The Universe Loves You Today
You're 17. Your years in school are coming to an end. No matter who you are, where you're from, or what else you do, this will be the time you'll remember more than any other for the rest of your life, so make it count. When you're twice the age you are now you'll catch yourself driving along the same streets you did back then and have flashbacks to those hazy nights long ago. The songs you heard then will reverberate in your mind until you die. If you're lucky, if you are 17 right at this moment, the songs you hear now, the songs by Kendrick Lamar, will be the soundtrack of your life. Consider yourself blessed, because he wrote them about you every bit as much as he wrote them about himself.
It doesn't matter if you grew up on Rosecrans in Compton, California, streets echoing with gunblasts and plagued with gangs and crime and drugs and pressures that no teenager should have to deal with at that stage in life, or if you grew up on some shady cul de sac in a neighborhood where the only sudden sounds are of the automatic sprinklers turning on at daybreak to water the vast exapanses of green lawns and flower beds, the feeling of being 17 is exactly the same. For good kids in mad cities, or bad kids in good cities or anywhere in between. You're 17. It's summer. You're free. Enjoy it while it lasts. You won't be free forever.
Parents fear 17. They were that age once themselves and know all too well its dangers. Every decision is now a major life-altering one and is firmly in the hands of someone not yet mature enough to handle it, yet too mature to be told what to do anymore. Kendrick's mom knows this fact, just as your mom does. The fear is in her voice, still stern with parental authority, yet that authority holds no sway any longer. It's mixed with pleading, annoyance and concern, for she knows that her boy Kendrick, for better or worse, is on his own from now on and the decisions that will determine his fate are his and his alone to make. Who to see - Sherane, the mature beyond her years seductress he met over summer vacation with a stripper's figure that's every bit as willing... Where to go – out with the homies... What to do - sex with his girl, drink, smoke weed, gang bangin, home invasion?... Every night, more decisions. Most won't be life or death, but any one of them could be. But which ones? Which nights? It's always the ones you don't see coming.
So what's a Mom to do? For Kendrick's mom she calls and leaves voicemails, reminding him of his responsibilities, ones he's failing to live up to, but the calls, if they're heard, will hopefully keep him tethered to the ground, looking back and slowing him down. They're his conscious and they're all his mother has. The voicemails are the skits, a longheld device in hip-hop that serve to break up the album, but here they do the opposite, not offering a lighthearted respite from the hardcore tracks, but rather they stitch the album together with constant reminders that this is no mere entertaining recounting of a carefree night on the town, but that it is in fact reality. The songs are the body and blood of the record, the breaks are its soul. Make the right decisions, Kendrick.
But what's a kid to do? All your life up to this point you've been pulling away from that control, crossing the line she lays down to prove to yourself and to others that you're your own man. At 17 that line is all but washed away. The mother is just a nagging voice in the distance, it's not her you're trying to impress anymore after all. The ones whose respect you crave are those who you won't know in five years, but at this moment they're the only ones who matter. They shape his decisions now, not his mother. He'll see Sherane, that crazy-ass girl his mom disapproves of. Why? Because he's 17 and got "nothing but pussy" on his mind. Who wouldn't make the same choice? He'll go out with his boys, bored, acting tough and almost waiting for trouble to find them, and if not, they'll go looking for it themselves. He'll drink, even though he fears it will burn him out, but tonight he'll do it because of them. Pass the Hennessey. He's usually drug free, but not tonight, a blunt in his mouth as they ride along the streets brimming with tension, because of them. He's never been the violent type, he's the peacemaker usually, but not tonight, because of them. He'd rather be with his girl, but not tonight, they're on a "mission for bad bitches and trouble", because of them. On they go, no aims, "just circlin' life", waiting for it to end and end badly. Because of them. Because of them, tonight could be his last night. He's 17. It's an easy decision to make. Too damn easy.
Yet there she is. Again and again. His mom calls after they break and enter, just because it's something to do, and are being followed by a cop car prowling with suspicion. He lies to her, what else is he gonna do? They escape. It's a lucky night. The wrong decision made right.
