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.
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.
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.