As industry stiffs fought past rain-soaked fans into Chung King studios in Manhattan last night for a Kendrick Lamar listening party, speculation flew as quickly as over-enthusiastic daps and business cards. "This better be the rap equivalent of Thriller," one attendee muttered, demonstrating the due praise and comical hyperbole that have shadowed the Compton, California, native throughout his slow and steady rise.
In a climate where rap's most buzzed about stars shoot across the sky with the tap of a trackpad, Lamar's decade-long climb seems almost implausible. How exactly does one craft a "debut" after releasing four mixtapes, an EP and an independent album? One damn good song at a time, it seemed, as the tracks previewed from Good Kid, M.A.A.D. city depicted the best of the rapper and the worst of his hometown, side-stepping all expectations and sounding at once warmly familiar and brand-spanking new.
Lamar and his Top Dawg Entertainment/Interscope affiliates shuffled through tracks from behind soundproof glass, giving the session the air of a market research test. But the handful of journalists taking notes huddled near a speaker were no match for the cocktail party/family cookout vibe that dominated the rest of the floor, as caterers served cheeseburger sliders and chicken fingers, and cute bartenders let the Ketel One flow freely ("They ran out of cups," one attendee whispered to a friend just before the album started, "so hold onto yours to get refills"). At the start, a TDE soldier briefed the room: "The man don't fuck around with his music. We've got people in here dressed regular. If we see you with cameras or phones recording, you'll be escorted out and we keeping your shit!"
They've got a right to be stingey: GKMC feels precious. The production alone sniffs at classic status: a tight, cohesive blending of Dre's chunky, hi-gloss ridah music and the woozy, futuristic boom-bap that Lamar fans have come to love. Beats swayed between down-tempo sparse thumpers and fierce drumbreak loops that screw your face up for you – one particularly vicious cut featured the infamous Funky Worm synth that defined Nineties West Coast rap, and it gained an even sharper edge when MC Eiht showed up to spit some straight-up menace. Other features were just as unpredictable: there was Drake rhyming about flying his natural-haired East African chick back to the motherland (Israel?), Fred the Godson bringing the Bronx River Deli to the Compton Swap Meet and Lady Gaga doing something that landed between rapping and singing but didn't really feel like either. Lamar's Black Hippy cohorts Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock weren't present on these songs, but they posted up at his sides during the session, ensuring the crew was solid as ever.
And then there was Kendrick. It's all here: the growls and snarls, the nasal deadpan, the loopy hooks, the cadence flips, the double-time barrages of syllables. His stories are just as vivid this go round, clocking in four full narratives within the six songs he previewed. His lyrics have always felt hyper personal, but these verses feel white-knuckle real: "If I told you I shot a man at 16, would you believe me?" he asks without blinking. One person's name literally gets bleeped out of a verse describing a robbery, but he doesn't omit it when rapping to himself from behind the control board. He narrates the rise and fall of a high school ball player (with the brilliant chorus "now watch that black boy fly"), and confesses to being jealous of ballers and rhymers in his hood that appeared to have a better shot at making it out. "Every neighborhood is an obstacle" in the world Lamar depicts, where he's often both suspect and spectator – deep in the cave, hopelessly punching at the walls.
"October 22nd, you'll get that whole package," Lamar promised at the close of the session. With little mention of mentor Dr. Dre and more than a month until the release date, we can be sure to expect more surprises leading up to the release. There were no titles given and tracks were presented in no order – after each, he'd ask "Y'all like that song? OK, cool." When Lamar announced he'd only play one or two more, the crowd jeered and rap media mainstay Elliott Wilson shouted "three!" into the mic. "Can't do that," Kendrick quipped. "We'd be giving y'all the whole album." If the night was any indication, it'll be worth the wait.