Who is this Kendrick Lamar, the 25-year-old rapper from Compton who’s got the hip-hop loving world breathless with his major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city? His very good good kid, m.A.A.d city came out last Tuesday, and already it’s being talked about as a classic on par with Nas Illmatic or Outkast‘s Aquemini. Technically speaking, Lamar raps very, very well; more remarkable, though, is his storytelling. The best way to get to know him is to listen to the work he puts out, and to listen closely. But there are also a few things you should understand about him…
1. Where He Came From
On the cover of good kid m.A.A.D. city is a Polaroid of baby Kendrick taken in 1992, seated on his uncle’s knee at a table strewn with baby bottles and 40oz bottles. This is where and how Kendrick begins his story. He grew up in Compton, where rappers like Tupac and Dr. Dre were given heroes, and where he spent his early days dodging trouble. “Never was a gangbanger, I mean I was never stranger to the funk neither,” he explains on “Peer Pressure.”
What is most important to Lamar about all of this is how far he’s come from there. When he was still young, he began rapping and turned the studio into his haven, and he talks frequently about hoping to inspire kids from the community to do the same. Therein lies the m.A.A.D. — “My Angry Adolescence Divided”– city he knew.
He got out of the space he grew up in sonically, as well. His jazz-influenced sound nods frequently to the 90′s west coast rap he grew up with — sounding at times particularly like Pharcyde or Digable Planets, while he says his breakout album Section.80 was inspired by a vision of Tupac and he works closely alongside Dr. Dre. But in more ways, he’s sound is entirely his own, hazy and intergalactic. And hence the album’s alternative title, “My Angel’s on Angel Dust.”
2. He’s Got Friends: Top Dawg Entertainment , Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q and the “Care Free” Black Hippy crewWhen he was 16-years-old, Lamar began working with a crew called Black Hippy — “hippy” because they are laid back, and “black” because it’s the color that encompasses all the rest. Lamar and the guys — Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, and Schoolboy Q — began working ceaselessly in their home recording studio at “perfecting the craft,” as he told The Fader. Black Hippy were eventually signed to a small L.A. record label called Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), which was subsequently worked into Dr. Dre’s label, Aftermath.
Lamar’s time to shine may have come first, but he doesn’t come alone: “Everybody’s making their own lane and their own path to where people can’t look at it as if Top Dawg Entertainment is Kendrick Lamar. It’s all of us a collective that’s representing this company.”
3. He’s Got Famous Fans: Dr. Dre, Drake and Lady Gaga
Dre is obviously a legend in the game, particularly the West Coast one that Lamar comes from and carries forth, but it’s Lamar’s work with Drake has helped push Lamar into a brighter spotlight. Drake gave Lamar the interlude on Take Care to make his own. Here, he starts to wonder what making it as a rapper might mean: “So dig a shovel full of money, full of power, full of pussy, full of fame/ And bury yourself alive, then I died.” Drake returned the favor with a verse on gkmC‘s Janet Jackson sampling “Poetic Justice.”
The jump from touring with Drake to hanging with Lady Gaga may seem a stretch, but it somehow works for Lamar. Gaga was caught catching his set at Lollapoloza and soon thereafter they were in the studio together. None of the songs they recorded together, not even the one about Jakarta called “PARTYNAUSEOUS,” made the final gkmC cut, but hopefully they’ll surface soon enough. Of his new friend the Mother Monster, Lamar says: “She’s a regular person. We became friends off of the genuine love for the music. She just hit my phone one day and said that she had a respect for the hip-hop that I was doing, that it wasn’t like anything she heard on the radio. Then chemistry collided from there. What I respect about her more than anything is her originality. She’s not afraid to be herself, and that’s the same thing that Black Hippy represents.“
4. He’s Got A Point
Lamar doesn’t like to be labeled a “conscious rapper” — “At the end of the day, I want people to recognize me as just a human being , period. I talk about whatever I feel and whatever I go through,” he says — but he does tend to be optimistic and resonant. He speaks frequently about how he used rap to turn a negative place into a positive, and how he’s “doing something in a positive light for these kids out here” in Compton. He’s successful in doing this because he’s thoughtful in his reflections but never preachy, like he’s not trying to teach so much as he wants to inspire.
5. What’s Everyone Saying?
We aren’t the only ones who have fallen head over heals for good kid, m.A.A.d city:
Billboard says that the album “breathes life into the game with the art of storytelling.”
Pitchfork gave the album a 9.5 and the Best New Music tag, offering that “the miracle of this album is how it ties straightforward rap thrills– dazzling lyrical virtuosity, slick quotables, pulverizing beats, star turns from guest rappers– directly to its narrative.”
Rolling Stone lauded the album’s “dense narratives and thickets of internal rhymes,” and heralded Lamar as “a storyteller, not a braggart or punch-line rapper.”
Spin was just generally left awestruck: “If this all sounds daunting, it should. It is. But the 25-year-old manages to hold everything together in the midst of such chaos through sheer craftsmanship. For one, he is a f***ing amazing rapper. On a purely technical level, he might be the best of his generation, and it’s awe-inspiring to hear him bend such complicated cadences without even breaking a sweat.”
And Andre 3000 himself, he thinks it’s “Excellent.”