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.
It's important then to understand Lamar's relationship to Miami rap giant Rick Ross. Or, more importantly, what both men represent: fact versus fiction.
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Lamar stands opposite Ross, situating his album in the tradition of Biggie's Ready to Die and Nas's Illmatic—autobiography tempered with deep awareness. In 2010, on "The Heart Pt. 2," he raps: "I pray these bars get farther than Compton/ And if my record never break, I still wont break my promise/ I promise to keep it honest." In the context of the song, the line is a forgettable one, but consummate Kendrick—matter-of-fact and bare-boned, minimal flair. Lamar arises out of a long tradition, and the success of his debut could alter our understanding of what a hit record can be in 2012 (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). Hip-hop, in part, has always been about aspiration, about making it up and out. Good kid, then, serves as a cautionary tale of sorts, a prequel to the story of Kendrick Lamar Rap Star. And more than anything, it's proof that staying true to who you are and where you come from, however painful, can prove a powerful choice.
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