“Too many sins / I’m runnin’ out / Somebody send / Me a well for the drought”–Kendrick Lamar
“Lookin’ for adventure, but the block was not / The block was real”–Killer Mike
Two of this year’s biggest rap albums are about the hardships of growing up in a ghetto and trying to skirt gang affiliation. Unsurprising, yet no easy task.
Kendrick Lamar‘s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City and Killer Mike‘s R.A.P. Music are sobering insights on the conviction of difficult decisions–one immediate, the other reflective. While both take on themes of spirituality and redemption, Kendrick tries to justify his rebellion through peer pressure whereas Killer Mike takes on the Holy Mountain alone, clearing his own path and taking responsibility for his actions.
As the album’s title alludes, Kendrick is presented a number of difficult, life-changing decisions throughout Good Kid, m.A.A.d City. Whether it’s “messin’ with them damn hood-rats out there an’ shit, especially that crazy-ass girl Sherane” against his mother’s wishes or nearly smoking a joint laced with angel dust (PCP), the rapper’s morality is constantly tested. At the same time however, he sees himself as untainted, a good soul trapped in a shitty situation: to maneuver the ‘mad city’ of Compton without falling from grace.
Good Kid, m.A.A.d City is a narrative of the daily tests Kendrick must pass. Through interludes and insights from his mother’s voicemails, Kendrick gives context to why he chooses the street when he doesn’t really want to. Even though he is clearly apprehensive– “The street’s sure to release the worst side of my best” –staying at home to endure his nagging mother and his father’s alcoholic demands are just as brutal. And far less fun.
Through the parallel, yet equally undesirable, realities, “m.A.A.d City”‘s pithy line of “Kendrick a.k.a. Compton’s human sacrifice” effectively conveys how he believes he’s fated to sin. Whether it be lashing out at his demanding, abusive parents or being uncharacteristically rebellious on the street with his homies (“Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “The Art of Peer Pressure”), Kendrick accepts that Compton’s options are limited. And after losing his friend in the drive-by shooting narrative that concludes “Swimming Pools (Drank),” the young emcee decides it’s time to repent as he and his friends are guided through a reprise of the album’s opening prayer.
Killer Mike’s sixth studio album is his first outing with production mastermind El-P, who flawlessly conveys confrontational, and often nihilistic, themes without ever touching a microphone (save for his bit on “Butane (Champion’s Anthem)”). Mike, on the other hand, drops enough knowledge to keep you scouring the wikipedia history pages for weeks. It’s reflective nature is a stark contrast to Kendrick’s in-the-moment perception.
In the absence of an opening eight bars, Mike comes out swinging, “Hardcore G shit, homie, I don’t play around / Ain’t shit sweet ’bout the peach–this Atlanta, clown / Home of dealers and the strippers and the clubs, though.” Packed with beats that will make your head bop and fists fly, Killer Mike is on the offensive. And he has his crew with him. Fellow Atlanta rappers T.I., Trouble, and Bun B find plenty of room to express themselves on the empowering (or intimidating) “Big Beast”. The latter comes out the hardest, “When you step out on the ave / Make sure they wanna see ya / ‘Cause bein’ trill is an onomatopoeia / Be about it like a G, a hater wanna catch you slippin’ / Got to be a Jordan, but settle for a Pippin / Playa, I ain’t even trippin’ / But I don’t really care / ’cause my pistol’s in your face / So put your hands in the air.” After three and a half minutes of cleverly abrasive rhymes, Mike closes with the definitive statement, “I don’t make dance music, this is R.A.P. / Opposite of the sucker shit they play on T.V.”
Killer Mike’s thesis has been stated: R.A.P. Music is his canvas to reclaim his integrity as an emcee. And he wastes no time. “Untitled” dives into Mike’s affinity for making authentic rap music through a handful of poignant personal comparisons, “This is John Gotti paintin’ pictures like Dali / This is Basquiat with a passion like ‘Pac / And a body like Biggie, tellin’ stories like Ricky.” As the album progresses, Mike illuminates the idea that rap music is not only poetic and intelligent but also, like Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, a spiritual reconciliation. The poetic motif surfaces again as he professes his love of literature by likening his teenage self to Jack in Lord of the Flies before lamenting how ‘the block’ took his innocence on “Willie Burke Sherwood.” By the end of the album, Mike even goes so far as to dub rap music ‘playa pentecostal’.
R.A.P. Music isn’t a penguin classic though. It reads more like a Vonnegut. Serious political call-to-arms anthems (“Reagan”) and Mike’s own personal defense statements (“R.A.P. Music”) are peppered with playful interludes like “Southern Fried”, which showcases Mike’s playful side as he boasts about attracting ladies with little more than a hearty BBQ and some southern charm. Then there’s the empowering “Don’t Die”, a definitive freedom chant whose refrain cries, “I’m a public enemy because I’m Cold Lampin’ / And I don’t give a fuck about a party in the Hamptons / And I don’t give a fuck about a motherfuckin’ Forbes list / Far as I’m concerned, that’s a motherfuckin’ whores list,” before exiting with “‘Fuck the police’ is still all I gotta say.”
These albums were hyped well before their release dates, making a number of “Most Anticipated Albums of 2012” lists before their titles were even revealed. Working with the likes of Jay Rock, Drake, and Dr. Dre, a young Kendrick was given the chance to follow up on his work with Dre, taking it to the edge of both hip-hop and spirituality, exposing current disregard for personal well-being in exchange for social acceptance. The narrative interludes are concise and entertaining, effectively keeping listeners hooked while simultaneously creating a cast of characters that we are inevitably driven to care about– a humbling characteristic rarely found in music.
Killer Mike’s own personal convictions and overcomings are on trial in R.A.P. Music as he weighs the worth of the lawless activities that have tarnished his soul. And as the album moves forward, it becomes a cathartic coming to terms. Less serious than Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, R.A.P. Music is a mélange of complex cynical beats, big city swagger, and down-home southern spirituality. Backed by a producer that has proven his ability to produce some of the finest modern hip-hop beats, Killer Mike’s convicted soul on R.A.P. Music is a worthwhile hymn.