Los Angeles hip-hop is flourishing at the moment by anyone's standards, but while the scene is prospering, it’s doing so with reality rap that is, at best, bittersweet. A week after its release, Vince Staples’s Summertime ’06 is sounding like one of the best albums of the year, but it’s not exactly a feel-good listen. Boogie’s The Reach is out now too, and just as dour. YG made some sunny pool party raps but broke those parties up with drive-bys and LAPD task force raids. Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is every bit as gruff as its title. Kendrick kicked this all off with a club staple about alcoholism and a platinum album about how even the nice guys can get caught up in the game.
Anyone looking for an alternative to the gloom should invest in Dom Kennedy, whose By Dom Kennedy dropped last month full of all the southern Californian bliss conspicuously absent from so much current Los Angeles rap. It’s music for putting blunts of medical out the window of a beautiful, well-made European car on a pleasant evening cruising down 101, among friends or on the way to meet up with them. That’s precisely what the album is about, more or less, although Dom also touches on his beloved neighborhood of Leimert Park, his dad’s old car, his son, and vague lessons about money and the rap game. Like every Dom Kennedy album, it’s compelling regular-guy rap over lush, well-selected beats, expertly sequenced into something that feels complete like few albums do these days.
Given the present moodiness of Angelino hip-hop, the general positivity of By Dom Kennedy is refreshing. There’s a lot to be said for the way Kendrick’s stories demonstrate how the straight-laced kids get caught up in the bullshit too, or how YG’s vulnerability knocks the mythologically powerful Gang Banger down to the level of a normal-ass kid. But sometimes people in the neighborhoods that hip-hop paints as war zones just want to get high and drive a nice car. Dom speaks to that normalcy.
As we continue our long-overdue conversation about police brutality in America, there is a lingering sentiment that beat cops are walking streets so dangerous that the need for military-grade hardware is self-evident. Anyone determined to see the Mike Browns of the world as inherent threats by extension probably imagines Ferguson as something like Fallujah. And so while it’s important to have the Kendricks and the Vinces speaking on their struggles, By Dom Kennedy is much-needed counterbalance. Life still flourishes in gang-ravaged blocks. A Compton address is not a death sentence.
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