The Troubadour Of Compton
"Imagine a gang on each corner in a 30-block radius, feuding in a pot," says hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar. "Imagine me being dead center of this feud. That was the lifestyle since day one. A lot of my family members fell victim. A lot of people are in prison, incarcerated for life. A lot of people are in the grave, because of this small city, this boiling pot of colors really just took over."
Lamar is talking about Compton, the suburb of Los Angeles where he was born. It's also the cradle of gangster rap.
Crips, Bloods, and everything in between inform his first major label album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city. But his is a new kind of Compton tale, one about dodging all of the bullets and gang pressure and using creativity as both a shield and a weapon. "I represent that culture of gangster rap, but I'm doing it my way," says Lamar, 25. "I'm retelling a story of a kid trying his best to escape the temptations of the city and of the gang culture … rather than just glorifying it."
In other words, he made a gangsta rap album to deconstruct the genre, one Vibe magazine called album of the year for 2012. New York Times critic Jon Caramanica compared Lamar to a breakout indie rock artist in the '90s, "tapping in to a reserve of commercial, anticentrist sentiment and proving that the market is flexible enough to accommodate dissent." The record had the biggest release of 2012 by a male hip-hop artist, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and selling almost 250,000 copies in its first week—in the first quarter of 2013, it was approaching a million copies sold.
Much of good kid sounds familiar to fans of leaned-back, West Coast gangsta rap, but beneath the swagged-out surface is a sober, rebelliously introspective declaration of independence. The G-funk-flavored track called "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe," for example, is Lamar's warning to anyone trying stop him from expressing his innermost feelings. There's a lot of darkness and relatable fear at play on the album, but Lamar says there were plenty of positives in his real life, too. Both of his parents kept a close eye on him. His father gave him a thorough education in West Coast hip-hop. And one sunny L.A. day, his dad bolted through the door, snatched up Kendrick and ran around the corner with him to where most of the neighborhood was gathered. Kendrick's father put him on his shoulders so he could watch as Dr. Dre and Tupac filmed an early version of their video together—for "California Love." "That was the first time seeing Dr. Dre," Lamar says. "The next time I saw him in person was 15 years later. I was in the studio with him."
Dr. Dre executive-produced good kid and appears on the track "Compton." Symbolically, he's passing the torch. Rap group N.W.A and its members including the late Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre crafted captivating stories in the late '80s about warring young gang members and put Compton on the cultural map. Lamar represents the city's pivot with a story about one of its sons who thought deep and thrived.
"Compton has been inspiring," Lamar says of the locale that was, according to FBI stats, California's deadliest (80 murders) in 1987, the year he was born. "There are so many thoughts of being scared of failure when you're trying something there. And that's what holds a lot of people back—when you're stuck in this position, when you're constantly seeing negative things and you want to do something positive but you're scared that it might not work. I believed I could make an example for those around me—once I did and I started seeing some type of results, it made me believe I could represent the whole city."
Part of Lamar's talent is revealing his hometown not only as the birthplace of gang culture but as the epicenter of a broader kind of culture. His heart is with his city, but his head's someplace more worldly. The concept takes flight in Lamar's video for his song "Backseat Freestyle." It's shot in Compton and Paris. The lyrics ("Respect my mind or die from lead shower") fit perfectly into good kid, m.A.A.d. city's duality. And in one uncomfortable, 25-second scene, a woman playing good kid's recurring minx Sherane vigorously booty-claps to the song's beat between the open suicide doors of a mid-'60s Lincoln Continental. Rather than lip-syncing or gesturing along with his own verse, a stoic Lamar just stares expressionless into the camera and leans on the trunk of the car, which is parked in an empty lot. He's an arm's length from Sherane. And he's miles away.
[Photo by Andreas Laszlo Konrath]