The Kendrick Lamar Lovefest

Recently, in writing about Drake’s sophomore effort, I commented on the generational aspect of rap fandom, how certain artists are designed for certain ages, and how I’ve come to accept the fact that while the kids can jam out to OFWGKTA and A$AP Rocky, I can take comfort in the fact that there are still dudes like Sean Price and Roc Marciano making dusty boom-bap for crusty fuckers like me.  The point I was making at the time was that it felt like Drake was going to be the last guy popular with the kids that I could take some enjoyment from.

I take that back.  Kendrick Lamar is 24-years-old, and he is my favourite rapper right now.

This is not a revolutionary declaration for the rap blogosphere, as most of them share the opinion, but I just want all the casual and Picthfork-rap fans to know, K-Dot’s going to own 2012.

How do I know this?  Because after two amazing mixtapes [O(verly) D(edicated) and Section.80], Dr. Dre got wind of his fellow Compton native and decided he needed to work with him, signing him to Aftermath/Interscope.

You may recall the last time Dre went out of his way to sign someone, it was Eminem.

The first preview of their work dropped this week.

You gotta love how Dre clearly doesn’t write his own rhymes, given that his flow sounds just like Kendrick’s.  And Dre didn’t even do the beat [it’s produced by Scoop DeVille, previously known for Snoop Dogg’s incredible Rob Base breakdown, ‘I Wanna Rock], he just wanted to rap with the kid.

But I’m not here just to tell you about a good song, I need to let you all know that this song is not even close to as good as the kid can be.  His verses on ‘The Recipe’ are tight, but the subject matter veers close to the typical Cali-rapper subject matter: women, weed and weather, it’s right there in the chorus.  And while that’s fine, and I imagine the track will lilt out of many rolled down car windows as the weather gets warmer, I fear some fans of smart rap who aren’t on him yet will let him pass. And that would be tragic.

If you want to  really know what Lamar’s about, get your hands on Section.80 immediately, it’s probably the truest distillation of what he and the other members of his Black Hippy crew are about [fellow members include Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q, whose song ‘Hands on the Wheel’ is another of the better songs by a new artist I’ve hears in a while].  It’s an album about growing up in the 80’s under Reagan’s policies [ADHD, Ronald Reagan Era], the beauty ideal [No Make-Up (Her Vice)], to bullshit braggadocio [Blow My High].

The song that put him over the top for me personally, though, is Keisha’s Song.

The second part of a two-part movement with No Make-Up, the song tells a sadly familiar story of a young girl forced into prostitution doing what she feels she must to survive before she’s murdered by a john.

As if those closing moments of the last verse, as he keeps rapping after he’s run out of breath, his voice raw and determined weren’t enough, he scores a knockout in the last two lines of the song:

My little sister 11, I looked her right in the face
the day that I wrote this song, sat her down and pressed ‘play.’ 

As a narrative trick, it’s not extremely innovative, it’s meta at its most basic, but in a rap song it’s practically unheard of, and does something I don’t think I’ve ever heard a rapper do before. Usually a song with such a bleak and unpleasant subject operates on one of two levels: it gets attacked for being exploitative, or shallowly defended as a reflection of life on the streets.  Lamar sidesteps both ends of that tired argument entirely, revealing he wrote the song to warn his little sister of all the things he couldn’t bring himself to tell her himself. It’s not exploitative because he wrote it to protect her, and he’s not trying to stand behind some pat understanding of ‘keeping it real.’ He doesn’t want to show what’s happening in the street, he wishes desperately that the awful things he’s talking about didn’t happen in Compton, and he’ll be damned if he lets his sister enter the world without a full understanding of what can happen there.

I first heard that song, and that line, coming home from work at 10.30 at night on an eastbound subway, and I actually started breathing faster after I heard it.  It was like hearing Public Enemy for the first time, or De La’s ‘Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa.’

The fact that a 24-year-old kid can still make music that connects on that level, the fact that he even wants to, is beyond exciting to me, and I can’t wait to see how his career develops.

Check out another powerful effort from him, a verse on BJ The Chicago Kid’s ‘His Pain II,’ below.

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