Self-awareness and smart experimentalism sets Kendrick Lamar's major-label debut album apart from the rest.
Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ is essentially a coming-of-age story, telling the life of a young, highly touted rapper from Compton finding his feet and making it big. A group of sketches stitched together by skits, ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ is both cohesive and expansive: moving from nostalgic monologues to lengthier, more complex songs in the mold of Cartoons and Cereal – the brilliant, unofficial lead single that was leaked earlier in the year and omitted from the album’s final tracklisting.
His narrative is a recognisable one, but Kendrick’s struggle to understand his past and reconcile it with his present is always dynamic. The album opener Sherane A.K.A. Master Splinter’s Daughter, told from the perspective of an unthinking seventeen-year-old Kendrick, is vivid and tense, and the first single from the album, Swimming Pools (Drank), is cautionary rather than preachy. The production is so luscious and the chorus so inviting that it couldn’t have been written by someone who doesn’t understand temptation before rejecting it.
The most self-conscious of “conscious” rappers, Kendrick embraces tensions on the album and is masterful at using vocal manipulation and strategic guest features to open up multiple viewpoints on a problem. Swimming Pools features a verse by his conscience pitched like a good angel from a cartoon, and the latter part of the twin title tracks shifts between a frantic Kendrick on the verge of tears and veteran MC Eiht, encapsulating the corruptive influence of gang life, its grim fatalism and spiralling violence. ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ also tries to navigate a path forward, though, and takes in Kendrick’s new-found success. Backstreet Freestyle is a banger complete with brash boasts and a goofy “Martin had a dream! Kendrick have a dream!” chant that might be a loose interpolation of a memorable verse on Rick Ross’ 2009 single Mafia Music. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but undoubtedly joyous – a momentary letting go of everything to revel in the spoils of super-stardom. It’s followed by the sober The Art of Peer Pressure.
The other major concern of the album is Kendrick Lamar’s status as Compton’s – and broadly rap’s – saviour, a revival of a social concern and community spirit that many feel has been lacking. It’s a tricky issue, tackled on Sing About Me/I’m Dying of Thirst with an old gang-affiliated friend who wants his story included on the album and a prostitute who turns angry and criticises him for his well-meaning but ultimately futile sympathy. Kendrick Lamar actually released a song online yesterday urging fans to buy the album and “not let hip-hop die” on October 22nd, but it comes across as desperate, and it’s a very tired idea when put up against the album’s more considered approach. Kendrick’s main virtue is empathy, and he’s at his best when he’s drawing out the bigger picture from intimate set-pieces; living out and articulating the problems rather than trying to answer them directly.
‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ is a testament to that, and with the addition of excellent production and thoughtful arrangement, Kendrick Lamar has arguably made the best rap album of the year. Not because it’s perfect – the imperfection is really a part of its appeal – but because it’s a work of concentrated ambition that manages to strike the sweet spot between individuality and popular appeal.