Is Kendrick Lamar (of Compton) the king of L.A. rap?
There's something about Compton and rap. Always has been -- since the days when Alonzo Williams conscripted a sequin-suited Dr. Dre into the World Class Wreckin' Cru. Despite not being a part of Los Angeles proper, the incorporated city in south Los Angeles County has long cultivated its own singular culture -- one felicitious to the rap life.
Most famously, Eric Wright recruited N.W.A. to turn the city into the most infamous mailing address in America, but less publicized is the city's second wave of West Coast Hall of Famers including DJ Quik, King Tee and Compton's Most Wanted. Today, Coolio may be remembered as a Chris Rock punchline and reality star, but less remembered is the Compton-bred rapper's work in the seminal crew WC and the Maad Circle.
During the last decade, as West Coast hip-hop faded into an afterthought for many, Compton produced the Game, the Southland's only platinum-selling star. As pop rap has held sway over the last few years, the city yielded Def Jam's Y.G. and the Cash Money-signed Tyga. But not since Jayceon Taylor first came along almost a decade ago has anyone emerged to capture the tough-to-win combination of love from the streets, blogs, and eveywhere in between quite like the CPT's Kendrick Lamar.
Earlier this week, Lamar released "Section 80" on local indie-rap imprint Top Dawg Entertainment, the label owned by fellow Black Hippy member Jay Rock. At the moment, it currently sits plush at No. 8 on the iTunes charts, ahead of Lady Gaga, Adele and Foster the People (but still behind Bon Iver; you can't win them all). It's an unprecedented achievement for the 24-year-old rapper, one that represents a gradual ascent based on several mixtapes, a kinetic live show and striking stylistic maturation.
When I first heard Lamar two years ago, he was rapping under the name K. Dot and remained in thrall to West Coast legend Kurupt. But there was no denying that his surly stacatto flow was leagues beyond most of his competition. See also: "Kurupted," his homage to the erstwhile Young Gotti. The buzz was that he was the next big thing, with rumors of lavish ghost-writing gigs and mass respect from his peers, but it took a minute.
It wasn't until last year's "O(verly) D(edicated)" that Lamar exploded into the top tier, earning national attention from the likes of MTV and every prominent rap blog. His performance at this year's Smoking Section/Nah Right showcase at South by Southwest was one of the year's most memorable.
At the time, I described it as reminiscent of a young Q-Tip, if Tip were raised in Compton ... with a "helium voice ... and bristling with the sort of homicidal rage of his Compton forebears." In Austin, when he blasted into "Look Out for Detox," the entire room started moshing, and the floor bent under the pressure.
Indeed, "Look out for Detox" confirmed his involvement on Dr. Dre's forever-delayed record -- and Snoop Dogg just tweeted that everyone should buy "Section 80." Agreed. And although undoubtedly swarmed by major label offers, Lamar has remained defiantly independent. His new record is not without commercial concessions (Colin Monroe's hook on "No Make Up" reeks of a crossover bid for the KIIS-FM crowd). But for the most part, "Section 80" retains the artistic integrity of the best mixtapes.
Listen to three Kendrick Lamar tracks from "Section 80" below (warning: adult language):
But if this were just 60 minutes of raps targeted toward the hard heads, it wouldn't achieve the same resonance. Lamar's openly admitted his love of Tupac, and though his music sounds distinct, he obviously aspires toward the same notions of universality. The record's first song is about his dreams for a colorblind society and his devotion to art. Yet though it could be unbearably corny in the hands of a lesser talent, Lamar's sincerity and conviction mirror Shakur's.
"Keisha's Song (Her Pain)" documents the life of a young, sexually abused women, a clear (and quite successful) attempt to write his own "Brenda's Got a Baby." The RZA-aided "Ronald Reagan Era" paints a portrait of the gunsmoke- and crack-ravaged Compton of his youth. Brave enough to take a bold risk, Ab-Soul's outro balances untethered raps and celestial saxophone licks that sound like something you might have heard on a Tribe Called Quest or Freestyle Fellowship record.
Throughout, Lamar raps like a man with fever visions. He's created a powerful record that stands as one of the best of the year. Everyone knew that he was ready for a close-up, but this is quite clearly the coronation.
-- Jeff Weiss