From Dr. Dre's game-changing gangsta ride-out music to the Roots' death-of-street rap concept album
The mythos of the creative struggle adds another layer to a pop-music classic: Brian Wilson in the sandbox; the Stones arguing over everything holed up in a chateau; Bowie coked-out in Berlin; Rick Rubin making rap history from his NYU dorm; Dilla, dying in a hospital bed. The story behind Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.D. city is a very special, though quite different, against-all-odds tale: Young Compton MC transcends the blog-rap bubble, avoids every pitfall of the major-label rap album, and comes up with an unabashed, uncompromising concept album that sold 240,000 copies its first week out. How did this happen? good kid, m.A.A.D city builds on the past 20 or so years of deeply personal and personality-driven capital-A albums. Without the 10 records listed below, it is hard to imagine Kendrick's instant classic arriving unscathed.
Dr. Dre, The Chronic (1992)
O.C.D. studio production techniques killed rock music in the '80s. But those same, super-clean, studio-rat, session-musician impulses changed hip-hop by way of The Chronic. Dr. Dre's ear for catchy hooks — he may be the only songwriter to actually improve upon the choruses he sampled — grabbed mainstream listeners' ears, but the confident professionalism of The Chronic kept people engaged. It was lively yet considered, and had none of hip-hop's often oppressive grit and grime. On good kid, Dre is responsible for mixing and gets an "executive producer" credit, bringing that same production flourish-obsessed ear to Kendrick's concept album, calling attention to resonant rolling bass lines, and making sure every snare is impeccably crisp. The participation of Dre also enables Kendrick to reject the more base and violent aspects of gangsta rap and get away with it. He has the creator of The Chronic's approval to flip the Compton rap script.
Coolio, It Takes a Thief (1994)
Ignore what you pops into your mind when Coolio's name comes up in 2012, and consider how much of a shock-of-the-new he was when 1994's "Fantastic Voyage" arrived. It was a splashy utopian party song from a guy who didn't take himself too seriously, and also made sure to include a sense that gang violence was hovering around the periphery of the party. His single was mindful escapism instead of mindless escapism. "There ain't no Bloodin' / There ain't no Crippin' / Ain't no punk-ass set trippin'" is like an inverted version of "m.A.A.d city"s rallying cry, "If Pirus and Crips all got along / They'd probably gun me down by the end of this song.” SPIN's Christopher Weingarten told me this: "People seem to forget that Kendrick's whole 'from-the-L.A.-streets-but-not-of-the-L.A.-streets' was basically Coolio's lane in the 90s." Not to mention, Coolio was a member of WC & the Maad Circle, which Kendrick's album title references.
Project Blowed, Project Blowed (1994)
The other half of '90s Los Angeles hip-hop history, its roots in after-hours, health-food-store get-togethers rather than the scary streets of Compton. That's not to say Project Blowed were oppositional like the "backpack rap" that came later in the decade, because their oily, Ornette Coleman lyricism is also worlds away from Public Enemy, Brand Nubian, and other po-faced East Coast revolutionary rappers. The goal of Project Blowed — a collective that included Abstract Rude, Aceyalone, Freestyle Fellowship, and many others — was ambitious: Push rap lyricism past its breaking point. When Kendrick swallows his own voice and spits it back up as squawk, gives his conscience the timbre of an autistic space alien, or just plain locates new ways to say the same ol' shit ("With dreams of being a lawyer or a doctor / Instead of a boy with a chopper, holding the cul de sac hostage"), he bears the influence of Project Blowed. The collective's 1994 compilation is evidence that Los Angeles wasn't only ground-zero for gangsta rap. good kid, m.A.A.d city cleverly mashes-up the free spirit of Blowed and the down-to-earth street reportage of Compton hip-hop.
