For the first time in what feels like fucking years,
hip-hop is again the most exciting genre of popular music. I’d make a strong argument that the primary reason for this is the vitality and versatility of the game’s younger players. Two names come to mind based on the albums they’ve dropped in the past few months – A$ap Rocky and Kendrick Lamar.
Let’s start with A$ap, who dropped his major label debut, LONGLIVEA$AP, most recently (January 15, though it leaked almost a month earlier). A$ap has polarized the shit out of the rap audience. His million-dollar label deal based on a mixtape, gleeful contradictions – repping for New York over decidedly non-traditionalist beats, engaging in hard street talk while wearing high-fashion threads – and thorough embrace by the hype machine have driven some nuts and intrigued many others. The million delays to the album’s release didn’t help erase the naysayers’ griping. However, the album itself, now that it’s out, probably will.
A$ap has never been a technically dazzling rapper. While he does step his game up considerably on LONGLIVEA$AP, the nuts-and-bolts of his rhyming aren’t what dazzle you. It’s the impeccable sequencing and flow of the album, along with its successful appropriation of divergent musical styles (classic NYC boom-bap, spaced-out cloud rap courtesy of longtime collaborator Clams Casino, Southern trap beats and even Skrillex being Skrillex) that are largely responsible for its impact. But perhaps most remarkable is A$ap’s persona. It’s cocky but nuanced, hard-edged at times but with none of the dead-eyed sociopathy of a Chief Keef, capable of talking with remarkable poignancy about his upbringing on one track and the ease in which he gets blowjobs in another without producing tonal dissonance. Basically, he has all the potential a young king should, and knows it – check out that crown he rocks in the video for this album’s title track.
It’s Kendrick Lamar, however, who truly represents the best of hip-hop right now. His debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, was my pick for 2012’s best album (and a shitload of critics agreed with me, so the fuck there). It’s the best rap album released since Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which was the best release since OutKast’s Stankonia and Jay-Z’s The Blueprint. Kendrick’s clearly in good company.
good kid is a true concept album, but lacks the (many) pitfalls often surrounding such projects. It begins in aurally arresting fashion with a spoken-word prayer recording that segues into a second-by-second rundown of intense young lust on the first track, “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter.” It ends with the victory-lap coda, “Compton,” where Kendrick and his primary cosigner, Dr. Dre, go hard over a Just Blaze banger that seems initially out of place but is actually perfect – it’s the realization of the ambition that Kendrick has showcased throughout the record. In between, the album feels like diegetic music for a film portraying the real lives, times and crimes in Compton that Kendrick has seen.
A true storyteller never judges his characters, and Kendrick absolutely meets that requirement. In addition to his own perspective, he raps in the character of a prostitute and of gang members he grew up with (and sometimes saw die). While the album’s production is excellent and has a uniformly stoned-rider-music feel, it’s the words that hammer it home. Jesus fuck, the words. Kendrick Lamar is arguably the most verbally dexterous rapper to come along in over 10 years. He’s a master of single-, double- and triple-time speeds and can alter his enunciation to best fit the album’s many moods, but you never lose the meaning of his words amid such trickery. For that reason and many others, Kendrick is the king among the young kings, and he can only get better from here.
Others from the same generation as Kendrick and A$ap are on the same page. Joey Bada$$, Big K.R.I.T. and Yelawolf are just a few of them. They’ve all shown varying degrees of promise – the latter two made themselves on the mixtape circuit and had major-label debuts that were decent-to-good, nothing more, while Joey hasn’t yet hit 20 and is riding some serious mixtape hype that has yet to be solidified. But what they’re doing is still important, because they’re preventing rap from being dominated by the old men. Rick Ross is not defining the genre (as much as I like him). Lil Wayne is not defining the genre, and thank fucking Christ for that, the way he’s going. Dre, Eminem, even Kanye – yeah, I said it – don’t run shit these days. Hip-hop right now belongs to the young, as it should. They’ll be old men someday themselves, but they’ve sure as shit cemented the position of their throne right now.