Kendrick Lamar is a young rapper from Compton who is intent on bringing his poetic style to the rap scene. The talented newcomer is a protégé to one of the masters of rap, Dr. Dre. Alongside the reknowned superproducer, Lamar performed “The Recipe” — his hit single with a signature Dre beat — at Coachella last year. While Lamar’s first full length album Section 80 was well-received (after Dre put his stamp of approval on it), Lamar only found nationwide success after “HiiiPoWeR” became a radio hit.
Good Kid M.A.A.D City, Lamar’s sophomore album released on Tuesday, shows incredible promise and growth. Lamar has such a particular style of delivery, combining a mixture of spoken word poetry and provocative, politicized rap. He addresses racism, inequality and conditions in ghettos over unconventional beats. In some ways, Lamar is an iconoclast in both his instrumentals and his lyrics. His tracks don’t have the same old “verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse” monotony that we expect from songs these days. He often doesn’t use a chorus and often raps continuously through a song. Furthermore, his delivery is refreshingly distinct; its measured meter evokes a poetic sensibility.
On the confessional “Poetic Justice,” featuring Drake, Lamar admits, “I mean I write poems in these songs / Dedicated to you / And you’re in the mood for empathy / There’s blood in my pen.” Lamar’s lyrics don’t always rhyme every line in a traditional ABAB fashion; he doesn’t let rhyme interfere with what he wants to say. He can go a few lines without a rhyme and then quickly jump back in with a flurry of lyrical genius. Waiting for that moment makes it all the more satisfying when he delivers. But what makes Lamar so innovative is his brutal honesty coupled with his insane rhymes. In “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” the refrain goes, “I am a sinner / Who’s probably gonna sin again / Lord forgive me / Things I don’t understand / Sometimes I need to be alone.”
He opens his heart in just a phrase or two: “You live in a world, you living behind the mirror / I know what you scared of, the feeling of feeling emotions inferior.” At other times, he switches to overused rap imagery like popping champagne, driving fast cars and picking up women. It is unclear if he’s parodying these references, but these lyrics are amusing: “All my life I want money and power / Respect my mind or die from lead shower / I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower / So I can fuck the world for 72 hours.”
In my favorite song, “Money Trees,” a slow-tempo rhythm bounces in the background as Lamar spits amazing lyrics in a flow that syncs directly with the beat. He discusses serious topics with poetic mastery, as seen in the provocative refrain, “Everybody gon’ respect the shooter / But the one in front of the gun lives forever.” Later: “Money trees is the perfect place for shade / And that’s just how I feel.” Jay Rock, who also performs on the track, delivers a more conventional rap verse but comes close to matching Lamar’s poetic perfection.
“The Art of Peer Pressure” describes Lamar’s escapades with “tha homies” leading him into situations in which he wouldn’t normally be. With effortless flow, he captures one night in the life of a young kid on the streets of L.A., getting into sticky situations like smoking weed, starting a gang fight and committing armed robbery. In M.A.A.D City, he tackles racial bias and the code of conduct in the ghettos: “When you hop on that trolley / Make sure your colors correct / Make sure you’re corporate or they’ll be calling your mother collect.” On the single from the album, “Swimming Pools,” Lamar talks about his uncle’s struggle with alcoholism using a mocking hyperbole: “Why you babysittin’ only two or three shots? / Imma show you how to turn it up a notch / First, you get a swimming pool full of liquor, then you dive in it.” The beat has wavering synths, sharp snares and a subdued bass to create a drunken beat.
Lamar’s beats, infused with soulful samples and classic hip-hop bass, are fresh and addictive. In a departure from conventional rap albums, Lamar adds in skits at the beginning and end of his tracks. These skits, sometimes funny, sometimes serious, sound like messages his friends have left on his phone.
Lamar is changing the rap game by inspiring emcees to add more substance to their music. You can sit back and enjoy the instrumentals, or focus on what he is saying and leave Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City equally satisfied. Whether you’re looking for music for partying or introspection, Lamar’s album is timely. Keep your ears and eyes on him as he continues to deliver ‘poetic justice’ to the genre of rap.