Ask most suburbanites over the age of 30 about what daily life in Compton is like, and you’re likely to get a recycling of the N.W.A. album Straight Outta Compton, from 1988, which on the strength of its exaggerated stories of the hood has sold over 2 million copies.
Part of Straight Outta Compton‘s appeal is its caricature; it keeps one tongue twisting incendiary wordplay and another tongue twisting into the cheek. But its design is sensationalistic, and while young white teenagers across America have for over two decades reveled in the “reality” of the album’s characterization of daily life in Compton, there’s an underlying sense throughout of what Madonna would suggest, two years after its release: strike a pose, there’s nothing to it.
Old ideas fade, and good kid, m.A.A.d. city, the new album by 25-year-old Kendrick Lamar, released this week, is poised to recontextualize the city of Compton for good. Described in its subtitle as “a short film,” it trades not in over-the-top posturing but in the game-changing aspects that have become more prevalent, nearly required, in hip-hop in the last few years: introspection, uncertainty and sensitivity.
In “The Art of Peer Pressure,” Lamar confesses his indiscretions are the product of being impressionable while riding around with friends and blasting Young Jeezy; in contemplative standout “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” Lamar’s antagonist isn’t a female but rather the trappings of commercial attention and his own distraction by it. “I’m trying to keep it alive and not compromise the feeling we love,” he raps in a low, measured tone, “you trying to keep it deprived and only co-sign what radio does.” In “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” the young rapper even adopts the voice of a woman who’s lost her brother to gun violence, turns tricks and is angry at being included in Lamar’s own songs.
Though the album’s cover photo shows a young Lamar on the lap of his dad, who throws a gang sign, he asserts that he’s never been gang-affiliated: title track “M.a.a.D. City” even hints that this fact could get him killed. But the goals here are higher than a gritty portrayal of life on the streets: “It’s safe to say that our next generation maybe can sleep with dreams of being a lawyer or doctor,” he raps, “instead of boy with a chopper that hold the cul de sac hostage.”
The resonant history of his hometown of Compton isn’t lost on Lamar, and the album’s executive producer is none other than Dr. Dre, the mastermind behind Straight Outta Compton. (A 45-year-old MC Eiht guests as well, linking the two generations.) But in what’s sure to be one of the most acclaimed rap albums of the year, Kendrick Lamar is rewriting his city’s history with a sharp, eloquent pen.