Kendrick Lamar raps its his way

Rapper Kendrick Lamar played TLA with his uncompromising style.
Rapper Kendrick Lamar played TLA with his uncompromising style. (DAN MONICK)
Posted: September 15, 2012

Kendrick Lamar will not lose.

At least, he'd better not. The 25-year-old Compton, Calif., rapper's first music video begins with a bold invocation of his muse Tupac Shakur, Lamar claiming the legendary rap martyr challenged him in a dream with the charge "Don't let me die." The young scion opens his song's first verse with "visions of Martin Luther staring at me." And on the corporeal plane, Dr. Dre has graced Lamar's forthcoming major-label debut with the gravity of his financial endorsement, an honor that has previously minted money factories like Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent, and one ubiquitous pair of headphones.

Many of the best songs Lamar played at the TLA on Thursday night hit right upon the crux of his conundrum. A rap fan in 2012 could scarcely ask for anything better than the mesmeric phantoms of a broken childhood that haunt "Cartoon & Cereal," the incisive dissection of ethanol escapism "Swimming Pools (Drank)," or the Cali anthem "The Recipe," arguably the best West Coast hip-hop has sounded since Dr. Dre's 2001 album dropped in '99.

These songs, singles from next month's good kid, m.A.A.d city, have failed to dent the Top 20 of the U.S. rap charts. And Lamar has so far proven the type of artist unwilling to compromise even when he's yet to make millions, or make back the millions of his investors.

Still, Lamar's got fans, as Thursday's concert showed. Rocking an old-school Sixers sweatshirt beneath a black-and-white L.A. cap, Compton's current finest loaded the rest of his set with cuts from last year's acclaimed Section.80 album, drawing occasionally upon older mixtape material. The gritty flows and soulful, richly musical beats were all familiar hits for the nearly sold-out crowd, which followed Lamar's lead by the syllable.

Between songs, he repeatedly promised his legions that he'd never let them down - likely aware that most of them had caught wind that his next single will feature his most famous (and perhaps least hip-hop) fan, Lady GaGa. Whether Lamar will uphold his end of the bargain to acolytes and financiers both remains to be seen, but for now it's clear that at least the former still believe.

Lamar concluded his performance of "Hol' Up" with an a capella sing-along, the last line another embrace of expectations: "When you do it like this, losing ain't an option." He let the crowd take that one - they had his back on every word.

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