REVIEW: Kendrick Lamar – “i”
by Chad Jewett
Part of the reason good kid, m.A.A.d city, the 2012 major-label debut from Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar, felt like an instant classic was because, like so many of the hip hop albums we now regard as essential, it felt so effortlessly tangible. It excelled in the business of world building. Like Ready To Die or Illmatic or ATLiens or The Chronic, good kid felt lived-in and specific, it’s aural mix of breezy west coast soul, paranoid funk, and artful cutting edge soundscapes stitched together by Lamar’s flexible, compelling voice. The record more or less takes place inside a van, and one finds themselves very easily picturing the cassettes popping in and out of the tape deck, spliced together by Kendrick Lamar’s storytelling, by his sense of geography and emotional realism and thorough-going introspection.
Lamar, like Nas or The Notorious B.I.G. or Tupac Shakur, has a voice unmistakable and expansive enough to explore the outer edges of his own imagination. The 27-year-old rapper could likely go as far as he wants to, as his own taste for creation stretches. We saw this with the good kid b-side “Cartoon & Cereal”, a giddy collage of studio abstraction that gave the rapper free reign to explore his method acting style. Now we have “i”, a provocative title for a songwriter who, perhaps paradoxically, is utterly singular and recognizable yet astoundingly skilled at cycling through an entire cast of different characters (check out his verse on Pusha T’s “Nosetalgia” for instance). Good kid was about many versions of Kendrick. “i” seems to be trying to round into some sort of synthesis. Taking the breeziest 70s soul moments of his 2012 breakthrough and the pop instincts of 2011’s Section.80 and brightening the mood even further (via a sample of The Isley Brothers’ “That Lady”), Lamar’s voice is affectingly airy and light, his multi-speed verses delivered in a sing-song not unlike the more blissed-out, retro-soul passages of Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap. Choruses are there simply to state “I love myself”, wreathed by electric guitars. A bridge gives Lamar space to sing in a raspy tenor. A break features a pitch-shifted hook and jumbles of percussion. The whole thing is enormously exciting and adventurous and moving, an infectious turn of the page from a young artist who contains multitudes.