Review Summary: "Will you please sing about me?" No. But your album's still alright
Hip-hop after the mid-'90s has never ever appealed to me. Ever. MF DOOM is an exception, a big exception at that, and I also really enjoy the Odd Future guys, but other than that, it looks to me like hip-hop has plummeted into a well of cliches and boring predictability; lazy flows, cringe-inducing lyrics and a dull and boring image of gold chains and wealth without much substance to back it up. Seriously, just look at some recent ***ing mixtape covers! And yes, I do realize that the bling and bravado is all part of the definitive hip-hop aesthetic, and it would be wrong for those elements, as tired out as they are, to disappear from hip-hop entirely. The thing is, I just wish modern hip-hop could be filled with more innovators and less traditionalists, basically, more people "zigging" and less people "zagging". DOOM (who's album Vaudeville Villain I reviewed on my blog) is one of those "ziggers" with his esoteric oddball rhymes, avoidance of generic rap topics, and penchant for bypassing catchy hooks almost entirely. But I digress. Recently, a relatively new rapper came to my attention who has garnered great praise with his last two albums, and even hard-to-please critics Anthony Fantano and Pitchfork Media gave his latest, good kid m.A.A.d. city, very high scores (both of them gave the album a 9 out of 10.) And of course, the young rapper I am speaking of is Kendrick Lamar.
Kendrick Lamar is a Compton rapper whose latest work is a concept album about his experiences in that notoriously rough and violence-laden city, and upon learning this, I had hopes that this album would present this story in an interesting and competent way, and by competent, I mean in a way that actually displays an understanding as to how to tell a cohesive ***ing story, which a couple rappers recently (Rick Ross, the Game) have not been able to accomplish with their latest albums. So I borrowed the album from my friend Shaheem and gave it a listen. Then another. And another after that. I've listened to this album around 7 times now, I have to be honest to you all, this album is a very mixed experience for me. Don't ***ing kill me, fanboys, let me explain.
Upon pressing play on my stereo, I realized something immediately: this is a Compton hip-hop album and must be listened to on a ghettoblaster. I made the appropriate switch to my boom box and pressed play again, and things start out interestingly. We begin with a group of young men being "saved" reciting a prayer, and that opens up a few questions right off the bat. Who are these boys? Are they in a church, or somewhere else entirely? Are they talking to a priest, minister, relative, friend? You don't know any of this, so already Lamar has forced you to keep listening so you can pick up the various pieces of the plot and put them together. For the sake of time (and your patience reading this thing) I wont focus too much attention on the plot of this album since I think the music itself is the most important thing here, not the story. This is a MUSIC review after all. The prayer is followed up by the beginning of a spooky instrumental kicking off the first track, "Sherane", a song about Kendrick driving around at night going to see a girl. The beat here gives off a nocturnal vibe which is perfect for the song which, of course, takes place at night, so already I'm convinced that Lamar is going to deliver with this ambitious album, that he knows what he's doing and this was going to be a cohesive and satisfying listen. I was only half-right.
To get this out of the way, the story is pulled off surprisingly well. It's cohesive, engaging, and many plot points are presented from various viewpoints, and if you choose to listen to this thing, I hope you will see it the same way. But the thing is, it's some of the music itself that I have problems with. After the promising opening track you have to endure the unbelievable irritating "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe" and the title alone should be an indication of this song's quality. We begin with the line:
"I am a sinner/who's probably gonna sin again"
Well, no ***. That's like saying, "I am a rain drop/that's probably gonna fall from the sky" or "I am a penis/that's probably gonna get hard when I watch this porn" Not very rhythmic, those lines are, but you get my point. As if that nugget of genius isn't off-putting enough, we have to hear this line delivered in a nasally, robotic "singing" voice that makes me want to throw a fluffy little hamster against a wall in frustration. To make things worse, there's this type singing all over the album. Seriously, couldn't Lamar have gotten some sort of cool, relevant r&b crooner to sing on this thing? Someone like Frank Ocean or The Weeknd could have really done this song, and this album, some justice, but for some reason Lamar decided to take this singing business into his own hands. The hook here ("bitch don't kill my vibe/bitch don't kill my vibe") is just as grating as the way it's sung, and this track in general will leave a pretty nasty taste in your mouth. Things do not get better. We are now introduced to "Backseat Freestyle" with Lamar lazily flowing about ***ing the world and how he's got lots of bitches. I honestly had to check the album credits to make sure that Lil B the Based God, the worst excuse for a rapper alive, was not featured on this track. I, under my own power, will simply never listen to that song again. The first three or so times I tried to listen to this album, I turned it off shortly after this track. At that point, I made up my mind that I did not give a *** how this *** was going to end and went back to listening to some Disma. But I really wanted to review this album and derive some sort of enjoyment from it so I became determined to get through it, after all, all the critics who slobbered over this album had to have some amount of credibility.
I'm happy to say that the quality of this album increases greatly after "Backseat Freestyle". Song topics get significantly more interesting on songs like "The Art of Peer Pressure" with it's engaging narrative about crime and "m.A.A.d. city" where Lamar takes you on a retrospective journey into the past, even adopting a higher, cracking voice to indicate his young age. On the 12 minute epic "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" Lamar becomes introspective, analyzing his life and current situation living in such a harsh environment. Another strength that this album possesses are the instrumentals, while sonically inconsistent, they are consistently good. "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe" features some tasty guitar and a real string section while "Backseat Freestyle" is a real trunk rattler, reflecting the song's generic subject matter. "m.A.A.d. city" pulls of a seriously dark and foreboding atmosphere even with a reggae melody driving the track that is reminiscent of Soulja Boy's crime against humanity "Crank That" but manages to sound great. Many of the tracks I've mentioned so far even have a "progressive" quality to them, you'll start out in one place and wind up somewhere entirely different thanks to beats that change up halfway through rather than a static beat that repeats over and over. With a good pair of headphones on, you will be rewarded with some real grin-inducing head bobbers that have the power to take you straight to Compton, minus the danger of being capped
Still, this album is mixed for me. "Poetic Justice" for example is way too mainstream for my taste. The track features mainstream rap star Drake as well as some serious pop-rap cliches in terms of line delivery (that half-sung delivery that annoys me) and trap beats with tons of stuttering hi-hat. Another low point is the hook on "Real" which is probably the worst hook on the entire album, even more so than "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe" and "Backseat Freestyle". But those are some rather mild quibbles.
At the end of the day, this is a pretty satisfying hip-hop album. Mixed, but satisfying. Every time I listen to this album, I try to achieve the same level of enjoyment experienced by all the critics who loved it, and every time it falls a little flat. I think to myself, "Hey, this is pretty good, I like it. But I'd rather be listening to Ener the Wu-Tang, The Score, Aquemini, Paul's Boutique, Ready to Die, Madvillainy, or even Tyler the Creator's Bastard instead when it comes to hip-hop." If you want an interesting take on modern, mainstream rap with a great narrative, then I'm sure you will like, if not, love, this album. Just ignore the singing.