Joey Maloney / For The Times
One of the 2011's best surprises was Kendrick Lamar's "Section.80." The iTunes exclusive was a great, utterly unself-conscious rap record from South L.A. Ever since Dr. Dre began plugging away on his version of "Chinese Democracy," Lamar's been viewed as the West Coast's standard bearer with an eye on even bigger artistic goals.
Take "Keisha's Song (Her Pain)" off the album, where Lamar strikes up a deep friendship with a vulnerable woman over their shared crack-era childhoods. It sets the tone for an urgent, defiant and ambitious full-length that's sonically forward and emotionally bare.
Lamar raps on Dr. Dre's forthcoming album, "Detox," and the producer is reportedly working on Lamar's album "Good Kid in a Mad City." Unlike today's out-of-touch "luxury rap," Lamar's vision feels completely relevant for 2012 and beyond.
-- August Brown