OutKast, Aquemini (1998)
The sensitive, street-enough persona Kendrick Lamar exhibits was already perfected on Aquemini stand-out "Da Art of Storytelling Pt. 1." Andre 3000 details an evening of summer fun as a teen with a girl named Sasha, who interrupts the idyllic hanging out with a little too much reality: "We're on our back staring at the stars above / Talking about what we gonna be when we grow up / I said, 'What you wanna be?,' she said, 'Alive' / It made me think for a minute, then looked in her eyes / I could've died." A few years later, Three Stacks hears of Sasha's overdose. What Kendrick does is follow in this tradition of off-setting hood lectures with well-wrought empathy, and bravely allows himself to appear in over his head. Bravely, he bends his Andre influence on itself, challenging the however-well-intentioned decision to turn a person from his youth into a character in one of his songs. The second verse of "Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst" is from the perspective of Keisha's sister — Keisha was the topic of Section.80 track “Keisha's Song (Her Pain)” — taking Kendrick to task for subjectivizing and editorializing her sister's life. It's Sasha's from-the-grave revenge.
Prince Paul, A Prince Among Thieves (1999)
good kid obsessives a too caught up in the details of the album's day-in-the-life narrative are missing the point — every rap album is a concept album. Meanwhile, anybody who wishes the skits on good kid weren't there at all is just very very dense. Skit-haters will surely find A Prince Among Thieves nothing but an endurance test, but hell, they should have to listen to this one at least once, because there isn't a better case for skit-as-song/song-as-skit album-sequencing than this one. Prince Paul's rap opera arrived at about the time that the rap skit had become bastardized and was just another part of the way-too-long, hip-hop album formula. good kid looks back to Paul's vision of the rap skit as dramatic tool and occasional mood-lightener. And the select few guest appearances from those outside Kendrick's circle (Pharrell sounding like a Bond villain on "Good Kid"; MC Eiht as a blast from the gangsta rap past on "M.a.a.d City"; Dre as the god of West Coast rap looking down at everybody else on "Compton") have that same cameo quality as A Prince Among Thieves when Big Daddy Kane or Kid Creole suddenly appear for a few bars.
Kanye West, College Dropout (2004)
Both Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar use skits in a knowing, post-'90s rap way, locating their initial Prince Paul, Wu-Tang, etc. power and charm. While skits on The College Dropout hold the album together and justify some of its indulgences — there is a moment when two skits play back-to-back on Kanye's album and it shouldn't work, but somehow it does — Kendrick uses skits to slow down the flow of his album. Seeing as how the Internet has compared good kid to The Great Gatsby (for serious!), here goes another pretentious comparison. good kid's skits are like the footnotes in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: Seemingly unnecessary indulgences there to reflect the interruption-prone reality of day-to-day life, especially when you come from somewhere like crime-ravaged Compton. The skits mess with good kid's momentum, and delay simple, song-followed-by-song rewards. They remind you that this thing's important. Another similarity: 2004 Kanye and 2012 Kendrick avoid loud, cloying hooks. Easy-to-sing simple melodies, like the ones on "Spaceship" and "Slow Jamz," are similar to "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" and "Swimming Pool (Drank)." Those songs feel like homemade pop, thought up at 2 A.M. on a long car ride, not cobbled together by committee. Even casual listeners, I think, can sense and appreciate the difference.
Young Jeezy, Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101 (2005)
At the end of "Art of Peer Pressure," Kendrick's buddies quote Young Jeezy's "Trap Or Die" ("Last time I checked, I was the man on these streets!"). It's a novelistic detail that dates the events of good k.i.d (2004/2005-ish), along with a reference to Ciara playing when he meets Sherane, and Usher's "Let It Burn" being mentioned on "Money Trees." Popular music is often soundtracking Kendrick's exploits, and the Jeezy quote speaks to one of the album's themes: The transformative potential of hip-hop. "Money Trees" also finds Kendrick admiring E-40 ("Earl Stevens had us thinking rational") and on the final track, "Compton," he explains how rap, even of the "gangsta" variety, can change minds for the better: "Now we can all celebrate / We can all harvest the rap artists of N.W.A / America target our rap market, it's controversy and hate / Harsh realities we in made our music translate / To the coke dealers, the hood rich, and the broke niggas that play." The point here is that hip-hop's shabby, lawless roots have nonetheless led to lasting, inspirational music. Isn't that what Jeezy's whole motivational-speaker-of-rap persona is all about?
