Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 masterpiece good kid, m.A,A.d city was, by any measure, one of the best albums to come out in years. Kendrick is one of the finest MCs to ever grace the mic, and he’s aided by production that complements his lyrical detailing stunningly well. It’s a supremely engaging work of music. But most importantly, it’s a meticulously told tale of Compton, California. It’s a lens into the life of a community and a people away from mainstream discourse, where the primary voices are those of the talents that emerge from within the community.
It seems that GKMC provided an image that most in the USA were themselves under-educated on. To a middle class high-schooler from India, then, it was a fascinating, complex, almost frighteningly voyeuristic insight into a life thousands of kilometers away from me. But somehow, the music spoke to me. It intrigued me. It made me want to delve into the intricacies of the lives of the people – such as Kendrick – who lived these lives every day. It goaded me into educating myself on issues of race, class, crime and culture that have always been a source of keen interest for me. The album, to me, wasn’t just music. It was a focal point in understanding a culture to which I was an outsider. And that, has been a compelling reason why I’m drawn to hip-hop, and why it’s been so important to me.
I began my dive into hip-hop, like most Indian teenagers, with Eminem. I’d heard a few stray tracks over the years, thanks to friends discretely passing on USB drives containing his biggest songs. They were laden with the kind of expletives that would get us disowned by our parents – and that was part of the thrill. Every time Em cussed (which was a lot) felt like an act of rebellion against our overly-strict upbringing. And it sounded good.
Most of my initial exposure to hip hop was thus limited to being an entertaining and edgy form of music. I remained mostly ignorant of the social and cultural elements of the genre. This began to change, however, as I dug into the discography of the rapper who’d go on to become one of my favourite musicians – Kanye West. I enjoyed his music, but a few songs piqued my curiosity, Jesus Walks being among the first. As someone who was raised Christian, the intersection of faith and race identity was wholly a novel idea, and one that set me on two paths – one, of understanding the role religion played in society and individual lives, and two, how hip hop went beyond music. I picked up on the themes of racial and social injustice and inequality littered throughout Kanye’s work. It was, to put it mildly, a revelation.
At this point, I was intent on understanding the social background from which hip hop came, and the vocabulary of a genre that depended on cultural contexts hugely different from my own. The credit for this next step lies largely with the community at Genius – which when I was active, was still known as Rap Genius. The annotations, both the ones I read and the ones I wrote and edited myself, helped me dissect and understand the language I was listening to. Appropriately, the first song I read the annotations for was a Roots song. I began to understand the particular slang, the pop culture references and the weight of so many of the words. Kanye continued to be the focal point of most of my interest – from the intersection of Black America and personal journeys on The College Dropout and Late Registration (All Falls Down, Diamonds From Sierra Leone), to the grandiose superstardom of Graduation (Can’t Tell Me Nothing), the heartbreak of 808s… (Heartless) and the masterpiece of human emotion that was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Runaway).
Thanks to Ye’s reputation as an iconoclast who also shaped mainstream music’s contemporary direction with every release, I was able to understand the many facets of the environment Kanye made music in. Through him, I was introduced to the music of several other rappers, many of whom went on to become favourites, including Jay Z (yes), Pusha T and Common. But what I also discovered, was that I was missing out on two distinct phases of hip-hop: one, its gritty past, and its hyper-evolving present and future.
I was prepared to undertake a deep dive into hip-hop. Fortunately, I had several guides who would come to symbolize and expand on what I loved about it.
Part 2 is here