Hip hop - not a field of popular music I have a tremendous amount of knowledge about. Nevertheless, sometimes something catches my ear and I have to seek it out. On this record, it was the sinuous single "Swimming Pools". Of course, the massive hype helped and I don’t mind admitting it.
So is this the instant classic that every critic seems to think it is? Record of the year? Is Kendrick the boy genius? Classic status in hip hop must be elusive - few musical styles seem to date as quickly. Hip hop is tied to deeply to the MC, the time and the location. We hear lots of remixes, but how many covers are there? Sadly, I don't think this album has done enough. Kendrick, in my opinion, does many things right, and that is exciting.
Modern commercial hip hop is the soundtrack of rampant consumerism. If you aren't dropping at least 5 brand references per song, you're not relevant. Songs become commercials for fellow label artist albums - collaborations are often more about marketing than making great music. Kendrick has the sound of commercial hip hop (which is, let's face it, sonically more intoxicating than underground stuff) without wading through the familiar litany of associated products.
An admirable quality includes avoiding alter egos. This has been a clever trend in hip hop which allows artists to say what they think no matter how offensive, behind a thinly veiled ‘get out of jail’ free argument of "it's just a character". It's remarkable how many times Kendrick refers to himself directly, yet effortlessly masters a dazzling array of voices. Instead of inhabiting other characters, these different voices highlight his state of mind in a particular situation. Context emerges as an important theme during the course of the album.
He also has the ability to work with different tempos - Kendrick is equally comfortable with slow grooves, confident measured delivery, or staccato, nervous energy.
So, honest and gifted. What doesn't work? Firstly, this album is filled with skits. It clearly works for some, but it grates on me as a listener. I will admit that the non-musical content here is important - it fills in the story and is vital to the narrative arc. However, once the listener has internalised the tale, do we need to hear these pieces again? I think not. They cut the flow of the songs, and they are placed in the run time of the tracks, which make them irritating. Make them skippable, people.
Slow jams. Unfortunately, many of the weaker tracks on this album are the simply boring. 'Sherane' works as a scene setter, but plods along with few variations. 'Poetic Justice' seems to contain an inspired sample, which becomes old in 30 seconds. With no strong hooks and a curious lack of interesting insight into male female dynamics, tedious is the key word. The lyrical content on other topics is often illuminative, with powerful, complex concepts being succinctly packaged and put into our consciousness. 'Dying of thirst' is a remarkable passage - a beat to run marathons to, cool gravity from the choir like vocals, and a great metaphor. But, it is preceded by the dull 'Sing about me', which also contains Kendricks most annoying voice - the nasal, clipped delivery that screams "joke song". This is also employed on the forgettable second track 'B* don't kill my vibe'. A similar situation can be found on 'm.A.A.d city', which opens with an incredible kinetic passage. Kendrick is on fire with his nervous terrified persona and the horrifying megaphone, scattershot underlay of a second voice when he describes the carnage of street violence. It then breaks into a rote conclusion. Disappointing.
I also find the repetetive nature of 'Real' to be incredibly frustrating. It's crying out for a great hook to match the delivery.
This is, however, a true album. When listened to as a whole, it elevates the weaker material. It breaks down into roughly three parts - the first 7 tracks detailing the formative phase of flirting with danger and establishing all the tensions that make up a particular life. 'Backseat Freestyle' is a standout - the opening vocal hook is percussive, breaking into a shout-out with purpose. Kendrick effortlessly captures the feeling of hedonism without borders when he slyly extols "All my life I want money and power" over a chiming, threadbare beat, punctuated by snaps that sound like a shattering moral blueprint.
From 'm.A.A.d city' to 'Sing about me', the tone is even darker - we feel Kendrick is now truly in hell. 'Swimming Pools' coils like a snake with an elastic rhythm and the voice of the devil in the hook.
The final chapter of redemption feels curiously underdeveloped. Closer 'Compton' steps into the the old trap which remarkably had been avoided for the most part - the boast. Most albums have a few tracks like this and it's not always a bad thing. It may have been revolutionary to go the distance without it, especially considering some of the high lyrical quality in other tracks. It feels out of step with the whole.
The album is ambitious though - I feel it brings something new to story of life in a difficult, violent environment. So much of it is based on introspection and internal monologue, and the music is often successful at complementing the content. It does not focus much on the bigger external influences, but rather the choices we make and our immediate place in the world.
So, as a love letter to Compton and a promising start, it's a good record. Let's hope the classic is on the way.