These god damned dogs will not stop wrestling next to me. Laika’s got 20 lbs. on Luther, but he keeps finding a way to roll her onto her back despite the imbalance. They almost knocked my beer over with their last pass. I’m gonna skin their hides and make myself a pair of house shoes if they spill a sip of my booze. Put that on my grandma.
I hadn’t noticed how wide Laika’s face had gotten until Luther came along. That she is broad of chest and muscled, powerful in stature, standing next to this tiny fellow whose skin hangs loose on him much like my jeans did when I was a scrawny kid boxing outside my weight class. It’s been too long since I’ve been reminded of those days. I had had forgotten just how old I actually am.
I wonder if my age has affected my hearing. Well, not my ability to hear. Rather, my ability to relate to what I am listening to. I have always tried to let my ears be my guide with regards to music. I don’t want to have to work too hard to like something (I reserve that effort for family members and co-workers). When I press play, I know whether or not I like something or not pretty much instantaneously. There is, I admit, the occasional instance when a song will slowly grow on me, much like kudzu, until it carpets the interior of my head. But, more often that not, if I ain’t fucking with it, its getting the window treatment.
The first time I heard of Kendrick was when I was working on Fairfax; I came across the Overly Dedicated mixtape sitting on the counter of the Diamond Store across the street. I brought it back to the shop I had been given keys to and gave it a listen. It was after a few tracks that I realized that I had actually heard this kid once before when an acquaintance had sent me a link to the Compton State Of Mind video. I remember being struck by his introspective nature and need to separate himself from the stereotypes that come from being born and raised in… without ever denying that it was the city itself that have provided the experiences that helped craft his particular perspective. Was I impressed? I don’t think I listened to Overly Dedicated more than a handful of times. With only loose impressions of one or two tracks and no quotables repeating themselves over and over in my head, I quickly forgot about Kendrick Lamar. Was it Kendrick, or the ears listening to his songs?
Chris is ten years plus my junior and used to give me rides from Fairfax to downtown when I was between automobiles. A beer and a shot too many had rendered me carless for the second time in as many years, and Chris was kind enough to roll me around so that I could take care of business on those unrelentingly hot and smoggy Los Angeles summer days. An avid Hip-Hop head, Chris always had an iPod full of that new new balanced out with a healthy dose of the classics. He prided himself on not just jumping on the next swinging dick that passed through the now over saturated hip hop interweb blogosphere, but rather really listening to the music and supporting talent.
“You heard that Section 80?” he asked me one trip down Beverly Blvd.
“Nah” I replied.
“This dude Kendrick is killing it right now! Yo, check this HiiiPower!”
HiiiPower was my third time meeting Kendrick Lamar. This was like being introduced to the same chick over and over by a mutual friend only to finally take notice of what they were trying to show you all along — Shorty got potential! Yeah, she ain’t necessarily the baddest chick you ever met, but there’s definitely something worth following up on. Why hadn’t I seen it before? Was it a time and place kind of thing? Where had my head been at? It didn’t hurt that Kanye had recently released “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and, in an act of sheer brazenness, he had not only swiped, but improved upon one of the catchiest hooks on the album. But, it was also the beat and his delivery on the song. This was a dope track.
I listened to Section 80 with eager anticipation for more of what I had heard on HiiiPower, but was left unimpressed when I started the record from its beginning. ADHD was good, but the rest of the songs struck me as uneven. Again, I found myself uninterested in a lot of the content and chalked it up to a generation gap. That was until I heard “Keisha’s Song“.
Holy Shit! Rewind. Play again. Rewind. Play again.
This was good. It was more than good, it was impressive. One of the hardest feats in rap music is to create empathy without coming across as weak or needy. Pac was the heavyweight champ of this. Ghostface is a close second. In no way am I lumping Kendrick in a class with these two proven Hall Of Famers, but he achieved something that many never will and recorded a truly great rap song. That being said, Section 80 as a project did little to make me think that Mr. Lamar was the new “Prince of The West Coast”. At best, it was another decent tape that showed flashes of greatness while failing to deliver any true staying power. Welcome to the rap game in 2011.
