"good kid, m.A.A.d city,” the latest from hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar, is not a classic. It is a masterpiece. There is a difference.
While labeling art is subjective, there have been many hip-hop “classics” over the years. For some KRS-One’s “Criminal Minded”
would go down as one of the greatest of all time. For me, Nas’ “Illmatic” and Snoop Dogg’s “Doggystyle” fit that description. A classic is something that you love to listen to no matter what. Whether you learn anything or not is beside the point. It may happen, but it isn’t required.
But last week’s release from the Chicago-born, Compton-raised artist formerly known as K-Dot is the magnum opus of a generation. He has really done something special. This work surpasses classic and goes into masterpiece territory. It’s an exercise in expert storytelling, not just a collection of dope tracks.
The beats occupy a sound somewhere between Organized Noize’s soulful funk and DJ Quik’s gangsta boogie. The sound of Lamar’s voice alone almost automatically puts him into a different echelon delivery-wise. He sounds like he’s transmitting his vocals from another planet. One inside the center of the Earth.
I can’t equate this album to anything else in hip-hop. The overall experience is so full that you have to reach outside of music to find something similar to compare it to.
While the work is reminiscent of the coming-of-the-West-Coast-age movies “Menace II Society” and “Boyz n the Hood” that tell the story of young men growing up in gang-riddled neighborhoods, the work I was immediately reminded of was Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land.” That book is an autobiographical account of Brown, who made it out of a childhood life of crime in 1940s and 1950s Harlem and transitioned into to a world of education and enlightenment.
“Manchild” was published the same year that Brown graduated from Howard University in 1965. Brown was in his late 20s when it hit shelves. Lamar is 25. Brown started with an essay for a college project, and it turned into a life story. Similarly, Lamar looked back on his old life to give fans a glimpse of how he’d gotten here. He chose to unpack his feelings for the world when he didn’t have to.
The themes highlighted in #GKMC are presented with responsibility. He doesn't back away from admittedly bad decisions he’s made, but also doesn’t act like he wasn’t affected just because his career worked out. “Kenny,” as his mother calls him, addresses all the issues of teenage life in Compton without dripping it in race, self-pity, angry brashness or arrogant retrospect. Sure, there are shades that run the gamut of human emotion, but never do you get the feeling that he’s somehow above his subject matter. He masters the art of rapping with a conscience without the off-putting condescension of a so-called “conscious rapper.”
“You love your hood, might even love it to death. But what love got to do with it when you don’t love yourself?” A rather amazing question from a guy whose identity is largely wrapped up in where he’s from.
What also struck me was the implementation of storytelling through devices other than just lyrics. Sure, line for line, Lamar is a fine rapper. But the strength of this album is in everything else. He uses his actual parents’ voices for certain skits. There are the sound effects that lay the groundwork for all the interludes that take place in and around cars and the minivan that appears in the album art.
And the usages of different voices for his inner monologue (“B---- Don’t Kill My Vibe”) and mixing techniques to further illustrate his rhymes (“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”) are nothing short of genius. I love it when an artist isn’t too cool to show off something simple to prove a point. When he’s speaking for someone fearful that their proverbial voice might fade into the distance, his actual verse fades into the chorus.
Lamar is not a simple person, it seems. He’s just good at illustrating through song that not all young black men are limited to the psychological profiles that many mainstream media images paint us with. It’s not just gangbanger or nerd. Basketball player or musician. Sellout or freedom fighter. Man or child, as Brown would say. It’s human and being.
In an interview this month with the L.A. Leakers & Fuzz Fantab, Lamar addressed this, specifically the meaning of the acronym in the album title. “There are two meanings, the first is ‘my angry adolescence divided.’ The second basic standout meaning is, ‘my angels on angel dust.’ . . . That’s the reason why I don’t smoke,” Lamar said. He goes on to explain that he doesn’t smoke weed because of a bad experience with PCP-laced marijuana. Some artists don’t tackle those topics until way later in the game. Lamar did it in his first major label release. And while I might personally enjoy his 2011 indie smash “Section .80” more, “GKMC” is a behemoth.
My mom gave me a copy of Claude Brown’s book when I was 15 and told me not to leave the basement until I was done with it. It held up to the times. My life was different after that. I recognized that confusing surroundings do not necessarily produce a confused person. One day, down the line, I might do the same with Lamar’s latest work, if I have a son. I think I’ll probably find similar results.
Yates is a columnist for TheRootDC.
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