THOUGHTS? What does this tell us about the game? Who is missing
In one corner is Kendrick Lamar, from Compton, Calif., one of the most daring and sometimes vexing rappers of the day and one who is inverting the gang-rap legacy of his hometown while working under the auspices of one of its founding fathers, Dr. Dre.
In the other corner is Meek Mill, from Philadelphia, a bully of a rapper who, while not as innovative as, say, Drake, has been the most exciting young conventional hip-hop star of the last couple of years since he signed with Maybach Music Group, the label with Rick Ross at the helm.
Superficially they are at opposite poles: Mr. Lamar is an anointed-by-acclamation savior and a reluctant hit maker while Meek Mill is an excitable star with a firm grasp on what makes people move. But each has a strong new major-label debut album and something in common: they’re storytelling purists. Mr. Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope) and Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” (Maybach Music Group/Warner Brothers) are two very different accomplishments but accomplishments all the same. They albums also effectively demonstrate how two artists who value the same fundamentals can choose wildly different paths to express them.
Mr. Lamar’s is the bolder route. His is a totally unhurried album, easily the most ambitious in hip-hop this year, maybe the most ambitious in any mainstream-focused genre. His songs unfold at the speed of life as it’s often lived — slow, meandering, often unremarkable. Every time some action threatens to accelerate the pace of Mr. Lamar’s album, in comes a voice-mail message from his mother killing the buzz.
That’s part of this album’s narrative strategy, which includes, on top of Mr. Lamar’s tremendous verses, prayers and conversations and different voices and recollections and interludes, all in service of one overarching story: Mr. Lamar’s tale of ducking Compton’s rougher corners to find himself artistically.
The album “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” recalls the intricacy of early albums by De La Soul, but without the humor. It has the blushing charm of the Pharcyde and the grounded funk of early Outkast, as well as songs that carry an evident sonic torch for his city’s gangster-rap past. Mr. Lamar has also probably listened to some Freestyle Fellowship, the Los Angeles underground heroes who counterbalanced that gangster rap in the early ’90s with inventive wordplay. He’s halfway toward bending words in the same manner as they did and likely for the same reason: to escape.
Take this segment from “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” which comes after Mr. Lamar teases a possibly dark past:
Would you say my intelligence now is great relief
And it’s safe to say that our next generation maybe could sleep
With dreams of being a lawyer or doctor
Instead of a boy with a chopper
That hold the cul-de-sac hostage
Kill them all if they gossip
The songs on this album are, almost without fail, dense and quiet, highlighting the changes over the past two decades in hip-hop’s scale and gloss by rejecting them outright. (A notable exception is the springy “Backseat Freestyle,” a robust accomplishment in any era.)
It’s on course to sell more than 200,000 copies in its first week, an outlandish number for an artist with no significant radio presence but not for one with a committed online fan base. In this he’s like an indie-rock breakthrough act of the mid-’90s, tapping in to a reserve of commercial, anticentrist sentiment and proving that the market is flexible enough to accommodate dissent.
In the abstract, Meek Mill — a Rick Ross protégé, preserver of big-money triumphalism — is exactly the sort of artist Mr. Lamar is pushing back against. When he raps, Meek Mill sounds as if he’s calling home-run highlights on “SportsCenter.” His flow is all jabs, nothing smooth about it. His songs sound about 50 percent louder than anything else on the radio.
This is the other side of Mr. Ross’s maximalism. Had he come out on his own, Meek Mill would just be shouting, but under Mr. Ross’s umbrella he’s exulting, a logical response to the single-minded commitment to success his boss employs.
But of all Mr. Ross’s underlings, Meek Mill is the cleverest and the one most capable of breaking the template the big man has mapped out. On his earliest mixtapes Meek Mill was more of an obvious technician than he is now, and his recent “Dreamchasers” series of mixtapes have in places been sober complements to hits like “House Party” and “Ima Boss.”
What Meek Mill wants to do is tell stories, unfashionable though that may be. On “Dreams and Nightmares” he tries to have it both ways, sneaking moments of heartbreak into otherwise straightforward boast sessions. But he also has a surprising number of stand-alone short-story songs. “Who You’re Around” is a scathing indictment of a friend turned adversary — “I woulda rolled for you, even in the same hearse/Same cemetery, bury me in the same dirt/We had a plan but I guess it ain’t work” — and “Tony Story Pt. 2” continues a tale of underworld mistrust begun on his “Dreamchasers” mixtape. On “Traumatized” he lashes out against the man who killed his father: “I was only a toddler, you left me traumatized/You made me man of the house and it was grinding time.”
Early critical response likened “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” to “Illmatic,” the debut album by the revered Queens rapper Nas, but the comparison holds truer for “Dreams and Nightmares.” While “Illmatic,” like Mr. Lamar’s album, was primarily a document of observation rather than participation, it didn’t reject the tastes of the day and wasn’t a coherent narrative concept album. It aimed for success, much as Meek Mill’s does.
Mr. Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” is as much of a slog as any great album in recent memory and probably the chewiest major-label hip-hop album in more than a decade. It necessitates ways of listening that went out with the Clinton presidency or with the advent of the seven-inch single. There are almost no obvious entry points, nothing bite-size to latch onto.
“Dreams and Nightmares,” by contrast, is highly legible; even its more daring songs are straightforward. But just because Meek Mill doesn’t play with cadence or voice or melody like Mr. Lamar doesn’t mean that he’s not thoughtful. His story songs are intricate, external to Mr. Lamar’s internal. He also builds tension in a way that Mr. Lamar, with his perma-cool and level presence, struggles to replicate. Mr. Lamar eases into the beat when he’s not gingerly dancing around it; he is never dominating. That’s why he remains largely a cipher.
What Meek Mill also has that Mr. Lamar lacks is hits — “Amen,” a loose and jubilant Drake collaboration, and “Young & Gettin’ It,” a fake-Drake song featuring Kirko Bangz that’s saccharine and dim. Meek Mill seems to be distancing himself from it by using Auto-Tune, as if he knows the song is beneath him.
Mr. Lamar has a semi-hit, “Swimming Pools (Drank),” about the perils of alcohol and the strain it places on the dispossessed, a song as sinuously catchy as can be. But there is no mistaking it for a compromise. He’s a speaker at a podium hoping people will lend him their ears, while Meek Mill is in the crowd, grabbing them by the neck and demanding that they pay attention, then rewarding it.