The musical genre of hip-hop is a unique animal. No other genre is as closely rooted to the spirit of its people of origin, in terms of the constantly evolving narratives, as is hip-hop. Don’t get me wrong, many genres of music reflect the mind state of large sects of people through its lyrics and even feel. But hip-hop is so much different. No other genre of music reflects people who created it more than hip-hop. Mos Def said on his Black On Both Sides album “People be asking all the time ‘Yo Mos, what’s getting’ ready to happen with hip-hop’ I tell em ‘You know what’s gonna happen with hip-hop? Whatever’s happening with us. If we smoked out, hip-hop is gonna be smoked out. If we alright hip-hop is gonna be alright’…hip-hop is going where we going…” And there it is ladies and gentlemen. That is a very profound statement that somehow has held very true since 1999 when Mos Def recorded that album. So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that since that time not only have the hip-hop’s people had a tough go, so has the genre itself. Hip-hop has not only suffered from declining record sales and profits, but now the business of the genre reflects the same glass half empty mentality. The hip-hop that people who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s knew is long gone. Rappers don’t take risks any more…either that or the labels themselves are too scared to take risks, and as a result all listeners of hip-hop have collectively suffered. Hip-hop listeners are given two options: Either A. listen to the music the manages to make it onto TV and radio that basically is only talking about the same predictable materialistic, misogynistic messages that while, granted, have always been a huge part of hip-hop, haven’t had THIS sort of monopoly on what the radio and TV outlets offer to the consumer. Or B. Listen to good music that is put out by artist whose labels give their albums no promotion or artists who release everything independently or via the internet and mixtape downloads. And while I honestly think that hip-hop has somewhat been devoid of any REALLY transcendent album from a major record label in the past few years that KanYe West isn’t heavily involved with (not complaining, I’m a fan of KanYe’s music), the year 2012 actually threw us a huge curve ball and gave us two: enter Nas’ Life Is Good and Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City.
I won’t waste your time by doing an “Album review” of either album because that’s been done time and time over throughout the past couple of weeks. But the reviews from most of the hip-hop magazines and blogs have all been pretty consistent; both of these are absolute stellar rap albums (http://tinyurl.com/cfrs7lv). What I find fascinating about these two albums is how they reveal that hip-hop has both grown and evolved, yet the things that made great hip-hop in the 80’s and 90’s are still very prevalent. You have two men here who represent very different sides of the game. Nas as the established veteran at 39 years of age (38 when he released the album) and one of the last remnants of New York’s dominate era in hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar, the young 25 year old making his first major label release, and probably the brightest star of the new West Coast hip-hop scene taking over the digital side of hip-hop. Life is Good is a great album, however it’s a unique album which makes it an important work in hip-hop, especially for Nas himself. Nas illustrates his own growth through his songs about his struggles as an aging rap star dealing with a teenage daughter, an ever changing socio-economic world, and a divorce from his ex-wife Kelis. Nas is our reminder that while the things that helped create the empire of hip-hop are hermetically sealed in time through magazines, albums and nostalgic artwork, that the figures who actually created that whole culture are actually growing old before us. Our hip-hop gods are actually in mid-life and going through mid-life stuff like generation gaps (with a younger generation), health issues, and tax problems. It’s humbling and reminds us of our own mortality…but it’s still truthful. And that is hip-hop. It was Russell Simmons who said that “Hip-hop was one’s truth”. Life Is Good is a transcendent album because Nas still does the things that made Nas great from his Illmatic days, but we see that this man has evolved throughout his career and still has something unique and introspective to show ALL fans of hip-hop.
