When end-of-year best album charts begin popping up soon, Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” is a shoo-in to top a few lists.
One notable thing about “Good Kid” is its adoption of minimalism. This is not minimalism in an electronic sense or a classical one, but one rooted in cutting things down to a simple form.
Beats are often used as decoration for Lamar’s words. The backing track on “B—-, Don’t Kill My Vibe” feels like little more than a sighing guitar hook and drum loops.
Lamar’s record isn’t the only one keeping it simple. It’s a pattern I’ve noticed among some recent, critically celebrated albums.
Fiona Apple’s “The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do” is, unlike its title, pretty bare bones. The Brooklyn-born songstress teamed with a fellow New Yorker, drummer Charley Drayton, to cook up a record that is often sparse and desolate.
The album closer, “Hot Knife,” is primarily Apple and her sister redoubling their voices into a choir, accompanied only by a timpani and a sporadic tickling of the ivories, yet it’s one of the most dense tracks on “Idler Wheel.”
Across genres, the move to minimalism feels like an unconscious trend that is occurring right now in music: Lamar, Apple, James Blake, Frank Ocean, Bon Iver, The Weeknd, Drake, Mumford & Sons and more.
This doesn’t feel like a purposeful, genre-crossing choice on the part of the artists, but their critical praise does seem to have a genesis of its own.
Generation Y has grown up and gone into the workplace, claiming what few jobs it’s been able to find in the past few years.
In a fight to stay cool and hip, many music publications employ young scribes who know their Bryan Adams from their Ryan Adams.
These people are increasingly from the “MTV Generation,” people who grew up in the ’80s when bigger was deemed better – excessive hair, clothes, colors and enough synthesizers to blast Manuel Noriega out of hiding.
The ’80s were so inflated in musical terms that the early ’90s are a stark response: Not the celebratory rock of Guns n’ Roses, but the gloomy grunge of Nirvana. Not the fun vibes of Run D.M.C., but the harshness of Dr. Dre and gangsta rap.
Also associated with this contrast between the ’90s reaction to the ’80s is the idea that simplicity is a musical code for being real, authentic and genuine.
Ah, authenticity. That’s a word I hear often associated with indie folk, indie rock and general music hipsterdom.
Perhaps there’s something in the DNA of the critics that they don’t even fully fathom, which explains why albums that are stripped down to their essence are enjoying such critical success.
The minimalist approach of Lamar, Apple and others speaks to them in a language they understand and for which they have been primed on an instinctual musical level their entire lives. They’ve been taught from a young age that what is simple is what is real.
However, this Pavlovian priming isn’t rooted in fact. No artist or genre owns the copyright on authenticity.
In fact, authenticity is more about perception and projection than reality. Lamar’s record sounds genuine. He has the intimidating tag of being “from Compton,” which lends his rhymes a credibility based on societal notions about the locale, helped in part by Dre and his ilk.
But “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” is catchy and mixes questions about creating an identity within a cycle of violence and crime. It has something interesting to say, but I doubt its minimalist approach is the result of a conscious effort by artists across numerous genres to appeal to the critical code that simplicity equals authenticity.
However, if I’m wrong and artists such as Lamar and Apple are secretly phoning each other in a genre-spanning game of one-upmanship, if it’s strengthening the music each makes, then they shouldn’t kill each other’s vibe.
To read more of Nick DeCicco’s blogs, visit http://dailyrepublic.typepad.com/forthoseabouttorock. Follow him on Twitter @ndeciccodr.