By now, you have an opinion on Kendrick Lamar’s major label debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. You’ve probably read our review, probably sent some Tweets about it. Probably argued about the relative merits of MC Eiht’s verse on “M.A.A.D. City”. Probably wondered why “Cartoon & Cereal” ain’t on the album, and how Gunplay’s verse on that bodies all guests on the album proper. You’re probably ready to call it Album of the Year too.
That’s cool. But that’s not what really interests me here. Listening to Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, the most interesting thing to me is how much of Kendrick Lamar is in this thing. If you search Twitter, you’ll still find some people (all of them wrong) who are wondering about Kendrick “selling out,” but I’m stretching to think of a major label rap debut that is/was less of a bend to commercial pressures.
This is an album with 12-minute songs. The main single, “Swimming Pools (Drank),” is about alcohol complicating lives, and it’s on the charts. There are skits that are tied together into a John Singleton short story. It has a Beach House sample. The only reference to a basketball player is of being jealous of a bench player from the Orlando Magic. Kendrick got to make the album he wanted; the Lady Gaga single that was presumably (hopefully) pushed on him isn’t even on here.
So how did he succeed where basically every other Interscope signee of the last decade failed? It’s tempting to say that it’s because Kendrick has a better sense of self than say, Game, but on his mixtapes, Yelawolf had an equally developed world view and sense of purpose, and he basically became the poor man’s Machine Gun Kelly on his major label debut, Radioactive. It might be that he’s the most hyped West Coast MC in the post-Tupac landscape, but then again, The Source has called every rapper west of the Mississippi “the new Tupac” at some point. It might be that there was some shake up at Interscope where they don’t just bench their mixtape heroes (I see you Freddie Gibbs in 2007), but after years of blocking 50 Cent, Game, M.I.A. and Knux albums makes that seem unlikely.
The biggest argument for how Kendrick’s album making it out of Interscope’s Foxconn Rap Factory without a Chester French feature is that he has the blessing of Dr. Dre. That might be true; he’s the first Aftermath artist to get a push since 50, pretty much, and Dre seems unusually invested in TDE in general (probably because all of those dudes could probably ghostwrite for the newest version of Detox that will never be released).
But really, who do Dre’s verses on “Compton” and “The Recipe” really help? What does Kendrick gain beyond having one of his heroes be on his album? It’s a net positive for Dre, not Kendrick; Dre gains cache for being on an album underground heads embrace, maybe distancing himself from his Skylar Gray phase. When was the last time that happened? That a big name guy of Dre’s stature was attaching himself to a younger guy not as a paid booster of the young guy’s career, but as a way to boost his own career? Dre appearing on Eminem’s first major label album?
What’s clear is that Interscope is betting the farm on Kendrick Lamar, and (gulp) it’s time they get applauded for making a good decision (for once). It’s not just fans, hip-hop blogs, Rap Twitter, Dr. Dre and every major music magazine who are falling in behind Kendrick Lamar’s hype. Interscope is sure he’s the Next Big Thing, and for the first time in years, that decision doesn’t seem forced down our aural cavities.
By letting Kendrick to make good kid, m.A.A.d. city the way he wanted, Interscope put out the best major label rap album of the year, something that should be their goal, but hasn’t been a reality for them for at least 12 years. If nothing else, Kendrick proved himself to be the boss amongst the last two years of mixtape heroes. He made an album that sounds like he had as much control over as he would a mixtape. He’s got talent a major label can’t squash.
Good luck, A$AP Rocky.