But he's still 17 and there's more nights and more decisions to come. They're shaped by everything around him. Growing up poor. The violence around every corner. But most of all they're fueled by dreams. Dreams of being famous. Of being rich. Of being saved and finding salvation in the fantasy women of those dreams or the in the eyes of the Lord. But those dreams don't seem real and the easier answer, therefore the easier choice, is the one they all seem to be drawn towards, the wrong one. The gun. Embrace it.
Then there's another call. Another reminder. Another plea to the wayward kid roaming this mad city, "Just bring the car back". Come back home. Back to the nurturing environment you came from. Back to reality.
But in Kendrick's reality, there is a way out. The music. That's the escape. His music. His writing. The doorway out. A pause in the sweltering heat of a wayward youth. He's got bigger things on his mind than his friends have. All these songs he writes, his feelings, his dreams, his fears, his reality. Unlike them he thinks of a different fate, one he has control over as opposed to fate controlling him.
Still, the dangers and conflicts remain at every turn, circumstances out of your control can cause the tension to escalate and at any moment threatens to explode. The environmental pressures lying under the surface in this perilous place at this impulsive unsettled age build naturally over time, fermenting, tormenting him, driving him. All left to be countered by little more than instinct, reaction and choice - good decisions, bad decisions, decisions that will determine who you become, if you live long enough to become anything more than a statistic. That life, so vibrant and promising, so uncertain and so tenuous, hangs in the balance from song to song, stitched together with his mother's fading voice, an epic journey that everyone must take on the road from childhood to adulthood, but one that seems even more important than that. More important than anything. So who are you Kendrick Lamar and what are your choices?
Just Promise Me You'll Tell This Story If You Make It Big
They say that everyone has one great story within them, their own, but most never commit that story to paper or to tape, and those who do, well, it's clumsy, overwrought and meandering and basically of absolutely no interest to anyone else. But if you're gifted, as Kendrick Lamar unquestionably is, the results are gripping and you are sucked in. The key is to make you care about his fate, his choices and the world he encounters, to make it seem so real to the listener that it's no longer simply an album but a life experience that you take along with him every time you press play.
Therein lies the record's genius. The uncanny accuracy of the feeling of youth. When you listen to it you need to be 17 yourself, not in actuality, but in your mind. You need to connect to the feeling of BEING seventeen again. That freedom you crave in that world you're still trying to conquor. Your neighborhood, your peers, the reputation you're trying so hard to create, sometimes awkwardly, clumsily and unsucessfully, but sometimes effortlessly as the persona you adapt, craft and hone over many nights begins to become your reality. If you can tap into that feeling, the uncertainty and the promise of being 17, then you will go along for the ride and you will rise and fall, live and die, with each cinematic plot point that follows.
The album is called "a short film", something that would sound pretentious in any other hands, particularly an older artist who's already tasted success and glory, but in the inexperienced hands of Kendrick Lamar it seems rightfully ambitious, but more importantly presciently accurate. From the first sounds we hear, that of an earnestly receited prayer by the collection of hood-rats, the tone is set. This is nothing less than a war for the souls of all involved. The gospel-esque wordless harmonies, with its spiraling synth fuzziness behind it, hinting at the danger to come, are suddenly jarred into Act One as Kendrick enters the picture, conversationally recounting the party that summer in which he met Sherane, the moment, it could be reasonably stated, that Kendrick Lamar suddenly grew up.
Girls will do that to you at 17. The type of heart-stopping, dreamy-eyed longing for some girl in your class is over. You're in the real world now, where a few brushes by her in the hallway, or eye contact in the cafeteria no longer cut it. You're at a party, drinks are flowing freely, there's no supervision, no watchful eyes of authoritarians, the only eyes watching are your friends and rivals, seeing how you handle this. You move in cockily, but scared underneath, trying to impress without knowing how to other than to act outsized in whatever way strikes you and she suddenly reduces you back to lovestruck with a simple, but elegant, "No, you're handsome" in response to his introduction. Yeah, just like that you're trippin' over yourself. She disappears, almost as if it were a dream, then sees her again dancing... of course, what else would she be doing? He gathers himself quickly, gets some sense of who she is by where she's from, borderline Compton, a different neighborhood, and then, just like that, they hook up. Phone numbers, meetings, sex, the summer flies by. He's still a kid maybe, but with her he's a man and the first real break from childhood is complete. There's no going back.
