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Random thoughts on Kendrick Lamar


Amidst all the hype and hoopla around his Grammy snubs and highly acclaimed cameo verse on Big Sean’s song “Control”, rapper Kendrick Lamar has been the talk of the hip-hop world for the last year, if not longer. Being in Afghanistan, I missed out the “longer” part, but since I’ve been back, Kendrick has been the world’s biggest new rapper.

With more than a little curiosity, I bought the much-praised “good kid, mAAd city” album.

The first time I listened, I thought it was good. But I was surprised for a Compton/LA MC, how little “Compton” Kendrick Lamar was.

The second time I listened, “good kid, mAAd city” became great.

The second time I listened, I realized how “Compton” Kendrick Lamar really is. His Compton is buried in the nuances of his lines. Here is a dude who grew up in Compton, but didn’t subscribe to the gangsta lifestyle of the early 90s rappers. He is not telling us to “fuck the police” as an anthem for rebellion. As a matter of fact, he is not rebelling at all. He is trying to survive.

From the track “mAAd city”:

Ain’t no peace treaty, just pieces BG’s up to pre-approve / Bodies on top of bodies, IVs on top of IVs

“BG”, or baby gangsta, is the “Lil Ass Gee” Ice Cube warned LA about in 1994 on the Lethal Injection album. They are the youngsters who grew up in the shadows of the gang wars of LA where the Bloods and Crips duked it out for street domination. But that’s not Kendrick Lamar. He is the kid who wrote what he saw and tried to stay alive. In this regard, Kendrick Lamar is similar to Somalia-born rapper K’Naan, who, in his song “Dreamer” said,

And “The boys from the hood are always hard” / Let alone in Mogadishu it’s a mastered art / If you bring the world hoods to a seminar / We from the only place worse than Kandahar

Which of course references Easy-E’s “Boyz in the Hood”, a Compton classic, making the whole conversation full circle.

Writing what he saw while others fought also aligns Kendrick with Chuck D’s great hip-hop saying that “rap is the black CNN”.  Instead of the protester image of NWA or Ice Cube, Kendrick is the storyteller, the narrator, and the bard. He is the Nas/”Illmatic” of the post-gangsta Compton.

But while telling the tale of his “new” Compton, a plain tilled by the plows of old school OGs and featuring the blossoms of the BG/Lil Ass Gee generation, Kendrick reaches out to one of those same OGs, the legendary MC Eiht. Some would look at the Jay-Z cameo or the cameo and executive producer title of Dr. Dre as the legends signing off on Kendrick, but Jigga and Dre follow dollars like Toucan Sam follows Froot Loops, sometimes at the expense of hip-hop.

When MC Eiht opens his verse of “mAAd city” with the line “Wake yo punk ass up“, I said “with the 93 shot” out of instinct. It was “Streiht Up Menace” from the Menace to Society soundtrack 20 years later.

A fucked up childhood, is why the way I am / It’s got me in the state where I don’t give a damn, hmm / Somebody help me, but nah they don’t hear me though / I guess I’ll be another victim of the ghetto

While MC Eiht resumes the gangsta veteran in “mAAd city” , Kendrick plays the survivor of the streets, “aka Compton’s Human Sacrifice”, an acknowledgment to MC Eiht’s “Compton’s Most Wanted”.

Maybe that’s why the Grammy voters gave their awards to Macklemore and passed over Kendrick Lamar. Not because “the Grammys hate rap“, although past snubs can build that argument, but because “good kid, mAAd city” transcended the music in a way that was tough to digest unless you knew the backstory. Unless you knew how South Central LA was affected by the Bloods and Crips, unless you knew about truce between the gangs, unless you knew why LA rioted after Rodney King, and unless you knew how those events molded and shaped Los Angeles rap music. Unless you listened to Ice-T, NWA, Ice Cube, MC Eiht, and their peers. That backstory was Kendrick Lamar’s life. It’s where Kendrick Lamar came from and what he wrote about. When Ice Cube left Compton for Hollywood, he left kids like Kendrick Lamar behind.

Music, especially hip-hop, is a sum of its culture. Whether Grandmaster Flash in “The Message”, Nas on “Illmatic”, any Public Enemy album, early Ice Cube, the political stylings of Boots Riley, or the urban poetry of Kendrick Lamar. That’s why so many rappers miss the point rhyming about cash, gold, or drugs.

That’s why I am buying the hype. Kendrick Lamar’s album is that good. But it had no choice but to be that good. It is poetry from an American war zone. Not quite Somalia or Afghanistan, but a first world struggle for survival. A struggle for control. Prophetic then that Kendrick’s next big statement was in a verse on a song called “Control“.

After the Grammy uproar and his transcendence from the underground to the mainstream, Kendrick Lamar now has control of the rap game. But the “rock star” life and its fortune means sacrificing other areas of control. Fame claims its victims as well. See the backstory on another ’90s icon from a few states north of California, Mr. Kurt Cobain.

[Update: I was listening to the song “Sing About Me: I’m Dying of Thirst” with it’s religious speech in the end and it reminded me of one of my favorite West Coast gangsta rap cultural laments. On the 1993 song “Lord Have Mercy”, Da Lench Mob rapped:

Lord have mercy, the devil he cursed me / I heard you had the cup of life, and I’m thirsty / My niggas keep fightin for a street, the white man own / So many died, before they got full grown

Kendrick Lamar’s “I’m Dying of Thirst” uses the same religious metaphor 20 years later. Coincidentally, both songs are also bookmarked by the voice of older woman commenting on the youth. In Kendrick’s song, she tries to convert them to the ways of God, and in Da Lench Mob’s track, the woman offers only an ass kicking. Hopefully the view in the more recent song is representative of a real change in attitude of those surrounding the plight of modern day Compton.]