The first time that you see “Boyz N The Hood” you can’t help it: you are automatically captivated by the character played by Ice Cube. Doughboy is a 100% true, faithful representation of the archetype of the gangsta boy: he spends his days out on the street, has no great aspirations for the future, hustles to survive, and he looks set to become the father of a bunch of sons spread out all over the neighbourhood; he’s stuck on the bottle, cannon fodder for a drive-by, and his favourite sport is sitting on the porch of his house watching life go by. But when you grow up and you watch the film again, you start to understand that the most complex, fascinating figure in the film is Tre (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.), the other side of the coin, the neighbourhood kid with ambition who wants to get out of the ghetto and who constantly debates between staying true to his roots, to his group of gangsta friends, to the way of life in the “hood”, and getting out, integrating into society and staying away from violence and danger. Tre is the embodiment of good and evil and how it isn’t easy to keep a balance without feeling like you are wasting your life or betraying your essence.
“Good kid, m.A.A.d city”, Kendrick Lamar’s multinational debut, has a similar plot and, in fact, seems to be a revision of it updated to 2012, but this time the story is the first-person account of a good boy who makes his way into the dangers and temptations of a crazy city (the title says it all) accompanied by his friends and neighbourhood buddies. This is Lamar’s own story, the story of his artistic rise, but also of his trajectory as a young man concerned about the moral dichotomy that forces him to choose between the straight and narrow and belonging to conflictive, not very recommendable surroundings. This character’s existential “film” starts when he decides to take his mother’s van and run off, a journey that ends up leading him, in the final section of the album, to a mature, serene redemption in homage to all of those homeboys who have become successful and attained some sort of personal glory beyond the confines of the hood.
The value of “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” lies not only in its concept or the story that it tells to bring it to life, but especially in how Lamar materialises his ideas. This album is very lucid, surprising for the debut of such a young rapper: it’s as if it were a personal obsession. The songs sound compact, unified and coherent, even evoking the mood and situations mentioned in the lyrics of each song. It isn’t a conceptual album only in the sense that there is a story that holds it all together, but rather because everything, down to the smallest detail, makes sense in the story, without excuses, without anything out of place, without filler or songs shoehorned in - only a couple of minor episodes are out of context. Lamar recruits very different producers - from Just Blaze to Pharrell, including Hit-Boy, Sounwave, T-Minus and Tha Bizness - but he doesn’t fall prey to the temptation of a consensus album or a compilation of the hottest sound trends, the tired currency of today’s mainstream and midstream. Instead, he gets them all to adapt to the needs of his project. And the sum of it all ends up resulting in this idea that’s been cooking for the last couple of years in the collective that he himself leads, Black Hippy: the forging of a sound that is faithful to certain features of West Coast rap, but restless enough to capture the zeitgeist of the moment and cross borders and geographical or scene backgrounds.
But if the debut’s musical proposal is amazing in its brilliance, creativity, and sense of modernity applied to hip hop, its lyrical contribution and the construction of the episodes that shape this particular documentary about ghetto life will have few rivals when it comes time to judge the best of 2012. “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” is based on a theme that is unusual in the area of hip hop: constant doubt about oneself and one’s actions. It is the driving force behind this story, which is, after all, an honest, free exorcising of the author’s own demons; he has used this album to free himself and start from zero. “Sherane A.K.A. Master Splinters Daughter” opens the curtains and lays the groundwork for the story: a Compton boy is beset by moral dilemmas and has decided to run away and head into the more dangerous side of the city, with all of its consequences. Night-time partying, criminal acts, addiction to alcohol, a distant relationship with his girlfriend, bad life in the big city and gangbanger friends are part of a general excuse that also has other undercurrents in Lamar’s intelligent, emotional lyrics: it’s also a metaphor for his own artistic future, linked to Aftermath and Dr. Dre. We have the obsession with reaching the mainstream without betraying the essence and the keys of his discourse, like in “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”, a reflection on hip hop today; “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst”, twelve minutes of stunning lyrical beauty; a demystifying and normalisation of violence in “The Art Of Peer Pressure”, my favourite of the bunch, or “M.A.A.D. City”, with MC Eith, another detail in the string of tributes to and declarations of eternal love for his neighbourhood.
With a talented, chameleonic flow, Lamar’s style, as well as his ability to tell stories, are contemporary in the best possible sense of the word: they give a feeling of breaking ground and freshness to West Coast rap, picking up an entire existential tradition and a series of habits and routines that are very defined in Los Angeles and universalising them, also fomenting the illusion of a rap with a geographical context, but without style limitations. But this is done with ingenuity, emotion and intensity, three indispensable characteristics for understanding the greatness of this album and the weakness of many of its competitors. It is an imperfect album, weighed down by two or three songs that don’t entirely fit in with the world and tone created –“Compton” is a powerful beat from Just Blaze, but it doesn’t make sense in the more night-time, melancholy dynamic of the album - but this is probably one of the five best albums that we’ll hear all year. It’s impossible not to get excited by or be impressed with such a precise, imaginative display of talent.