Everything about it is dream like on the surface. The swirling background sounds as if the memory is hazy, yet the details, what songs were playing, what thoughts were running through his mind as they talked, the words they each spoke, are so precise that it's no fantasy. His rhymes are complex, but aren't showing off, there's no needless flaunting of his skills because there's no exaggeration here, for a seventeen year old in love, or what passes for it, the details are what will leave the biggest imprint on your mind. They're etched into granite and can be conjured up at a moment's notice as long as that girl still has claims to your heart, your soul and your body. Each word chosen is the only word that will do. "The music of being young and dumb is never muted", he claims and every expression revels in that. He keeps seeing her as much as possible, because when you're that age "as much as possible" is never enough. So on this night he borrows his Mom's mini-van to hook up with her for sex, the seemingly minor, insigificant event that sets the whole story into motion. "Fifteen minutes" is what he told her. He didn't tell her what he needed it for. She knew, but let him anyway and immediately regrets it. Now, as he rolls up to Sherane's the scene around him suddenly shifts. The dangers of the streets, different mad kids in a different part of the city, come into view, suspicious and hostile by their very presence. He sees her wave, sees them look, the tension peaks and then he hears his cell phone ring which jolts you right back into reality. You are hooked.
Then Kendrick lets us into his thoughts and he opens up, shamlessly, honestly, poignently. He confesses his sins but admits he's going to sin again, then asks for forgiveness beforehand. He feels the two powers pulling on him in opposite directions, the good and the bad, and vows to break out in spite of the odds against him. And he is already lost in the conflicting emotions of a love that he senses is neither lasting or real, but craves both. "I'll take your girlfriend and put that pussy on a pedestal" coos the vocals in "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe", the transition piece that ends when his boys meet up with him and they convince him to go out with them. Just like that his night, the fifteen minutes long since passed, is only just beginning.
With his friends he is different, as the entire mood changes on a dime with "Backseat Freestyle". Gone is the introspection and in its place is immature teen boasting backed by a harsh industrial track as even his accent is altered to make his boys laugh at his antics, even while he tries impressing them with his rhyming skills. As they roll along the synth whine of G-Funk kicks off "The Art Of Peer Pressure" signals another shift in the mood. Cruising along to Young Jeezy, a gun resting uncomfortably next to their orange soda, weed smoke wafting out the open windows, eying the girls they pass, glaring at the guys wearing different colors, intimidating so they won't be intimidated, joking about the violence that they all fear, their bravado masking their concerns until they goad one another into breaking and entering just because it's something to do. The wrong way down life's roads. Why? What else is there to do when what you want, a lifestyle they've never known ("Dreams of me getting shaded under a 'Money Tree'"), seems all but impossible without getting it by force. The girls, the glory, the money, the respect all comes with a price, but to them, or most of them, the price is worth it.
But is it to Kendrick? Act two begins as the music slips from hard and jarring to slinky and seductive in "Poetic Justice" and the conflict in his soul starts to come to light. Over the album's most overt sample, Janet Jackson's cooing of "Anytime, Anyplace", Kendrick the maturing artist makes his presence known. Then the reality of the streets come back for him one more time.
His mind races with conflicting thoughts, all brought about by the experience of getting jumped and feeling trapped by his environment, venting silently inside the "good kid" as he's yanked from his Mom's mini-van when he goes to see Sherane. The cops respond, racially profiling as usual, trying to assert their authority to someone who still might fear it, the victim in this case, as he goes on to describe the environment that led to this "m.A.A.d. City". There are no excuses, no complaints, just explanation, cold and harsh and leaves him looking for an escape from it all. He finds it in "Swimming Pools (Drank)", the obvious single, with its hazy-dream effect production by T-Minus, the alcoholic departure from reality,succumbing to peer pressure, to fitting in, to feeling no pain. The hook is a killer, just like the booze, then the music slows, the voices slur, the fog settles in. Yeah, it's a sing-along jam, but it's also the fulcrum on which the entire album hinges. Sherane takes him away and in his inebriated state he gets beat down. The price of seeing her. His boys quickly retaliate but one doesn't make it. We have our first death on our hands and we're all culpable.
