Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Mad, mAAd World

I didn't expect much from Kendrick Lamar's album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city. I've been hearing rumblings about "the next big thing" in reference to Lamar for at least eighteen months now. What few snippets I'd heard were less than impressive.

To get this straight off the top, I've got a pretty high bar for rap. It might be cretinous, but I expect inventive lyrics and some understanding of rhythm, if not full on meter. Most rappers, even the popular ones, seem content to scream vitriol over top of beats someone else constructed for them. TI is prototypical. My favorite rapper alive right now is Lupe Fiasco.

Kendrick Lama is something different. He's interesting, though - seeming to mix the gritty reality of Tupac with the expressive, emotional, and inventive production of someone like Frank Ocean. I'm not a huge fan of good kid, m.A.A.d. city, but I respect the parts of it done well.

This will sound insulting, but it reminds me a lot of the Miley Cyrus record - with a major caveat. Both Cyrus and Lamar put together strong albums with some excellent tracks, well tailored for their respective genres. Both included a few too many duds for these to be fully realized albums. The caveat being: Miley's bad tracks are almost exclusively those she wrote herself, whereas Kendrick's are simply too immature, both technically and in terms of subject matter, likely to brings some connection from his younger, mix-tape days into a more produced and (hopefully) advanced burgeoning studio career.

Those weak tracks discuss mostly the kind of things you'd expect a young rapper to talk about, but in my mind, sex and the anomie of urban poverty have been more than overdone in hip-hop. However, when Lamar ventures into new territory, he does with a sense of depth and appeal that show why his record was nominated in the first place. There's a refreshing diversity of style, voice, tempo, and solid hooks which make people take notice.

There is some real promise evident, at times, on "The Art of Peer Pressure," which, partly, expresses Lamar's own exasperation about the undue attention he's getting so early in his career with some measure of humility not often seen in the rap game.

One of the better tracks is "Money Trees," the highlight of which is Jay Rock's guest appearance, which is better done than anything Lamar does himself (MC Eiht is fantastic on "m.A.A.d. city," as well). Lamar's upside is obviously sky high, he just doesn't fully realize what he might become - it's covered some by the production value, which are incredible - but the truth should be apparent to most. It's a first record (yeah, I know there was another one, but this is the first one the same way The Heist is Macklemore's first album), which, like a first novel, doesn't speak for itself so much as it speaks for the author's future.

We can't forget, though, Kendrick Lamar is not young. He'll be 27 this year, which is a bit late to be breaking big in hip-hop, especially if he's going to find enough audience and attention to help him develop fully. He's going to have to come out with his best work in the next two albums.

That being said, the title track, "good kid," showcases all his best qualities - socially conscious, complex lyrics; solid rhythm; great beat; and a tag line that gets stuck in your head. He's fully formed here, but it doesn't show up as often as you'd like.

One exception is "Sing About Me," a track with great emotional depth that takes risks hip hop hasn't been into lately. There's some real introspection and contemplation inherent in Lamar's work - he, along with a few others, are forging the next wave of what was once gangsta rap. The movement from NWA's "I came from nothing and I'll do anything to make it," to Tupac's "I came from nothing and it's broken me somehow" to the current investigation into why urban life produces what it does.

As a pastor I'm interested in the juxtaposition of a classic "sinner's prayer" with the tales of violence, sin, and urban woe. Clearly Lamar is trying to communicate the tension between the popular notion that Jesus can solve all your problems and the reality that screams otherwise. It doesn't come off mocking, but confused. I'd say this album, in a way, speaks to the theological problem of seeking the goals of the world through Christian means. There's some gospel conversation here around sacrifice, success and the purpose of life. For that alone it's worth a listen.

I'm not saying it isn't a great representation of a particular subgroup of the genre, but to call good kid m.A.A.d. city a best album winner is perhaps premature. I haven't heard all of Yeezus, but I have a hard time thinking the nominations shouldn't be the other way around, with Kanye up for Best Album and Lamar holding down Best Rap Album.

I've got my own biases and preferences, so this would have to be pretty exceptional to get high praise from me. Still, given it's individual merits, the competition, and the demographics of Grammy voters, there's almost no way this album ends up anywhere higher than fifth (last) in the voting. There might be years where an album like this has a chance, but this is not it.

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