On Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift And The Art Of Letting Go
What is the opposite of being fucked? Being unfucked? Non-fucked? The answer to this question is important, because it explains the exact position that Kendrick Lamar is in right now. His recent good kid, m.A.A.d. city is perhaps the best-reviewed major-label debut for a rapper in years, presenting a fully-formed narrative hip-hop project, diverse in sound and subject matter. It's one of those albums that demands close listening; I'm even having a hard time concentrating on writing this during "Poetic Justice." It has a clear lineage, which is something we as hip-hop fans often value—good kid, m.A.A.d. city combines the observational style of a young Nas with the funk and skunk of early OutKast, with the Compton G-Funk that Kendrick was raised in. Critics are beside themselves over it, and the record's projected to sell somewhere in the neighborhood of 220,000 copies. In the current record-buying climate, that's huge—conventional wisdom says if that many people bought the thing, probably five times as many heard it. In fact, good kid, m.A.A.d city has had the second best-selling week in hip-hop this year, short of only Young Jeezy. No matter how you slice it, Kendrick Lamar is officially in the conversation about hip-hop in 2012.
It seems, in fact, that Lamar made the absolutely best album he could have. He's perhaps the finest rapper on a purely technical level to emerge in five years. Wanna him to rap real fast? Okay, listen to his conversation to himself on "Swimming Pools (Drank)." Need him to assert himself over a beat and lasso it to the ground? Welp, you've got "Backseat Freestyle," which was for many rap fans the moment we realized Lamar's album was going to be a serious problem. He can rap over everything, and no matter how crazy the beat, make you pay attention to him first, the actual music second. That's special.
One of my concerns with Lamar was that whenever you place him in the same room as any other major rap star, he's probably going to sound gawky and awkward, like he's putting on a feint of gangsterdom when he'd rather just sit inside and read. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he's rapping about his dick on A$AP Rocky's "Fuckin' Problem," he sounds like he'd rather be literally anywhere else than in the same room as Drake, Rocky and 2 Chainz. So instead of trying to stay in his own head or put on some sort of feint, he pulls what in hip-hop is effectively the equivalent of a bootleg play with his album. He turns the thing into a concept album about his own life as a teenager, hopping from character to character, putting his teenaged self into various situations, rather than rapping about what he actually does, because it seems IRL Lamar mainly just sits and thinks about stuff and tries to awkwardly talk to girls (and rap about his dick).
In doing so, he creates a fairly complex narrative arc—not something that is necessary for absolute enjoyment of the album, but something that when considered makes you kind of go, "Holy shit." It's a lot to unpack, and it gives the album a sense of layering that is not present whatsoever in a your typical mainstream rap album such as, say, 2 Chainz's Based On A T.R.U. Story, the true highlight of which is the fact that you can abbreviate the album as B.O.A.T.S.
There is also the idea that Lamar is something of a unifying figure in hip-hop—the hood alpha and "conscious" (a problematic term in and of itself but whatever) omega, united at last. If you want to really get yourself hot and bothered, think of this mythical Rap Jesus figure that Lamar represents to some in terms of OutKast. You've got your stone-cold pimp thug in Big Boi, and then your sensitive, thoughtful romantic in André 3000. When you think about it from the exact right angle, Lamar, especially on the album we're discussing, is both.
So, take the parts: one-man OutKast, masterful storytelling, beautiful, interesting music that never takes control over the masterful rapper at show, it's selling like gangbusters…that means it's pretty much a classic, right?
If you didn't see this coming, I would argue pretty definitively otherwise—good kid, m.A.A.d. city is not a great album, merely one that is extremely good in very overt ways. Yes, the elements for transcendent greatness are all there, but completing a discrete set of tasks doesn't mean you automatically make great music. If it was, anyone would do it. A great song can be as little as two tones intertwining, or it can come from the all-out aural assault of Pig Destroyer. Either way, great music is something with a metaphorical heartbeat. And when I look good kid, m.A.A.d. city in the face, it's like I'm face-to-face with a robot.
The thing that got me thinking about all this, weirdly enough, was Taylor Swift. As I was in the process of illegally downloading both Kendrick's album and Taylor Swift's Red, one of the most unfortunate things that can happen to a music fan happened to me: my external hard drive crashed. I was left with two albums in my iTunes, so instead of booting up Spotify and upping my account to Premium, I decided to roll with it and conduct a little experiment. I'd listen to the albums side by side, and see what I could glean.
Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift have more in common than you might assume. First of all, hip-hop and country are fairly similar as far as genres go, both trafficking largely within the realm of trope and intimation, as well as shooting their message to largely marginalized audiences—in a way, it's almost a case of Same Song, Different Instrument. Red and good kid, meanwhile, are both albums that are supposed to "mean something." With Red, Swift is taking the idea of "country pop" to its logical conclusion, taking the genre to a place Garth Brooks probably would have if Skrillex had existed in 1991. That is to say, Red includes "22," one of the finest pure pop tracks of the year, and to my knowledge Swift's first where she makes overt reference to fucking a stranger, which probably will ultimately prove to be a bigger deal for Swift's career trajectory than anything on Lamar's album, but whatever.
With good kid, m.A.A.d city, there's a palpable sense of urgency. Consider his performance on Jimmy Fallon last week. He looked coiled, full of potential energy; it was like watching Fugazi. He was performing "Swimming Pools (Drank)," another of the finest pop singles of the year. The song is basically how much Lamar hates drinking, which definitely helps ramp up the whole Fugazi thing he's got going on.
And with Lamar, that's the thing—it's easy to describe him using favorable comparisons, and fostering those associations does this psychological trick where he's vaunted up into the canon by sheer force of association. However, the thing about Kendrick and acts he's compared to is that he's not them. It remains to be seen if good kid, m.A.A.d. city will have any lasting cultural impact of not, but that's the sort of thing only time and taste can dictate. So, in the interest of the whole "We're All In This Thing Together" thing that having a massive hurricane hit your town has recently reminded us of, let's let music be music, Kendrick Lamar be Kendrick Lamar, but for god's sake, watch where you're pointing that canon.