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Review Fri Nov 06 2015

Kendrick Lamar and the Company He Keeps

Kendrick Lamar and I have history. I was 20 when we first met. He, only 25.

I was new to adulthood, and I had just topped off the last two years of my teens with a list of senseless decisions, unwarranted consequences and only a handful of regrets that I won't admit out loud.

He, on the other hand, was "new" to the rap game. By that time, he had already released Overly Dedicated and Section.80, two mixtapes that secured his spot in XXL's Top 10 Freshman Class of 2011. A closer look, he had already mapped out for me what my early 20s would look like: chaotic, systematic and full of a hell of a lot of good times.

It was October 2012, and the fall semester of my junior year of college had set in. The overwhelming pressure to graduate on time, to meet all academic requirements and to embody an institutionalized definition of a "well-rounded student" was in motion, and I was slowly losing control of my steering wheel.

My constant case of self-doubt became an incurable illness. My textbooks provided no guidelines -- just a table of contents of things to do.

Following, Lamar had just dropped Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. A quick Youtube search led me to his 12-track album, and with chump change, I bought his CD. In the quietest moments of my nights, I would sit alone in my dorm room, plug it in boom box, pull up the lyrics from Rap Genius and memorize them verbatim.

Right then and there, the only light -- aside from the glowing screen of my laptop -- was Lamar.

* * *

Three years have passed since we've connected. It was March of this year.

Only 22, and I felt like I had fallen into a corporate rut -- whatever that meant. My two weeks notice was put in place, and I was on the edge of starting something new.

And so was he.

Nearing the last day of my notice, I took my usual route to work. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Lamar on a magazine shelf of a convenient store by the train station.

He snagged the solo cover of XXL. With a close-up shot of an expressionless face, Lamar stood out with a blue, maybe corduroy, baseball cap with a white lower-case letter "i" in the middle to signify his new single from To Pimp A Butterfly. He's a little older now, and the small creases on his face frame his narrative. A quote from the interview hovered over his left shoulder: "...Who am I? Is this really what I'm supposed to be doing? How did I get here? Why am I doing this?..."

He and I were on the same page but were often writing different stories. He summed up all of my lengthy diary entries into four simple questions.

It was just days before the highly anticipated release of TPAB, and Lamar remained tight-lipped about leaking his new work.

When it finally came out, we retreated to a quiet spot -- this time, my car parked at a Best Buy lot. Like old friends, we rekindled our once nightly ritual.

I played his CD consecutively for about a month and then some, using Good Kid as an intermission. I played them both so many times that my favorite songs now skip, giving me time to catch my breath before he picks up from the verse of where we left off.

* * *

So, last night at The Riviera Theatre was personal. It was special, and Lamar knew that.

Top Dawg Entertainment labelmate and close friend Jay Rock started the evening by running through his hits from his sophomore album 90059. His performance was a thoughtful execution that centered on his gratefulness for his fans and for the love of hip hop.

A song like "Necessary" was proof of his state. Rock admitted to the crowd that he carried pieces of his life in the projects with him. He crooned, "The struggle is real. The struggle is real. The struggle is real. You gottta do what you got to just to get over the hill. When you live in America, either kill or be killed."

Standing on the cusp of fame, Rock sealed his set with "Vice City," a powerful nod to understanding that giving into temptations are detours to the promise land. Rock sustained his composure by staying "focused" and "feeling blessed [be]cause [his] eyes be the truth."

That outro became the perfect intro for Lamar.

The stage, which had only served as a secondary element in Rock's performance, was now transformed.

A section of what appeared to be silver streamers were placed near the center of the stage and became the prominent background for The Wesley Theory, an eclectic instrumental jazz and rock band that guided Lamar's live performance. The infamous "Pimps Only" sign recruited pairs of eyes who continued to lose sight of Lamar, especially when members of the audience began to jump around and shamelessly kept their hands in the air.

A gentle hue of purple and pink light painted a dreamy sequence. Split seconds of fiery reds and envious greens returned to private recollections of reality and clarity. It was no secret that the Kunta Groove Sessions were now in session.

Dim-lit cell phones dedicated to capturing every moment became a nuisance for those able to see the stage while standing, but they proved to be the saving grace for others who came up short to catch his act.

Lamar and The Wesley Theory reworked nearly every song on TPAB, and the crowd was quick to find their tempo. Interludes of Earth, Wind and Fire's "Can't Find Love" mirrored Lamar's carefully crafted respites in his latest tracks. Altogether, Lamar acknowledged that Chicago was in the building, and there was no escape.

The California-based rapper, who has ties to the Windy City, shared his sentiment in the unconscionable cause and everlasting effect of gang warfare. While "Backseat Freestyle" and "Money Trees" are treats for his fans, they act as a preface for Lamar's affidavit in "Institutionalized": "If I was the president, I'd pay my mama's rent. Free my homies and them. Bulletproof my Chevy doors."

To say the least, Lamar's past and present work is a colloquy to Compton. It is an unfinished letter to the city that has turned him from a boy into a man and crippled and claimed the lives of his "lost" and "dead" homies. Good Kid and TPAB tapped into Lamar's insecurities and his fight to find faith in the system, in the future and importantly, in himself.

He reminded the audience that while "loving you is complicated," complexion should never be a deciding factor to determine a person's worth. To love yourself, to respect yourself and to find strength in your voice are lessons that come from within and over time. Confidence is not so easily unwrapped when your layers have been consistently ripped by authority.

Caught in the rapture of his rhymes, the audience returned the favor to Lamar by chanting "we gon' be alright," a song that settles for comfort and hope in the struggle. For last night, Chicago was his home, and he was in good company.

"I keep my head up high, I cross my heart and hope to die...I'm alright, and you're a favorite. Dark nights in my prayers."

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »

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Transmission is the music section of Gapers Block. It aims to highlight Chicago music in its many varied forms, as well as cover touring acts performing in the city. More...
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