G-Side, Starshipz & Rocketz (2008)
Kendrick Lamar comes out of a rap scene that's spent the past half-a-decade or so kicking against clueless major labels, doing things on its own terms, and obsessively working rap blogs. We've had some groaner major-label debuts (Wale's Attention Deficit, Yelawolf's Radioactive), and albums that felt like victories because they sounded enough like mixtapes (Curren$y's Warner Brothers releases, Big K.R.I.T.'s Live From the Underground), and, of course, too many excellent mixtapes to count. Kendrick's major-label debut happened because of those albums, and promotes the values of what I've called "the New Underground," best represented by groups that never touched a major label, like G-Side. When Kendrick's mom and dad — who, over the course of the album, move from from comic figures to flawed, caring people — espouse local utopian ideals at the end of "Real," it's the same as G-Side's boot-straps-meets-revolution-baiting hip-hop pronouncements. And good kid's spaced-out production, just a few steps removed from radio rap, has a great deal in common with that of G-Side's in-house beatmakers the Block Beattaz — cinematic, off-kilter samples, ornately hazy bangers, and somehow not-awkward for-the-ladies, slow-enough slow jams.
Drake Take Care (2011)
Drake's Take Care formally introduced Kendrick Lamar to the mainstream, though it was almost entirely on Kendrick's terms. "Buried Alive (Interlude)" was a helium-voiced yammer investigating fame's trappings, casually castigating Drake for getting wrapped up in that fame, while sticking out because of the sheer rapping ability and obnoxious WTF-ness of its delivery. So, Drake returns the favor by not being too much of a creep on "Poetic Justice," and probably giving Kendrick a radio single in a few months. More importantly, good kid piggybacks on Take Care's basic sound: Hip-hop signifiers glued together by globs of moody synthesizers and a hipster-savvy sense of experimental production. When a doomy bass riff slices "The Art of Peer Pressure" in two, or an endlessly echoed Weeknd-esque voice wordlessly coos on "Sherane," it is because of the quasi-footwork intro of "Crew Love" or the rainy-day sounds ringing through the title track, "Take Care." This album prepped young peoples' ears for good kid. And though trauma from smoking a PCP-laced joint isn't as obnoxious as complaining about having too much sex, Kendrick has more than enough of Drizzy's ability to puff minor problems into life-altering tragedies, as well.
The Roots, undun (2011)
Last year, thanks to the warts-and-all vision of the rap game and the crack game from groups like G-Side and Main Attrakionz, the folksy values of Big K.R.I.T., Stalley, and others, it seemed as though street rap was being challenged and contorted; it's visceral power rejected, or at least adjusted. It was an interesting quasi-trend that you could extend to more above-ground art like ultraviolent, anti-tough guy flick Drive and the Roots' tenth studio album, undun, a kind-hearted, but nevertheless no-nonsense re-evaluation of a life-of-crime concept album, one year before good k.i.d. undun's major flaw may be that it's not a very fun listen, that it's a piece of art-rap-soul, like Donny Hathaway's Extension of a Man meets Common's Like Water for Chocolate. Kendrick says the same thing as the Roots, with less NPR-ready sophistication, more hooks (though the Roots "Lighthouse" should've been a radio single), and a happy ending, which always broadens the appeal. I mean, as Noz pointed out in SPIN's review, good kid all but turns into a Roots album during it's third act, with "Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst" and "Real" doing the sprawling neo-soul uplifting-spirit rap jams the Roots have done so well for two decades now.