I FINALLY got my hands on the major label debut of Kendrick Lamar. At first, I didn’t want to believe that any of this “New Generation” of MC would be as high quality as the guys I grew up listening to. And by High Quality I mean deep, thoughtful and complex lyrics over something other than Southern Trap beats or Urban pop. I even scoffed at the possibility of K. Lamar besting out my favorite rap group (The Roots) for the best Rap album Grammy. But then, somebody sent me one of Kendrick’s mixtape tracks (Rigamortis) and I was blown away. It’s one thing to hear an MC rap double-time over a slow beat. Just about every rapper does it, and with the exact same cadence and delivery style, too. But Kendrick not only rapped double-time over an uptempo beat (something I haven’t heard done since the 1990s), but later on in the song he kicked into a higher gear and seemed to rap triple-time. All the while, he’s lacing the tracks with the clever metaphors that I prefer to hear in my rappers. This guy was everything I liked about Hip-Hop, and immediately earned my respect.
Flash forward about a year, and I finally get around to buying his Aftermath Debut, “Good Kid, m.A.A.d.City.” I wasn’t really interested in the album, although I respect K. Lamar. I just wasn’t trying to buy a lot of new hip-hop from artists I don’t trust. But I was transporting one of the kids in the children’s center I work at, and his song “Swimming Pools” came on, and the kid explained that it seemed like a song about getting drunk in the club, it was actually an ANTI-drinking song. That piqued my interests, so I looked up the song on Rapgenius.com, and sure enough, the boy was right. What clinched it though was the notes saying this was part of a larger narrative chronicling the growth of Kendrick as a person. That was the clincher: I HAD to get a listen to this album.
I admit it: I’m a sucker for concept albums. Even in this single-dominated music world. I absolutely love it when an artist takes the time to craft together a cohesive, thematic music project where every song is interconnected and all of the parts combine to make a greater whole. Most of my favorite concept albums are stories, with each song being a chapter. I think this takes a lot of thought and planning, and not every artist can pull it off. And the better ones are really engaging, with a LOT of layers to them. I eat that stuff up.
After hearing K. Lamar’s CD all the way through a few times, and looking up the lyrics on Rap Genius, I am thoroughly impressed by the depth of the lyrics. The beats aren’t half-bad, either. This is honestly, the best rap album I’ve heard, well, since “Undun,” which – you guessed it – is another concept album, this time by The Roots.
So, here’s my list (in no particular order) of my favorite concept albums:
- Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, by Kendrick Lamar
- Undun, by The Roots
- 12 reasons to die, by Ghostface Killah
- American Gangster, by Jay-Z
- Black Materia, by Random
- Disposable arts, by Masta Ace
- The Long, Hot Summer, by Masta Ace
- Castlevania: Nocturna, by Random
- Language Arts, vols. 1-3, by Random
- 4-Eva In a Day, by Big K.R.I.T.T.
and yeah, I’ve got a lot of Random on this list. So what? He makes good concept albums.
This makes me wonder if I will, or could ever make a cohesive, album-long narrative. I think I could, but it would have to be a subject matter that I’d be totally engaged with enough to write 13 songs totally about it. It’s not impossible, after all, I do have a 3-song trilogy written that tells the story of me and a ladyfriend I was interested in courting. But 3 songs is NOT a full length album. I thought about making a concept album about my favorite video game (Zelda) in the same vein as Random’s video game albums, and I thought about doing a full album chronicling the adventures of my super spy alter ego, James Quan 008 ½. And of course, I could just tell MY story, about the things I experienced growing up in my own “MadCity” of Flint, MI (to quote DJ Quik, “It’s Jus Like Compton.”). but I don’t know. Right now, my schedule is so hectic I have no idea when I’ll get in the studio to record “The Third One,” much less a concept album after that. Oh well, c’est la guerre.