Kendrick Lamar’s music to live by sums up 2012 pop music

Kendrick Lamar.

Kendrick Lamar.

If you go by radio or Internet singles, then the great pop songs of 2012 were “We Are Young” by Fun and “Swimming Pools” by Kendrick Lamar—two sides of young adult existentialism. The first, an unconsciously long-awaited answer to the “take me” request of The Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” (1986), looks past Morrissey’s classic youth desire to yearn afresh. The second expresses the class longing of California hip-hop, adduced in a perfect symbol of envied middle-class affluence. Lamar’s swimming pool provides a metaphor for materialistic (then narcotic) means of desperate desensitized living. It’s great when music you can groove to offers such breadth and depth.

I didn’t understand the brilliance of “Swimming Pools,” with its worrisome “Drank / pour up / Head shot / Sit down / Stand up / Pass out / Wake up / Faded / Faded” chorus, until I heard it in the context of Lamar’s bravura, history-making album. Lamar masters different MC voices, but he kinda looks like Dr. Dre (Andre Young), owner of the Aftermath record label that released Lamar’s debut album Good Kid M.A.A.D. City. They share broad foreheads, a wide face and light-brown skin tone and both come from Compton, Calif., the home of West Coast gangsta rap.

Born decades later than Dre, Lamar has made a Son of Dre album that is an amazing and unexpectedly moral sequel to Dr. Dre’s 1993 The Chronic. In his individual way, Lamar rescues the legacy of hip-hop that was warped when The Chronic appeared. Dre’s landmark record was a licentious celebration of black American self-destruction through violence or drugs. (“Nothin’ But a G Thang” and “Gin and Juice” were its biggest singles.)

Lamar has inherited that dread legacy, both the musical invention and social chaos that went along with it. You can hear Dre’s damned undeniable musicality at the heart of Lamar’s tracks; ineffably smooth melodies and profane sensuality that turn his rude street narratives into charm-filled and credible explorations of the no-longer ghettoized modern American psyche. Where The Chronic gave into ghettoization and depravity, Lamar questions its pervasiveness through songs and skits that highlight the possibility of spiritual choices.

Kendrick Lamar’s debut album Good Kid M.A.A.D. City.

Kendrick Lamar’s debut album Good Kid M.A.A.D. City.

Starting with a prayer, which is uncommon for this sin-and-sensation-based hip-hop culture that Dr. Dre influenced, Lamar’s album is a reminder for this secular Obama age that the genuine Black American experience has the church, faith, religion at its core. (The album’s motherly voices of prayerful admonition recall similar tropes by Blackstreet, explaining Lamar’s roots as much as Iris DeMent’s family songs.)

Part of the greatness of “Swimming Pools” is Lamar’s ingenious use of his swimming pool metaphor to describe his generatioin’s secular baptism. This is not a choirboy’s album even when Lamar brushes away the dirt of each trash-talking track. There’s real grappling with the temptations of street habits; Lamar has evidently seen deadly consequences of the depravity that Dre glorified. (The album’s cover features a family Polaroid of Lamar as a child sitting on the lap of his late uncle, who was a victim of ghetto violence.) Struggling with street life and its transitory pleasures and deceptive values (“Halle Berry or hallelujah/Pick your poison”) gives the album complexity and is a sign of both Lamar’s youth and artistic potential.

Lamar raps “Am I worth it? / Did I put enough work in?” which is as profound a question as any posed in contemporary popular music. The “worth/work” idea connects to the family/spiritual influence in Iris DeMent’s Sing the Delta as well as the familial/community-oriented tracks on Jay-Z’s great 2001 The Blueprint. But this internal interrogation is also—unmistakably—a trick learned from Eminem, Dre’s second major protégé following Snoop Dog.

When Lamar giftedly switches voices and personas, he’s like Eminem but with a healthier communal identity, not psychotic isolation. Lamar’s humanistic advance over Eminem and The Chronic is confirmed by “The Art of Peer Pressure,” “Money Trees” and the awesome two-song centerpiece “Sing about Me (I’m Dyin’ of Thirst)” and “Real.” Thirst completes Lamar’s swimming-pool motif as he ponders, “What love got to do with it when you don’t love yourself?” Measuring love in worldly possessions, not the spirituality of loving oneself and others, is exactly the tough self-questioning that Dre avoided on The Chronic.

Dre himself guest stars on the closing track “Compton,” explaining his bequest: “Perfected by niggas that manifested music to live in.” Lamar lives in hip-hop culture’s musical ethos while inventing artful ways to escape its traps.

Other pop music highlights in 2012: Lambchop’s mellow, engrossing, ever-deepening Mr. M, Neil Young’s wildly audacious Psychedelic Pill and R. Kelly’s neo-nostalgic Write Me Back.


Read John Demetry on 2012 Pop:

Read Ben Kessler on 2012  EPs: