Pazz & Jop: Kendrick Lamar, Finally Compton’s Most Wanted

Good kid, m.A.A.d city opens with absolution and ends with ascension—in between is a trench of thirsty purgatory. Fade in: Compton, 2005, a Gehenna of redeemers and ratchets, robbers and rabid cops. Our star is a confused teen torn between blood red, marine blue, and waving the white flag.

Subtitled “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar,” the Compton rapper’s Interscope debut chronicles a day in the life of 10th-grade Lamar. The narrative is tight, the characters are vivid, and it’s executive-produced by the George Lucas of G-Funk, Dr. Dre.

There are Black & Milds and Young Jeezy CDs, inner-city intersections and burger stands haunted by the dead. Lamar re-creates the pistol-smoke-poignancy of classic L.A. hood movies, Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society, and Colors. “Poetic Justice” steals its moniker from a Janet Jackson vehicle in which Tupac played Lucky the mailman. Lamar’s parents bicker like Craig’s parents in Friday. Its nonlinear story line appropriates Pulp Fiction. The compression and deception comes straight out of Training Day.

Good kid, m.A.A.d city also implicitly echoes the vérité actors and anomie of neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves. Its plot of a callow kid surrounded by lust, dope, and bullies is reminiscent of Dazed and Confused. And the gap in time between the falling action and denouement feels like There Will Be Blood—especially because there actually is blood.

By the penultimate song, “Real,” Lamar has divined his spiritual epiphany. A slain friend commands him to tell his story. There are evangelical overtones and a message from his father that “real is responsibility . . . [and] taking care of your motherfucking family. . . . Real is God.” His mother tells him to take music seriously and to “come back a man . . . to tell a story to the black and brown kids of Compton.”

When final track “Compton” rolls around, it flashes forward to the present. Lamar is critically and commercially inviolate—the young king of the West Coast, flanked by Dr. Dre and 10 bottles of Rozay. It’s a victory lap in a new Porsche, not a jittery ride in a station wagon. We never learn the details of his rise—the album’s dazzling spell is evidence enough of the levitation. It finished at or near the top of every year-end poll and has sold 500,000-plus copies since its October release with only one single in the Billboard Top 40.

If you merely tuned into the latest “true story told by Kendrick Lamar on Rosecrans,” you might mistake him for an Athena who emerged out of his own head fully formed and well armed. The reality is more Malcolm Gladwell: 10,000 hours of backseat freestyles, discarded style experiments, and intermittently memorable music.

The greater rap world first homed in on 2011’s Section.80, a generational manifesto for Reagan babies bred into an out-of-focus idiocracy of drug abuse and dumb separatism. The underground was first struck by his darts on the previous year’s O.verly D.edicated, which lacked the musicality and hooks of its successors but proved that Lamar was the rawest rapper in the west. Even then, this was a half-decade after the action of good kid, when his music first reached Top Dawg Entertainment shot caller Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith.

During the hind years of the last decade, Lamar found his voice through apprenticeship, imitation, and all-night studio sessions. He first earned attention as the sidekick of Jay Rock, the blood-affiliated Watts rapper signed to Warner Bros. via TDE. With traditional West Coast gangsta rap firing off its last rounds, Rock had “next” reserved but never heard his name called. Before the WB pact, rumors spread that Rock and Lamar (then called K. Dot) were in talks with Def Jam/Roc-a-Fella. Lamar was even said to be landing ghostwriting gigs for superstars before he could legally drink (or not drink) Patrón.

His first official mixtape, 2007’s Training Day, takes its leitmotif from Denzel Washington’s crooked cop tale, but bites beats, cadences, and vocal tics from Jay-Z. Lamar acknowledges the rumors that he’s “fucking with Sean” and even once says “Hov.” The record simultaneously reveals Lamar’s backpack past, beholden to the late-’90s/early ’00s underground: two Dilla requiems, a freestyle over a Talib Kweli beat, and another flipping Kanye West’s “Grammy Family.”

His sophomore free release, 2009’s C4, made the homage overt. It’s essentially a Lil Wayne tribute tape down to the goblin voices and giggles. One song is unironically called “Bitch I’m in the Club.” There’s also a Wu-Tang doxology over the beat for the Clan’s “Tearz.” The first song I ever heard from Lamar was recorded around this time. It was a paean to Kurupt called “Kurupted.” The unrefined skill is obvious, but it was unclear if he’d ever synthesize his idols.

What eventually happened was similar to the Beatles playing speed-fueled Buddy Holly covers in Hamburg—inspiration through prolonged imitation. Lamar also discarded the inherited logic that the paperless rapping of Jay-Z and the Notorious B.I.G. was somehow superior to the pad and pen. The leap occurred shortly after 2010’s Kendrick Lamar EP, when the former K.Dot switched to his birth name and started clashing with the sipping, smoking, and shooting tropes of West Coast gangsta rap.

You can’t ignore the impact of the Top Dawg brass. Rather than prematurely sign to a major label, Lamar’s talent was incubated alongside an in-house team of engineers, producers, management, and other gifted rappers. When Dre finally arrived, it was to teach a postdoctoral course. Lamar was neither the offspring of blog hype nor a gimmicky video. He was unabashedly sincere and post-regional, but obviously rooted in the bloody soil of Compton.

Good kid, m.A.A.d city wears its influences proudly. There are references to E-40, Ice Cube, Uncle Luke, and Houston anthem “25 Lighters.” Avatars from the ’90s like Dr. Dre and MC Eiht appear. So does Lil Wayne, if only in the spirit of Lamar’s wordplay and Silly Putty voice. His introspection and war with his conscience recalls Eminem, and he occasionally flexes a DMX growl. The narrative intricacy channels Jay-Z, Nas, the Notorious B.I.G., and Slick Rick (via Snoop Dogg). Lamar boasts an aesthetic and slant toward spirituality similar to the early Dungeon Family records. Above all, his ability to induce tears and articulate the totality of the struggle reflects what he absorbed from Tupac. Of course, there are the aforementioned movies.

But good kid, m.A.A.d city supplies its own philosophy of sin and salvation. The script and sound are original—new testament to the immutability of old ideas. It is Compton scared straight.

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