I was gonna write y’all another episode of my adventures in the bay area’s hip-hop clearance racks, but I recently stumbled upon an album that is too good not to write about. Formerly known as K. Dot, Compton’s Kendrick Lamar released his debut, self titled EP this past new year’s eve. It’s doper than a Bobby Brown piss test (thanks again Mr. Hicks), and it’s still available for free on his myspace, so make sure to cop it immediately. Whenever West Coast rap is praised it always seems to be due to the honesty involved in the lyrics. Being “real as fuck” is apparently our bread and butter. At first it was the unheard of level of anger, angst, and violence presented by Ice T, NWA, and Pac. Yet unfortunately that realism transformed into fantastical and out of this world boasts that became so formulaic, that the majority of Gangster Rap became more boring than listening to Tim Duncan speak. Luckily, a new trend in realism has been taking hold in the Left Coast, and it is just as powerful and moving as the music from the early 90’s. Instead of letting listeners know what it’s like to be the hardest gangster, or the most money hungry drug dealer, or the most heartless pimp, or how much they just don’t give a fuck, this new movement of West Coast MC’s are telling the honest tale of what it’s like being a genuinely good person trying to get by in some of America’s most dangerous hoods. Really this trend in California spitters has roots as far back as the Hieroglyphics crew (check out Del’s, I Wish My Brother George Was Here, ya dig), but more recently the rebirth of this style really took hold with Blu and Exile’s, Below The Heavens. After that, names like Pac Div, UNI, Diz Gibran and Fashawn started to get thrown around a lot more frequently, and hopefully after reading this, you will add Kendrick Lamar to the top of your list.
Kendrick has been building his name in the Los Angeles area with Jay Rock and the rest of Top Dawg Entertainment for the past few years. As many can imagine due to his affiliation with Jay Rock, his public career started with him building his skills around the standard array of gangster boasts. Yet he stood out from the rest due to his unorthodox flow, and far better than average word play. Then, to paraphrase one of his recent interview responses, he woke up one day and realized that in order to progress further he needed to stop forcing himself to fit into the standard definition of a rapper, and start using his rhymes to express who he really is. After that K.Dot became Kendrick, and his lyrics took a much more personal and honest tone. Let’s all give thanks, because for those of you who have felt the urge to punch Blu in the face for releasing nothing but glorified horse shit since Below The Heavens , or wished that Fashawn had some better punchlines, or felt that UNI is way too fucking hipster to actually give a chance, The Kendrick Lamar EP will once again restore your faith in this “I ain’t a killa but don’t push me” sub genre of rap.
Lyrically Kendrick reminds me a lot of Elzhi. Although he almost always is rapping about something specific, he never lets the subject detract from his punchlines, metaphors, and relentless flow. It’s a good combo, because not only do you feel like you are hearing a diversity of thought provoking and intellectually valuable tracks, but the motherfucker is ripping the mic the entire album. On “Vanity Slaves”, Kendrick gives his own take on why members of the inner city community spend money so irresponsibly. He draws the connection to the complete lack of opportunity or valuable personal property available during the years of slavery, and as a result of that, the black community is now involuntarily overcompensating by obtaining as many tangible signs of wealth as possible. While the song doesn’t convince me that buying a diamond encrusted emblem of a weed leaf or some 26” rims is a good idea if you don’t own a home, the thesis is praiseworthy, and the mic work is full of raw passion and emotion, yet still somehow comes off as polished as well. Yet for those of you who arn’t necessarily trying to listen to an academic essay over beats, don’t trip. There is plenty of other shit on the album. On “P & P”, one of my favorite tracks, Kendrick and fellow Top Dawg Ent member, Ab Soul, explain that when life gets them down, the quickest way to forget is some pussy and patron. On “I Wanna Be Heard” Mr. Lamar professes his love for writing bars, and the frustration felt in not having the opportunity to share his craft with the world, despite knowing he spits heat like an Australian summer. By no means is it a new subject, but on this track Kendrick’s talent is undeniable, and his personality really shines. Paired with a beat reminiscent of Exile or Madlib, this might be the song I find myself listening to the most. Finally Kendrick still leaves room to show he can simply spit better than anyone else on “Thanksgiving”. Little Brother’s Big Pooh tries to hold his own alongside Lamar, but fails to come close to the lyrical ability or excitement that Kendrick provides.
Yet despite my over the top praise for Kendrick’s debut, he does leave room for improvement. Choosing to sing rather than rap over Jake One’s infectious head nodder on “Far From Here” was a bad decision and a waste of one of the best beats on the project. “I Do This”, which features Jay Rock, could be cool, but the chorus is mad corny, and there are also a couple of lines that are way too reminiscent of Weezy for my blood. Yet more importantly it just doesn’t seem to mesh well with the rest of album. Yet the one song I always skip is “She Needs Me”. I hate the fact that every rapper, no matter how ugly they are or what kind of music they are trying to make, feels like they need to have a song about their unparalleled ability to make bitches drop their skirts on every CD they do. While this isn’t quite a fair description of “She Needs Me”, I could give two fucks about the perfect women who despite all odds needs to be with Kendrick Lamar.
Finally there could definitely be better production. The majority of the beats are handled by Sounwave, and although the instrumental to “Celebration” is ill, without Kendrick’s outstanding lyrical performance, many of the beats wouldn’t merit much more than a listen or two. Still, although he only contributed two beats, King Blue from the Sore Losers deserves some recognition. I’ve never heard of him or the Sore Losers before, but the instrumentals to “Faith” and “P & P” are tight as fuck. Yet in a perfect world I would love to see a collaboration album between Kendrick and Pac Div’s in house producer Swiff D. Kendrick needs a producer like Swiff who can match his creativity, energy, and passion. There are hints of this on the EP such as “I Wanna Be Heard”, but unfortunately I feel like a lot of the production still leaves something to be desired.
At one time in my life all I did was listen to West Coast rap, and do research on who was going to be the next from Cali to blow. When my favorite rappers started to change their styles to be more accessible to the main stream and still failed to gain recognition, I lost faith and only spent a small fraction of my listening time on artists from my home state. After four years of apathy, the Kendrick Lamar EP has brought back my interest in Cali’s up and coming talent. For that, I am overwhelmingly grateful, but even if my renewed interest in the West Coast underground dissipates, Kendrick Lamar is a name I will from this day on, always look for.