Underground rap music is rife with high expectations. Artists that show early promise are often touted as the next savior of hip-hop – a shining light of “realness” amidst the drudgery of the average rapper. Too often, these expectations are misplaced. Acts like Wale, Blu, Clipse, Jay Electronica, Pac Div, The Knux and a litany of others have, in one way or another, failed to consistently deliver on their significant promise. It's unfortunate, because while these artists have followed their early success with some interesting work (save for Jay Elec, who could be dead for all we know), those projects will inevitably be deemed lackluster next to that first blistering verse/mixtape/release. Leading up to the release of good kid, m.A.A.d city, one couldn't help but wonder if Kendrick Lamar would be handicapped by his rapid move into the limelight. At only 25, he was about to release the only Aftermath record that wasn't by Eminem or 50 cent in the last 6 years; he was being labeled the next great leader of West Coast hip-hop; and he was cutting tracks with Lady Gaga (?). In other words, he was perfectly positioned to lose his sense of purpose.
Good kid, m.A.A.d city is Lamar's forceful declaration that being swallowed by the hype was never even an option. Close followers of Lamar's ascension perhaps knew that this would be the case. After all, Lamar's early work was littered with lines like “fuck a funeral, just make sure you pay my music respect.” And on Section.80's “The Spiteful Chant” he notes that if Dr. Dre tries to give him a handout he's “gonna take his wrist and break it.” The Black Hippy crew have been nothing but fiercely independent from the outset, each carving out their own style and working hard to protect it. Lamar, in particular, built his reputation around the idea that he was not just a “conscientious” rapper. Rather, he says that he “never want[s] people to classify his music.” He crafts moments of introspection that run right up against more traditional “hood rap” lines. He is neither the prophet of the streets nor a what-are-they-thinking critic of the ghetto. He says himself: “the next time I talk about money, hoes, clothes, god and history all in the same sentence, just know I meant it and you felt it. Because you too are searching for answers.” In other words, he is a human; and he embraces all the oddities and complexities that come along with that.
Kendrick crafted good kid, m.A.A.d. city as a reflection of his life path, from his upbringing in Compton to his modern state of mind. Meant to play out like a short film rather than an album, it is has a thematic thread that strings each song into a cohesive narrative. The album opens with a group of young men reciting a prayer. It is unclear why they are praying – it could be grace around a dinner table or a sunday morning ritual. However, as the narrative (a day in the life of teenage Kendrick) is slowly pieced together, with voice messages and supposed recordings from the day's events, the album eventually returns to that prayer. It now has new, devastating implications that can only be understood if one has followed Kendrick's story from the outset.
We first meet Kendrick when he is “17 with nothin' but pussy stuck on [his] mental.” “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter's Daughter” details his messy love affair with a local flirt. It captures well the intensity with which impetuous male teenagers pursue any and all possible sexual encounters. Kendrick tells the story with a boozy flow that oscillates between languid rhyme schemes and rapid fire spasms. He opts for the latter when he raps about the casual promiscuity of him and Sherane, noting that “love or lust, regardless we'll fuck/ cause that's the trife in us.” At this point, present-day Kendrick is painting a picture of a hormonal teenager that steals his mom's car to go have sex. It's a narrow piece of storytelling but it immediately creates a close connection between the listener and teenage-Kendrick. From there, the story becomes broader and increasingly more interesting.
On “Backseat Freestyle” Kendrick is at the point in the narrative where he is starting to envision success and his ego has taken hold. Over a vicious Hit-Boy beat, he says “all my life I want money and power, respect my mind or die from lead shower.” Spit with a nasally growl, one can almost see the puffed up teenager standing on the hood of a car screaming that line. His sense of invincibility carries through the first half of “The Art of Peer Pressure,” but it's clear that his thinking is beginning to adapt. “The Art of Peer Pressure” shows Kendrick at his most visual. One envisions the group of friends in the “white Toyota” driving down Rosecrans smoking blunts and drinking orange soda. It's a seemingly traditional, albeit extremely lyrically adept, day-in-the-life rap song. However, as the friends start to get deeper and deeper into their drug fueled misadventures, Kendrick notes that they were “trying to conquer the city with disobedience, quick to turn it up even if [they didn't] have the CD in.” It seems that while Kendrick grew up with and has a certain love for that kind of lifestyle, he understands that it is ultimately “circling life” rather than taking responsibility for oneself. This introspection is welcome but, as Kendrick is still a young man at this point in the narrative, the storyline quickly turns back to quoting “Trap or Die” and fetishizing money.
The story weaves through various themes before climaxing on “Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst.” Kendrick touches on the general turmoil of growing up in Compton on “good kid” and “m.A.A.d city” and bemoans the alcoholic culture that comes with success on the ironically radio friendly “Swimming Pools (Drank).” At the end of “Swimming Pools,” one hears a recording from inside of a car. The young men are waiting on someone, hoping to have the tactical advantage in a shootout. They fire a few rounds and the protagonist soon finds that his brother is wounded. “Sing About Me” unpacks this very real scenario from Kendrick's childhood with troubling and moving results. Kendrick raps from the perspective of his dead friends brother, saying that he knows “exactly what happened/ you ran outside when you heard my brother cry for help/ held him like a newborn baby and made him feel/ like everything was alright and a fight he tried to put up/ but the type of bullet that stuck had one against his will.” The album has moments of frivolity, stupidity, seriousness, and absurdity; however, it is these moments of compassion that make it stick pointedly in the back of your mind.
Aside from its thematic strengths, good kid is also stylistically excellent. Part of that comes from the cohesive production effort that ebbs and flows effectively with the the tone of the album (and provides some serious bangers in “Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe,” “Backseat Freestyle” and “Swimming Pools”). The rest of it (about 99%) comes from the fact Mr. Lamar is basically the rap equivalent of James Joyce. Now, that comparison is extremely hyperbolic, but it is also apt given that both men make the English language their bitch and excel at morphing their writing style to fit different contexts. When the occasion calls for it (i.e. the story is touching on visceral or intense moments) Kendrick's cadence ramps up to double or triple time. Conversely, during languid, introspective segments his lines ooze with a quiet confidence. He consistently crafts lines like the following: “it's deep rooted, the music of being young and dumb/ it's never muted, in fact its much louder where I'm from.” They are delivered so effortlessly that they often just pass by. However, rhyming wonks will have a field day delving into all of the internal rhymes, the mid-line speed switches, the sheer verbal dexterity. Good kid achieves the rare feat of being worthwhile for both the underground fiends and the casual hip-hop listener.
The word “classic” will undoubtedly be thrown around in reference to this album. I'd say that's fair, but it is also premature. Good kid needs some time to gestate before we know where it fits into the fabric of rap. After all, it is not a one punch knockout, like an Illmatic or a Reasonable Doubt. It is a varied and dense listening experience that feels more like an emotional outburst than an assured statement of purpose. For now, it is safe to say that good kid, m.A.A.d city is the most potent exploration yet of one of the most interesting minds in rap music. [A]
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