Kendrick Lamar and his debut major label release Good Kid, m.A.A.D. City is truly a special moment in hip-hop. Not just in the recent history of hip-hop, but I will be bold enough to say in the overall scope of the genre, both Kendrick and this album will be transcendent. I confess, I was one of the people who heard GKMC and within about 3-4 listens was coining it a “Classic Ablum”…and I absolutely refuse to take it back. First off, Kendrick Lamar is truly a “Special” artist, quoting a tweet from Little Brother’s Big Pooh. The brother is right though, Kendrick has a lyrical ability and versatility that is unreal. I don’t know if there’s a cadence Kendrick can’t master. The people who’ve known about Kendrick for the last few years already know this. It’s in this fact that we see why GKMC is a special album. In the past decade or so, we’ve seen a number of rappers emerge with varying levels of talent, lyrically. The sad reality, especially as of the last 4-5 years, is that the major label album releases of many of these rappers are a real disappointment when compared to their own independently released albums or mixtapes (Big K.R.I.T., J-Cole, etc.). Which in all fairness to these artists is the fault of the record labels more than anything, but because they’re the artists they absorb ALL the criticism. This is what makes Kendrick’s GKMC so unique: this is one of the first times in a long while, that an artist’s lyrical talent shines and can’t really be suppressed by the record label. Kendrick overcame the record labels that have seemingly been trying to monopolize and pigeonhole hip-hop in this new generation. This album, for what it’s worth, is the proverbial anomaly in the Matrix. This album is Kendrick Lamar’s “truth”. A young man in Compton California, dealing with the problems of wanting to fit in with his peers, but also that subconscious yearning to have a life that has a greater purpose. Kendrick Lamar is a young brother that, like ALL of us, has many layers. But unlike most of his contemporaries in hip-hop, has an ability to voice those thoughts in a way that requires the type of honesty of a person lying on a therapist’s couch. And to really put the narrative of this album in perspective are the interludes with the voicemails of his parents fussing at him for not being back with the van…front for social media all you want, I know this struggle, I listen to Kenrick’s parents talking and think “Ive heard these words from my own parents”. Good Kid, m.A.A.d City is not just an emotionally involved lyrical piece of work…the joint rocks, quite frankly. Kendrick, and his camp, have a great ear for what makes a great hip-hop record. Whether that record is going to make it on the commercially driven radio, or whether it’s too high-minded for people like Debra Lee to put on her network because of the fear it might soar over the heads of its less savvy listeners. Kendrick Lamar flies in the face of people like Debra Lee who don’t think that her audience will embrace more introspective hip-hop. A number of hip-hop legends made their mark on the game simply with a classic first album (Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Nas’ Illmatic, Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor), and this album by Mr. Kendrick Lamar is no different, and you will be hearing a lot from this young man for years to come, God willing. We are now in the era of Kendrick and this hip-hop fan couldn’t feel any better about. Rumble young man rumble.
2012 is a special time in hip-hop. Ironically, it was Nas who, in 2006, created an album saying “Hip-hop is Dead”. It’s only be fitting that Mr. Nasir Jones be involved in “exhuming the body” in the words of OutKast’s Big Boi. I really don’t care about labels like “Classic” because they’re mostly relative to how much you know about the whole of any musical genre. But for what it’s worth, Nas’ Life Is Good and Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City are the two best hip-hop albums, not just in 2012, but probably for about the past 4-5 years. The beauty of these two albums being released in the same year is the way in which it allows a bridge in what seems to be a growingly divergent generational gap in the actual fans of hip-hop music. The older and the younger fans of hip-hop both have something to be proud of as well as, maybe, learning something from the other side. To my younger hip-hop heads; I encourage you to take a moment to listen to Life Is Good. Depending on how long you’ve been a fan of hip-hop, I would imagine you all have varying degrees of reverence for Nas and his place in this hip-hop game. Either way, take notice of this album young folks. Nas has been one of the pillars of hip-hop since 1994 where Illmatic was one of the lone voices taking New York hip-hop to a higher place during an era where west coast music was firmly in control of the rap game. Nas has always been willing to be a dissenting voice in the genre and, throughout his career, has challenged the people who dare to listen. There’s a reason that he gets to be around doing albums and shows at 38-39 years of age. Fine wine gets better with age, and Nasir Jones is the example of what we should DEMAND out of our current young rappers; to challenge themselves and take risks. The impact on this whole hip-hop world is so much bigger, in the long run when our artists aren’t afraid to voice their truth, even when they KNOW we may not relate to them. Young folks, if nothing else, just have this album and maybe come back to it once you’ve graduated from college or have your first child. You’ll see that even in this young man’s game, there’s a lot of room to grow and make the music bigger than just what you say. To my hip-hop old heads: Trust me on this one, give Kendrick Lamar a chance. I’m not gonna sit here and try to draw some parallel between GKMC and some classic joint that came out in ’93…because I don’t have to. Greatness will stand on its own and Kendrick stands on his own. Even his independent album Section.80 is worth a critical listen. The young man has a very good grasp on what it means to be able to express his truth. And for those of you doubting his ability to make a classic album because of his age or experience In the game, don’t forget, Nas’ classic Illmatic was released when Nas was 18. Kendrick is 25 now, that’s a weak argument. This hip-hop thing is isn’t dead, so don’t let your own sense of hip-hop elitism cause you to miss out on this truly remarkable young man and his remarkable story and talent. We are the ones who remember when Compton dominated rap music. Kendrick (with some help from the rest of his Black Hippy crew, Dom Kennedy, MURS, Fashawn, etc.) is bringing the west coast all the way back with quality music. Don’t get left behind because your nose was turned up too far to notice the massive new movement taking place right underneath you.