For the past few weeks I've been consumed by some new, very unique hip hop. I've often encountered the criticism that hip-hop all sounds alike -- patterned by rants of bangin' hos, wearing fancy clothes, and killin' foes. While I can't deny that these themes are common in plenty of modern hip-hop, I've recently been surprised by other themes I've discovered, with the lyrical styling of two young rising hip-hop artists in particular -- Kendrick Lamar of Compton, Calif. and Macklemore, of Seattle Wash.
Good Kid, m.A.A.d city
Kendrick Lamar's album Good Kid, m.A.A.d city, released in October 2012 by Top Dawg, Aftermath Entertainment, and Interscope Records, definitely doesn't shy away from the characteristic hip-hop themes of money, partying, and women. The hazy beats on most tracks seem best catered toward a fan base likely to be found riding in a 90s era Cadillac engulfed in a cloud of smoke.
The track "Swimming Pools," which clarifies that the correct way to party is to fill an entire swimming pool with liquor and dive in, seems to further support this theme. Not to mention the numerous interludes on the album with declarations of vengeance riddled with the sound of gunshots and the voices of young men crying out in agony (sometimes I have to skip through those).
However, Lamar's music on this album undoubtedly goes deeper than this, and his lyrics take on a unique narrative quality. Many songs tell dramatic stories of his time growing up in Compton, and the moral dilemmas that continually plague the "good kid in the mad city." His talents as a poet are not easily ignored. The verses on "Good Kid" are detailed rhymes about the stress of being faced with difficult choices and the struggle to suppress pain.
"All I see in this room: 20 Xanies and these shrooms. Grown-up candy for pain. Can we live in a sane society. It's entirely stressful upon my brain. You hired me as a victim. I quietly hope for change."
There's even a running motif throughout the album of a mysterious woman named Sherane who seems to be an object of anxiety and frustration, but also desire and intense passion for Lamar. I think it's safe to say that Sherane is also used as a source of comedy at times.
Good Kid, m.A.A.d city is somehow able to seamlessly tie together the world of drugs, money, and partying that is notoriously associated with hip-hop with an artful description of pain, guilt, love, and passion. It's quite refreshing.
On the opposite end of the West Coast, Seattle-based rapper Macklemore released his debut studio album The Heist produced by Ryan Lewis, also this past October. Macklemore's popularity was skyrocketed by his single "Thrift Shop," which has close to 44 million views on YouTube. "Thrift Shop" does the exact opposite of what most popular hip-hop songs do lyrically. It glorifies spending as little money on clothing and accessories as possible. Clothing has been a status symbol in hip-hop culture for about as long as the genre has been around. Artists know they've "made it" when they can afford designer brands, and they don't hesitate to rap about it and show it off.
Macklemore takes a different approach. He claims you can shop second-hand and still look super fly. Clever lyrics, a dose of comedy, and a beat by Ryan Lewis with a lively horn section makes for a great party hit.
But The Heist doesn't stop there with its creativity and opposition to traditional hip-hop philosophy. Another single "Same Love," questions the hostility towards gay culture in the world of hip-hop and advocates that homosexuality is not a choice.
"The right-wing conservatives think it's a decision, And you can be cured with some treatment and religion, Man-made, rewiring of a pre-disposition."
A beautifully sung chorus by Mary Lambert with heartfelt lyrics, make for a truly touching song that's also still unconditionally hip-hop.
From the interludes of Lamar's mother yelling on his voicemail, to the precocious child heard on "Thrift Shop," it's easy to see that Kendrick Lamar and Macklemore have the element of humor in common. But these two albums have more similarities than a flare for comedy. Good Kid, m.A.A.d city and The Heist both offer poetic lyrics, creative beats with artistic production, and above all else originality. And in a world of predictability and posers, being original is the best thing you can be in hip-hop.
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