The Revenge of Autobiographical Rap

Kendrick Lamar's stellar debut good kid, m.A.A.d. city shows a talented rapper talking about his own struggles forthrightly. In hip-hop these days, that fact makes it radical.

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Fact vs. Fiction: Kendrick Lamar and Rick Ross (AP Images)

The Notorious B.I.G. said it best: "I got a story to tell." Autobiography—the true, unforgiving, sometimes-hard-to-swallow stories—has always been central to hip-hop's narrative. Early on, acts like Eric B. & Rakim offered street portraiture like few could. "I was a fiend before I became a teen/ I melted microphone instead of cones of ice cream," Rakim declared, drawing parallels between his affinity for rap and the crack-ravaged urban communities of 1980s New York City. For another generation, it was 2Pac and B.I.G., vanguards to a definitive era in music history, titans who chronicled black manhood with a steely bravado. "Birthdays was the worst days/ Now we sip champagne when we thirst-ay," B.I.G. rapped before going out in a haze of bullets and blood. Jay-Z, who thugged his way through, soon filled the void with a new era of hip-hop cool: "I'm not a businessman / I'm a business, man." There have been others: Eminem, the prodigious rapping rarity, and Kanye West, who rhapsodizes with equal parts machismo and vulnerability. Add to the list 25-year-old Kendrick Lamar who, with the release of good kid, m.A.A.d. city earlier this week, enters the storied league of rap autobiographers.

The last truly autobiographical rap album to rank high on Billboard's year-end Top 200 was Game's The Documentary in 2005 at No. 16.

On Monday the headlines poured in: Grantland called good kid "the best rap album of the year" and Billboard.com proclaimed it "surpasses the unprecedented anticipation with its compelling, lucid storytelling." Good kid is everything the critics have labeled it: poetic and haunting, a clear-eyed tale of a young black kid navigating the trappings of Compton, the predominantly African American enclave made notorious by pioneering rap camp N.W.A. A parable of trying to survive a neighborhood divided by colors and a city too caught up in its own vanity to care what happens to you, it's Los Angeles portraiture as it should be: raw, unflinching, flawed. That good kid exists, and has been so well received by those both within the hip-hop world and out, is a wonder. (Super producer Pharrell recently likened Lamar to Bob Dylan). Lamar deals in grim truth, a product not always easy to digest—or sell. Today in hip-hop, this feels almost like a radical shift, and artists like Lamar, J. Cole, Blu, and Big KRIT serve as a correction to Rick Ross-like rap as fiction.

Earlier this year, on assignment for Vibe, I spoke with Lamar. He was in LA putting the finishing touches on his yet unnamed debut. He'd been in the booth for hours and finally returned my call after three attempts to get in contact. Toward the end of our interview I pressed him about the album, but he said little: "It's my story. My truth." It was a simple testimony that left me wanting more. I now see what he meant all those months ago. The album's most telling moments come during the interludes that offer small windows into the inner workings of Lamar's life. As "Sing About Me" comes to an end, he invites the listener into good kid's most chilling scene. "The homey brother, he gone! ... They just killed the homey brother," a voice yells into a phone; another voice, frantic and pained, is then heard screaming, "Fuck I'm tired of this shit! I'm tired of running!" It's a heartbreaking moment of clarity that encapsulates the near-hell from which Lamar has had to rise from.

Presented by

Jason Parham is the editor of Spook. His work has appeared in Vibe, the Village Voice, and on GQ.com.

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