It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
"I don't listen to too much rap when I'm writing my own music," Kendrick Lamar explained in a recent interview, "cause I really don't want it to sound like anybody else's." The Compton rapper's debut is a remarkably open-minded affair, a meticulously recorded day in the life of 17-year-old "K-Dot." It certainly doesn't sound like anybody else's music, and at times it's even hard to locate Lamar himself in it. He's neither a hero nor villain, more of a bystander constantly shifting perspectives. He's wild and reckless on "Backseat Freestyle," coldly ambitious on "Money Trees," verging on collapse on "Swimming Pools." On "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" – a song that only makes sense within the context of good kid – he voices the crowds around him, only not everyone makes it. The kid's challenges are legion: turf war realpolitik, best friends and their "peer pressure," the awful lows of dragging on the wrong blunt. It's an album stitched together by themes and skits, the pursuit of the same old thrills and the simple yet eternal dream of waking up to see tomorrow.
When he's recording his own music – songs, not guest verses – Lamar prefers listening to "oldies, melodies, anything outside of rap." While recording good kid he kept returning to Marvin Gaye and the Isley Brothers. Gaye's 1981 In Our Lifetime was the troubled singer's penultimate album and, consequently, a tumultuous and absorbingly schizoid affair. Following the commercial failure of Here, My Dear, wherein he documented in painful detail the dissolution of his marriage, Gaye wanted to reestablish his pop chart bona fides with an album called Love Man. But over the course of his many vexed recording sessions in Los Angeles, Honolulu and finally London, it became clear that Gaye was only trying to fool himself – he was nowhere near as upbeat as his backing disco-funk arrangements suggested. Instead, he allowed the contradictions to sit side-by-side; there was no resolution between the sacred and the profane. Instead, In Our Lifetime – which probably could have been an untroubled collection of hit singles – captures Gaye at his most pensive, conflicted and self-doubting.
One of the few guests on good kid is MC Eiht, a West Coast legend who – and it pains me to even have to mention this – said "jyeah" decades before Ryan Lochte discovered the world of precious metal mouthwear. Eiht shows up as the elder statesman on "m.A.A.d city" – a sort of amped-up "Growin' Up in the Hood" – growling his verse with a cool intensity. Lamar recalls a childhood spent driving around Compton with his father, listening to tapes from all their famous, rapping neighbors. One assumes that Straight Checkn 'Em, the second album from Eiht's group, Comptons Most Wanted, was in heavy rotation. Released in 1991 – when Lamar was four – it's a disarmingly mellow album, thanks largely to Eiht's laidback charisma. Classics like "Growin' Up in the Hood" and "Raised in Compton" comprised a local lineage – along with N.W.A., W.C. and the M.A.A.D. Circle and the Game – that Lamar would one day be a part of.
The Moody Man
There's a throwback sensibility to Lamar's desire to craft his album as an album rather than collection of singles. "Doggystyle, The Chronic, It's Dark and Hell is Hot. I think probably subconsciously all the time in my head I knew when my debut album came I was going to formulate my album similar to these." While good kid is notable for its interwoven storylines, it also achieves a weirdly uniform sound given its array of producers. DMX's 1998 debut achieves a mood and stays there – a rare thing, given the kitchen-sink approach and multiple personality disorder that afflicts most debuts. The Yonkers rapper made the most of his bark, and It's Dark is almost suffocating in its total commitment to being loud, ferocious, borderline unhinged.
There's an obvious line to be drawn from Outkast and their classic, "poet and the pimp," contradiction-filled albums and Lamar's complex debut. There's a kindred spirit there, a willingness to ignore conventions and instead dwell within the fully-formed world of one's own creation. But there's also a sonic resemblance between good kid and the Atlanta duo's 1998 Aquemini, and it's not just because both albums have a few extra-long tracks. It's in the way Big Boi and Dre allowed their songs to breathe, from the Southern dub of "SpottieOttieDopaliscious" to the wrenching, two-part "Da Art of Storytellin'" to those skits and snatches of dialogue that didn't carry the narrative so much as they conveyed context and character.
The "Buried Alive Interlude" was a strange cul-de-sac on Drake's 2011 album Take Care, a few breathless verses from Lamar that seemed to float free of the album's larger narratives. To Black Hippy stans, Lamar's charismatically alien voice stole his host's thunder, while many of Drake's pop devotees merely wondered what was wrong with him. But it's a friendship that makes sense. Take Care was a record that aspired for a similar kind of thematic and sonic coherence, and the collaborators offer two different version of charisma circa right now – Drake as the cool yet vulnerable lothario, Lamar the conflicted yet self-confident romantic. Drake returns Lamar's favor on good kid's nostalgic "Poetic Justice," playing wingman and rapping about sundresses.