: Compton, California.
This album is not only the best of the year, but also one of the best hip-hop albums of recent memory. This is mostly because of three reasons: the artist’s impeccable lyricism, Lamar’s ambitiously overarching narrative and excellent production.
Lamar’s genuine ability to manipulate words is partly why he stands out. Whereas some rappers (e.g.: Lil’ Wayne) tend to sound like mumbling sea turtles that occasionally rhyme, Lamar enunciates his lyrics with surgical precision. His voice is distinct and the many accents he plays with add a tangible sense of character and eccentricity to his songs.
Furthermore, K-Dot is a gifted wordsmith. He uses every lyrical trick in the book — internal rhyming, symbolism, vivid imagery, double entendres, changes in rhythmic flow, etc. — and uses them so often and so cleverly that it is virtually impossible to catch them all on the first listen. This is not a problem, however, because after listening to good kid m.A.A.d city you will not want to expose your ears to anything else for days. Lamar’s lyrical mastery is clearly demonstrated on “Real,” the album’s penultimate track: “You love your hood, might even love it to death / but what love got to do with it when you don’t love yourself?”
good kid m.A.A.d city tells the story of a younger K-Dot and his life experiences in Compton, many of which he confirms as authentic. The narrative paints Lamar’s childhood as complex and multidimensional, maybe illustrated in the album title’s double-meaning acronym: my Angry Adolescence divided, or, my Angel’s on Angel dust.
And on most of the album’s 12 tracks, there are (for lack of a better term) “skits” with monologues from and dialogue between many recurring characters, including Lamar’s parents. In conjunction with the themes of the songs themselves, these skits tell a story of youth, danger, faith and opportunity.
Notable tracks of this imaginative nature include “The Art of Peer Pressure” and the album’s 12-minute masterpiece of an apex “Sing About Me / I’m Dying of Thirst,” in which Lamar asks his fans to honor his memory if he were to pass away: “When the lights shut off, and it’s my turn to settle down my main concern, promise that you will, sing, about me. / Promise that you will, sing, about me.”
Moreover, this album’s production is first-rate. A wide variety of producers, including Hit-Boy and Pharrell Williams, contributed to the tracks. The atmosphere changes from track to track without becoming jarring. It fluctuates from dark to laid-back to club-banging without skipping a beat, and it’s always crisp and inventive.
Also, as fans of ’90s West Coast hip-hop will appreciate, the beats of the tracks “m.A.A.d city” and “Compton” sound like they could be straight from The Chronic or Tha Doggfather. This album’s production is, in the end, what holds the conceptual structure together.
Hip-hop is at a crossroads. Concurrently, the art form is at its best and its worst. Though many artists and groups (such as Kendrick Lamar, Meek Mill, Slaughterhouse and Odd Future) continue to push the boundaries of hip-hop’s capacity for excellence by creating thought-provoking and intelligently crafted music, the most popular mainstream artists of today (such as Lil’ Wayne, Drake, Chris Brown, Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, etc.) continue to produce music that is light on intellect and heavy on boring, repetitive subjects (women, cars, drugs, money and women).
Hopefully, the release of good kid m.A.A.d city will mark a turning point in the public consciousness regarding hip-hop. Though some might claim otherwise, hip-hop truly is an art form, and Lamar’s music represents just how beautiful and dynamic of an art form it can be.
Perhaps most telling of the album’s quality is the fact that even those who aren’t fans of hip-hop can appreciate Lamar’s artistry and imagination. The only question left to ask is whether or not K-Dot will continue to produce works of this caliber and ultimately realize his full potential, becoming an all-time legend alongside the likes of Tupac, Eminem and The Notorious B.I.G.
Regardless, the California music community needs to dust off its chisel and mallet — the Mount Rushmore of West Coast hip-hop is primed for another face.