Jan. 10, 9:30 p.m. (8 p.m. doors), Toad's Place, 300 York St., New Haven, (203) 624-8623, toadsplace.com
Kendrick Lamar (performing at Toad's Place on Jan. 10) may well be the most talented rapper of his generation, but he's not one to make it look easy. Live and on record, he hews closer to the James Brown philosophy of performance — he wants you to see him sweat. His live act is strikingly free of your commonplace rap show crutches. There's no overeager hype-man screaming along to every word, no surrounding sub-par rapper posse (seemingly there only to make the headliner look good by comparison), and little in the way of light-show shock and awe. There's just raw ability on display — Lamar slings internal-rhyme-laden couplets in head-spinning double-time, twists his voice into everything from guttural growling to frantic quavering, and delivers a solemn a cappella just as effectively as he does a verse on a bass-heavy club track.
It's a truly impressive display to see, and one that makes you wonder why the guy often seems so damned insecure. Take the centerpiece of Lamar's latest album, good kid, m.A.A.d city. The 12-minute, two-act track "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" finds the Compton native rapping from multiple perspectives to sketch a panorama of his hometown, one that ultimately crescendos with a spiritual redemption — and even on this most ambitious of tracks, Lamar thoughtfully pauses halfway to worry about whether he'll be remembered. "Am I worth it? / Did I put enough work in?" You'd think he was fishing for compliments if he didn't sound so very sincere.
But then it's Lamar's focus on the under-represented emotions in hip-hop that makes his work so interesting. One of the most fascinating things about good kid is that bombastic self-glorification, the very core of most hip-hop, is almost entirely absent here, save for a track that mostly uses it as fodder for parody. (I'm fairly certain that "Backseat Freestyle" is the only time in hip-hop history that a rapper has attempted to spin a premature ejaculation reference into a boast.) The autobiographical narrative of the album echoes the John Singleton film Boyz n the Hood, like many rap albums before it, with a conflicted, decent young man trying to survive in a city ruled by Crips and Pirus (the album is in fact subtitled "A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar"). But where other rappers might use such bleak settings as backdrops for larger-than-life street superhero stories, Lamar keeps his narrative at a decidedly human scale.
This is an album with a framing device in the form of voicemail messages left by the rapper's mother — she isn't pleased that he borrowed her van to visit a girl — which takes place over one eventful day. Even within that limited framework, Lamar manages to address a variety of topics with a rare moral seriousness — the search for spiritual fulfillment, the futility of cycles of violence, the ravages of alcohol abuse. (One of the more bizarre concertgoing moments of my life was witnessing a crowd of intoxicated festivalgoers go berserk over Lamar's "Swimming Pools (Drank)," a caustic satire about the perils of drink).
But Kendrick's no scold. In fact, he's the first to admit his own moral failings, and as suggested earlier, he's more often than not second-guessing himself. The key joy of this album is seeing a brilliant young debater who doesn't have all the answers, in the process of thinking his way toward some. Well, that and the way that the bass on "m.A.A.d city" makes your trunk rattle.