"Sing About Me, I'm Dying Of Thirst" is an epic. At ten minutes it's too long for a single, but it's the the heart of the album, an ever changing landscape of places, thoughts and people. Over a masterful Grant Green hook, different perspectives of growing up in that mad city are offered. The brother of the slain, admitting he's too deep into the gang culture to escape the "murderous rhythms" he rides, accepting his fate, but insisting Kendrick doesn't have to fall into it himself. "If I die before your album drop"... he does, of course. He has to. But then we have a girl whose sister died as well, a prostitute, and her sister is heading down that same road herself, defiant that she will survive, even though we know all too well that she won't and we listen as she fades into memory. She made her choice, or had her choice forced upon her, by those same streets she now walks. The guilt, the fears, the choices that Kendrick has to make weigh him down as the song abruptly shifts into an entirely new one, but the same one, representing act three. It's at once transcendant, the groove hitting hard in its second half, and relevatory, as Kendrick takes in everything he has seen around him on his ultimate journey, comes to grips with the conflicts surrounding him and finds his way in search of the light at the end of the tunnel, redemption with a higher power. "Hop in that water and pray that it works".
The hood-rats are saved, hopefully forever, but probably just temporarily, talked out of their anger and confusion over the killing of their brother and friend, baptized on the streets by a sort of stoic elderly female saint. They listen to her pleas for restraint and surrender their hatred, recite her prayers of devotion, so that their souls may be set free. But for Kendrick the path out requires yet another deviation. "Real" is the second longest track on the album, immediately following the longest, and this choice is uncanny. The climax and resolution of the story can't be shortchanged, and while the tension in "Real" is muted, it is Kendrick coming to grips with his decisions. Making choices for himself, not for the approval or respect of his peers for once, but for his own good. It's the calm after the storm. The true maturation of Kendrick Lamar, the boy truly becoming a man. His father, who earlier provided comic relief in the skits when he was drunk and crying out about his dominoes in the background, proves to be responsible and tries, bluntly, awkwardly, but honestly, to pass along some parental wisdom to his son in the wake of the violence before the reassuring voice of his mother comes back in to give him her blessing and her forgiveness. Then, not telegraphing it, nor even drawing attention to it, she tells Kendrick that a producer called about his music and she wishes him well, knowing he's got to pursue that dream but assuring her son that they'll always be there for him. The way out suddenly becomes real for Kendrick.
The album closes with "Compton", a euphoric and unapologetic celebration of the hard streets he came out of and survived. Though notable for Dr. Dre's guesting on the track, it's not done for the big name impact most guest spots hope for, but to reaffirm that there is a way out after all. The story is real. Dre himself got out years ago and moved on to something previously undreamed of in the streets of Compton and now Kendrick's determination got him out as well. The beats and rhymes roll effortlessly as together they look out at the often brutal landscape they both emerged from decades apart and see the hope for the future. The track oozes success, but takes it in stride, even the boast "look who's responsible for taking Compton international", is just the truth, well earned. The lesson though is eternal. How do you beat harsh circumstances? By rising above them. How do you stay at the top once you're out? By never forgetting where you came from and giving back so that others can beat them too. Spend a weekend on Rosecrans he emplores you. You just have, thanks to him, and you got out, same as him, and in the end there's no mistaking that the kid that began this tale is now a man... and to bring it around full circle, to show that no matter the starting point, no matter the depths of hurt and despair you traverse along the way, there's always a way out, the record closes with the younger Kendrick grabbing his Mom's keys and saying he just needs the van for fifteen minutes. That he doesn't open the album with that, but rather closes it by going back to that first decision, the one which set everything into motion, only confirms what genius will emerge as it unfolds and makes you want to go back and relive it again and again... and again.
At one point Kendrick asks, "If I told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room, would you trust it?", his way of asking for your faith in him and his dreams. If I told you the greatest album of not just 2012 but the last twenty years came from the kid who broke off that rhyme, who asked for that faith, who offered you that dream, would you trust it? As unlikely as it seems, would you believe it? Would you?