October 25, 2012 - 1:25pm
BY RAY MALO
Two of the most intelligent, focused rappers in the game dropped new records on Monday. So I spent some of Tuesday trying to explain the beauty of hip hop to my dad again (who believes me, but understandably can’t get past the frequent ugly misogyny). Which isn’t to say I believe he should start with either Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city or P.O.S.’s We Don’t Even Live Here, but simply that, by dismissing an entire genre, he’s missing some true gems. It’s far too ambitious to begin at Hip-Hop 101, so here Pop, check out Black Star’s “Astronomy (8th Light).”
Anyway, these two records. So far, Kendrick’s debut album on Interscope has deservedly hogged most of the attention. But I’ll start with Minneapolis’s P.O.S., who recently cancelled his tour because he needs a kidney transplant (Pulling for you, dude.).
We Don’t Even Live Here has a clear mission statement, which P.O.S. declares early on the anti-materialism second track, “Fuck Your Stuff”: “We genuinely believe that all your shit is fake.” The song, and the record thereafter, oozes a confidence attributed to his unflinching belief that he is right. Shit is fake these days.
P.O.S. is an engaging rapper and excellent lyricist, but his most impressive quality comes from his hardcore and punk background: he can put together tunes, not just rhymes. He writes verses in a traditional sense, within the context of pop song structure. Songs with more traditional instrumentation, especially “They Can’t Come” and “How We Land” (the latter featuring vocals from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon) are the album’s musical highlights.
But alas, the album’s production is inconsistent and leans heavily towards electro, particularly on the second side. It’s not a match with P.O.S.’s rap style or, frankly, anyone’s. It seems a move indicative of a smart musician too fascinated with the intense (but ultimately lowest common denominator) dubstep beats that inexplicably remain in vogue in mainstream hip hop. Somewhere in there, his mission statement becomes lost in the bass womps.
Kendrick Lamar’s debut does not share this problem. Prominently featuring tasteful samples from the likes of Beach House and Janet Jackson, good kid, m.A.A.d city is a beast musically: a great record for a windows up, deeply reflective nighttime drive.
But to focus too heavily on the stunning production would be to risk missing the stories. Kendrick’s rowdy teen years in gang-riddled Compton take center stage and, from a serendipitous phone call from mom that prevents bloody confrontation to having his racially-profiled neck stepped on, the good kid in a mad city has much to say.
Still, it’s a difficult and at times abrasive record, with subject matter that’s hard to sort through. Scrawled on the album cover below its title is “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar.” Like a talented filmmaker, he has a knack for showing, not telling, but a casual listener may conclude that this is more of the same old Gangsta Rap.
Kendrick’s parents make several cameos throughout the album, in the form of the sort of drawn-out, oft humorous voicemails I get from my mom twice a week. On “Real,” the beautifully reflective track that should close out the album (before Dre reminds us that he’s just a guy who makes outdated beats and overpriced headphones), Kendrick’s mom tells him, “Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let them know you was just like them, but you rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person.”
Be proud, mama. Unlike the hyper-violent West Coast Gangsta Rap scene that precedes him, songs like “Poetic Justice” make it clear that Kendrick approaches this heavy subject matter with the thoughtfulness of a kid raised right: “I write poems in these songs dedicated to you when / You’re in the mood for empathy, there’s blood in my pen.” Kendrick has been there, he’s thankful he got out, and he hopes the next kid will be as fortunate.