“He’s not a rapper… he’s a writer,” begins the new Kendrick Lamar single, a gospel preacher’s voice welcoming back the Compton emcee through a fog of radio crackle, like a champion fighter to the ring. There was certainly something literary about 2012’s seismic ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’, an album almost Dickensian in its claustrophobic portrait of a city and its neglected underclass: the gravel-throated Oliver Twist at its heart – Kendrick – snaking rapid-fire rhymes about gang life, peer pressure and repentance around steely beats and smoky street ambience. Voices shout into pay phones. Traffic whistles and screeches through hood corners. Gun shots boom and echo in the distance. It was dark, narrative-driven and an instant classic, leaving Lamar with great expectations to meet on his upcoming third studio album.
Two years and a string of guest spots that took his hype to stratospheric new levels later, comes first single ‘i’. Sampling the Isley Brothers’ 1973 soul staple ‘That Lady’, previously borrowed by the Beastie Boys for their 1989 track ‘B-Boy Bouillabaisse’, the track sounds markedly more mainstream than anything on ‘good kid…’. Fans who lost themselves in the intense, inner-city pressure-cooker murk of that record might decry this song’s dancey shuffle, with its echoes of last year’s Eminem collaboration ‘Love Game’, not to mention the rampaging ’70s funk bass solo it climaxes with.
But dig deeper and you’ll find the same tensions tugging at Kendrick’s heels here that made ‘good kid…’ so compelling: sin and salvation, survival and destruction. “Satan want to put me in a bow-tie, praying that holy water don’t run dry,” he spits early on, before observing “a war outside and a bomb in the street and a gun in the hood and a mob of police and a rock on the corner and a line full of fiends.” It’s like ‘good kid…’ gave Kendrick a route out of the Compton slums only for the 27-year-old to discover on ‘i’ that the “entire world is a ghetto,” full of “guns and picket signs” – “it’s a jungle,” he reflects somberly in the track’s final line.
No release date or album title has yet been set for the hotly anticipated new album, produced in part by Flying Lotus (this song’s helmed by Los Angeles beatsmith Rahki). After the bombastic ‘i’, even more so than before, the album can’t come soon enough.