Kendrick Lamar reinterprets Compton’s legacy
The twenty-five-year-old rapper Kendrick Lamar's c.v. is a perfect combination of classic and trendy, which he makes clear on the cover of his major-label debut, "Good Kid, M.a.a.d City." It's a Polaroid of Lamar at age five, on the lap of an uncle who is flashing a gang sign; two bottles, one of malt liquor and one of baby formula, sit on a table in front of them. Symbolic, and a little too pat, the photograph was taken in Lamar's childhood home, in Compton, California, a place that rap made famous, in a way that wouldn't have been possible for Miami or New York. In the late eighties and early nineties, groups like N.W.A. and solo artists like Snoop Dogg made Compton a kind of shorthand for both gangsta rap and violence. Compton's favorite son, the producer and rapper Dr. Dre, has now closed the circle, signing Lamar to his Aftermath label. But Lamar's story is not primarily about gangs or gangsta rap. Instead, it is about a generational shift that he and similar artists like Schoolboy Q and Danny Brown embody-their music is omnivorous. Unlike earlier hip-hop innovators, they haven't killed their idols to move forward-they’ve eaten them. This hip-hop is full of all the other hip-hop, which makes it both satisfying and confusing. Lamar claims Compton, and uses its legacy, but that doesn't tell you much about what his album sounds like.
Lamar has repeatedly cited California's martyr, Tupac Shakur, as his favorite rapper, which seems perverse, considering how many m.c.s he can ably mimic. In fact, he never sounds like Shakur, who was agitated even when pausing, a breathless and fierce enunciator who piled up threats like kindling. Lamar sounds a great deal more like a calm, resonant m.c. whom he rarely mentions-Ishmael Butler, who was in the nineties trio Digable Planets, using the name Butterfly, and is now in Shabazz Palaces, as Palaceer Lazaro. Like Butler, Lamar has a low voice, which moves at an even trot. But Lamar also emphasizes his nasal high end, giving words a hint of sarcastic resignation, which is a very East Coast quality. (California drives with the top down; the East Coast shrugs its shoulders.)
By any measure, "Good Kid" is a triumph, which is no shock. Since "Overly Dedicated," Lamar's 2010 mixtape, which was a digital-only release, Lamar has sounded preternaturally well rounded and professional. His follow up, "Section.80," from 2011, was widely praised, and slightly easier to find than his previous records. (It did particularly well on iTunes.) "Good Kid" fulfills an implicit promise from his earlier work to revive Compton and to update its sound.
Lamar's music is rarely as rough as his scenarios. This keeps him in the tradition of West Coast G-funk, as Dr. Dre helped establish it, in the early nineties - it was smooth music for listening to in cars about what happens when you get out of the car. The voices of singers like Nate Dogg and rappers like Warren G blended with each other to make even the harshest lines sound harmonious. While much of eighties hip-hop depended on a James Brown-style locomotive rattle, the mother lode for G-funk was plangent R. &B. by artists like Leon Haywood and William De Vaughn.
A song like "M.a.a.d City' is in that tradition, a diptych that begins with anxious synths and long-tailed kick-drum sounds before moving into a cracking drum sample that recalls the feel of "Lyrical Gangbang' from "The Chronic," one Of Dr. Dre's-and Compton's-foundational albums. To make his link to the past not just clear but precise, Lamar chose to feature MC Eiht of Compton's Most Wanted-he's not the best-known sovereign, we have to come up with some more hopeful understanding of what people are like, and how they naturally interact with one another. For John Locke, later in the seventeenth century, that meant a strong belief in a • natural law that human beings could apprehend and which governed their actions even in the absence of a state. For Hegel, it meant seeing history itself as a process with a goal, the achievement of a free and equal society governed by a rational bureaucratic state. For Marx, it meant a faith that human beings, liberated from the reign of private property and exploitation, would be able to live together in spontaneous harmony.
As Ryan approaches the present, rivals to liberal democracy drop out of the running--above all, Fascism and Communism, each of which gets a searching treatment. The book starts to home in on the challenges that face our kind of society. Since 1945, he writes, we have lived in a world where "there was no alternative to liberal democracy, but liberal democracy aroused no enthusiasm." As an admirer of Mill and Tocqueville, Ryan focusses on the danger that both of them saw in a mass democratic society: the likelihood that individuality will shrink before the onslaught of mediocrity and conformity, that we will settle for a "Persian" prosperity instead of demanding a "Greek'' politics of active participation. The nineteen-sixties, Ryan argues, was the last time when a mass demand for more participatory democracy could be heard: one of the most recent documents he discusses is the Port Huron Statement, issued by the Students for a Democratic Society in 1962.
This emphasis might lead one to expect that Ryan would sympathize with Occupy Wall Street. Yet the political tradition that values personal independence and civil society above regimentation and the state can also give succor to conservative politics: it is no coincidence that the Tea Party draws on the republican imagery of the American Revolution. Indeed, one of the valuable functions of a history like "On Politics" is to show how narrow a slice of the intellectual spectrum American politics currently fights over. It took two thousand years for universal suffrage to become even thinkable; today, anyone who challenged it would be considered silly or insane. It took centuries of religious war before the West arrived at a consensus on the separation of religion and politics; today, the party of the Evangelical religious right can coalesce around a ticket made up of a Mormon and a Catholic. Such consensus is a precious achievement, but it can also curb our sense of political possibility. If we are political animals, as Aristotle said, then we can't understand ourselves without thinking about the way we have lived and might live politically. In that sense, "On Politics," like the great works of philosophy it examines, constitutes a powerful brief against the unexamined life.
Review by Sasha Frere-Jones
The New Yorker magazine, 5 November 2012