When I heard that Dre was looking to sign Kendrick I was apathetic at best. Here we had a legend, now well past his prime, with no real relevance in the contemporary landscape and a follow up album that Axle Rose could say had taken too long to finish, attempting to maintain some semblance of purpose by combining forces with LA’s hottest new up and comer.
This in no way changed my general opinion of the artist or increased my anticipation of any future releases. If anything, it signaled a death knell. A bullet in the back of the head of a career year realized as he was about to be used to try and relaunch a now flagging enterprise. There would be no more “Keisha’s Songs”. There would be no more “HiiiPowers” and if there were they would be overproduced, filtered replications of their predecessors.
I didn’t think Kendrick had the presence or the charisma to carry the burden of expectation that comes with a major label record deal and interweb suckfest that precedes it. I didn’t think that he would be able to dictate his own creative terms and write a record that would be both personable and enjoyable to listen to. I didn’t think that he would be allowed to write a narrative that would crystalize the story that he had to try to tell those years previous ago with “Compton State of Mind”. If you go back and listen he was referring to himself as a “good kid” even then. If you do the due diligence (which I haven’t), he may have been saying it all along. But, somehow that’s exactly what happened. I’m happy to write that I was completely wrong.
I made the unfortunate mistake to finally listen to Good Kid, M.A.A.D City on laptop speakers. Twitter was awash in Kendrick stanning and the requisite “fuck you, dickriders” posting that comes with any anticipated release. I waited a few days and when I had a free morning, hit play. I missed “Sherane” completely. “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” made me perk up my ears, but I was still only half listening, distracted by a couple dogs and emails that “had” to be answered. “Backseat Freestyle” came on and I hit skip in the middle of the song and was like “Really? This is what everyone has been waiting for?”
Kendrick’s voice has always been borderline grating when he gets agitated and this was nails on a chalkboard. Whatever. I loaded it onto my iPhone and got ready for my day as the other songs came and went. I hadn’t heard anything noteworthy. Actually, I hadn’t listened.
I put my earbuds in and hit the door, restarting Good Kid as I left. I heard a prayer. I heard a well crafted verse about lust and infatuation that lead to downfall. I heard a personal mantra come anthem. I heard a still annoying vocal change that will get no replays, and then I heard The Art Of Peer Pressure and was put on notice. When I’m with the Homies channels the best of classic ‘Kast a la Benz or a Beamer and yet it is has its own original, personal voice that is completely relatable to. Kendrick is at his best when he is calm, almost zen like and his focus is on the story being told and not the need to prove himself as an MC. Such is the case here. He leaves the exaggerated vocals to a “homie” and spends the song riding shotgun, cooly describing an evening of juvenile delinquency as events unfold around him. This is precisely when my own teen years started to come back to me and I had that profound moment when you hear another tell your story in song.
Is Good Kid, M.A.A.D City a classic? I think youth dictates those terms. Classic records always seem to be the ones that impact you the most when you are still malleable. They are records that change the way you think about the possibility of music and the expectations you have for other artists and their endeavors. I’ll leave that decision to kids that have never heard Illmatic (an album which as great as it is still has One Time, a song skipped by me to this day) and people paid for their opinions on what makes for good music. What I heard, and if you’re still reading this piece is my opinion, is this an excellent debut (if you can call it that anymore). It is an important record that, in this current climate of Trap-mania and hyper consumerism, is a carefully crafted reflection on one man’s struggle to maintain his humanity in the face of sex, drugs and gang banging. It is an exercise in thought out, precisely executed verse over beats that aren’t bangers but complement the feeling of the song. It’s some of the best rap music to be recorded by a new generation, and it needs to be listened to.