Kendrick Lamar and The Art of An Album

[We reached our goal of $20K - plus some - for our Indiegogo campaign. We will address that tomorrow but trust and believe, we are all moved and humbled by the generosity. Panama almost cried. I was cutting onions. Thank you all so much for the love, support, and donations.]

(You all will have to forgive me, sometimes I think I’m a music journalist. Today is one of those times.)

Man I love this album cover.

This past Monday, October 22, Kendrick Lamar released good kid, m.A.A.d city, (GKMC) one of the most puzzling yet fascinating debut albums of recent memory. My use of the word puzzling isn’t meant to be pejorative at all. In fact, because it made me go “hmm” so hard, I’m actually liable to think he may be some sort of genius sent from the Aftermath Gods to Earth to craft the most inaccessible album that actually does well commercially, if that makes any sense.

Let’s start a few years back though. I’ve been a fan of Kendrick Lamar at least since 2009. I was perusing some rap website I frequent and came across the song “Wanna Be Heard” from his Kendrick Lamar EP, a misnomer since the EP had like 15 records on it. I heard the song and instantly got hooked. At the time, the beat reeled me in though I came to find it was a looped version of a beat Black Milk made and put on one of his instrumental albums. Anyway, after listening to his EP I was completely sold on  him. I kept trying to put my boys on…some successfully, others just didn’t get it. That EP was my favorite of his “mixtapes” so to speak. (O)verly (D)edicated is the one that got him major looks for its diversity and breadth. Then came Section 80, the most cohesive of his works.

Now his progression as an artist and as an arranger could be felt from mixtape to mixtape. The albums sounded more cohesive and had a better flow. The tone meshed well and lyrics got sharper. You could literally see a man getting better at his craft year by year. And all of it was in preparation for his major label debut.

During this time, he gained the co-signs of everybody that mattered on the West Coast culminating on that fateful day when Snoop passed the torch to young K.Dot. And now, we got GKMC. He’s singed to Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) and has a deal with Dr. Dre via Aftermath/Interscope. Given the powerhouse moneymaking machine that is Interscope, you’d think that we’d get an album that sounded like it was intended to sell units.

We didn’t. We got a concept album that is seamlessly woven together via skits, interludes, and really long songs (“Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst” clocks in at over 12 minutes long). There are no discernible singles on this album. Even the song with Drake, Mr. Billboard himself, is a pretty subdued and non-radio friendly song even with its Janet Jackson “Anytime, Anyplace” sample. It’s a very dark and moody album that represents a day in the life of Kendrick when he was 17 years old and attempting to meander through his surroundings.

Most artists nowadays, if I can call them that, don’t really focus on albums. They make singles, package them together, and release the collection and add some non-sequitur title to it. Nearly all new major label artists are doing that nowadays. There’s very little thought required and most of these albums are easily digestible with catchy hooks and wanton ass lyrics.

SIMILAC.

When I listen to GKMC I keep hearing Jay’s “if skills sold truth be told…I’d rather be…” line from “Moment of Clarity” on The Black Album. His point there was that he’s trying to sell records and the people who buy records don’t want all that thought-provoking deep stuff. They want to be able to get it on the first listen and repeat it if need be. Part of that, especially for new artists is that you need to create enough buzz and pomp around them to get people’s attention. Dense rhymes and multi-syllabic rhyme patterns only works if you’re Nas.

Enter Kendrick who has pretty much been rapping about whatever he wanted – largely life, women, and humanity – however he wanted. He was just that interesting and picked up enough co-signs that people started listening. He wasn’t going to the streets, he brought the streets to him. He got the chance to work with all of the hot producers he wanted to and had everybody singing his praises. With that type of set up you’d think he’d release an album that sounds like I imagine Meek Mill’s album will sound.

Instead we get an album that sounds like what would have happened if Outkast made an ATLiens Part II. The tone, feel, and vibe is very dark, melodramatic and moody. This isn’t an album you throw in when you’re trying to get ready for the club. This is the kind of album you listen to on a long car ride when you’ve got time to digest everything. The closest thing to a radio single is “Swimming Pools (Drank)” which is deceptively dark and even that you have to really listen to in order to fully understand.

You have to listen.

For the first time in a long while, I appreciate a hip-hop album. It’s not the kind of album where you pick out your “jam” and bump that. Most songs feel incomplete without listening to them in context. There’s a story and you need to hear the whole thing. Hell, some people might not listen to it more than once.

Which again, gets back to this interesting cross section. Kendrick Lamar is on a major label and releases an album without a true identifiable single and is still projected to sell a couple hundred thousand his first week. That is cultivating a fan base like none other. And it speaks to his talent and what Interscope is truly banking on – that Kendrick is a rapper’s rapper and the type of artist that people truly care about. Buying his album means you’re not in it for the single and the throwaway pop-rap record. You’re in it for the experience of venturing into the world of Kendrick Lamar. That’s what albums are supposed to be about anyway. You’re supposed to take a trip with the artist into whatever place their mind has led you. Only then do you get to truly experience art. That’s the Kanye approach. It’s impressive to me that Interscope allowed this album to be released as it is because it signals to me that they truly think that Kendrick and his fans are in it for the music and they’re betting the farm on that producing at the retailers.

I hope it does. Short of Kanye, and for the first time in a long time, we got an album out of a more mainstream hip-hop artist and for once, that was crafted with care down to the white meat and intended to do what we always claim hip-hop is supposed to do…tell a story. That’s the art of it all.

When the lights go off and it’s my turn to settle down, my main concern…promise that you will sing about me…

Yep, I think they will.

good kid, m.A.A.d. city

-VSB P aka THE ARSONIST aka MR. YOU WEREN’T LOOKING FOR AN ALBUM REVIEW, NOW YOU GOT ONE aka GIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIRL HE A 3