Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city

Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Interscope Records/Aftermath Entertainment: 2012

First things first: good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Kendrick Lamar’s debut album on Aftermath/Interscope records, is unequivocally awesome. But you already knew that. Since the MC’s unconventionally great Section.80 (2011), Kendrick has become the new Holy Ghost of rap music for this decade. His intricate rhyme schemes and complex layers of thought flow through the headphones of backpackers and stick-up kids alike. Through the rattling sound system of the busted Camry on Rosecrans Avenue to the perfectly-tuned home theater in a yuppie’s Williamsburg condo. Compton’s latest Chosen One is hip-hop’s ubiquitous Next Big Thing. The keepers of hip-hop’s written record have dusted off the pedestal. Message boards and blogs all proselytize the same: Kendrick’s voice is unique, his flow technically perfect, his Southern California pedigree vital.

During the build-up to the release of good kid, m.A.A.d. city I’d been consumed with how Kendrick Lamar fits contextually inside a hip-hop marketplace that is as wide open as it’s ever been. A glance at his two dozen or so feature spots over the last several months finds Kendrick not allying himself with any particular “movement” inside the genre. It’s this same philosophy that, at first, confounded listeners when they heard Section.80 (this critic included). Because we’re so used to compartmentalizing our artists—whether it’s by style of beat, or subject of rhyme—when someone who is so all over the playing field comes along, our stubborn ears don’t initially know what to do.

Regardless of the 4.5 score you see below (which, if we’re being honest, is a number based on blatant subjectivity and my best efforts at assessing hard empirical evidence like technical ability and beat selection) Kendrick Lamar is one of a few rap artists today who are essentially critic-proof. He doesn’t insert himself into any particular niche (at least not flagrantly) and any resemblance to your favorite rapper—whether “gangster,” “commercial” or “conscious”—is a consequence of something specifically extracted from his lyrics. There are other popular hip-hop artists who tread this foreign territory—you could actually argue that Drake, who appears on the album’s only throwaway track (“Poetic Justice”), is one of them—but none have been able to handle the effects of their environment (time, place, social conditioning, a rapidly shifting music industry) as deftly as Kendrick has. Contextually, the MC also known as K-Dot remains an island unto himself.

To wit: “The Recipe” (featuring Dr. Dre) is one of the best rap singles of 2012. It also contains a relatively one-dimensional, derivative verse spit by Kendrick, probably his weakest set of bars on all of good kid, m.A.A.d. city. (Note: The track actually appears as a bonus on the “deluxe” version of the album, presumably meant to exist independently from the main body of work.) The MC cycles through a laundry list of standard Cali rap rhetoric, summarized easily by “the three W’s”: women, weed and weather. Kendrick is such a good rapper, though, that the tired missives don’t preclude the song’s excellence. “The Recipe”, in all of its trunk-rattling glory, ends up being a standalone example of where Kendrick might exist if his overactive brain were to go into partial hibernation. It is not at all a bad place, but thankfully that’s not what happens on the rest of GKMC.

The young rapper’s perspective is rooted decidedly within the environs of Compton, CA and in the restraints of a particular time in his life. Instead of unabashed brag rap telling listeners what we already suspect (Best Rapper Alive?), we get dramatic set pieces and vivid snapshots of a young Kendrick Lamar growing up in a city with mad potholes, proverbial and otherwise, at every turn and intersection. If Section.80 was a lament of a childhood informed by unhealthy living (sugary cereals; the crack epidemic), mainstream broadcast violence (Wile E. Coyote; your local news at 11) and racist politics (Reaganomics), then good kid, m.A.A.d. city documents how a precocious and preternaturally self-aware Kendrick interfaced with his native city during adolescence and into young adulthood. And the results are dynamic.

The pitfalls of sexual maturity are splashed all over this record, not least on album-opener “Sherane aka Master Splinter’s Daughter”. The track’s eponymous femme fatale is the object of Kendrick’s desire, an urge so powerful that obvious warning signs are ignored (Sherane’s brother is gang-affiliated) in favor of getting a nut. Whether things end up going wrong or not is beside the point. The bigger lesson here is how a teenager’s universal compulsion intersects with the everyday hazards of the ghetto. It’s a foregone conclusion that adolescent boys will allow themselves to be led blindly around by their dicks, but to what end in Compton, California?

“The Art Of Peer Pressure” follows a similar theme, illustrating how tenuous the line is between an innocent joyride and catching your first case. A usually drug free, non-violent Kendrick turns into a mini-Mr. Hyde when under the influence of his homies. A close call with the police is detailed in tense first-person narrative over a cinematic beat by Tabu, the producer taking cues from Organized Noize’s most atmospheric work on ATLiens (everything feels like it’s illuminated by flickering street lights). The gods of good karma (or maybe just God Himself) is what determines Kendrick’s fortunate escape. So many rappers document in blatant terms how lucky they are in ducking checkered pasts, but Kendrick just eases it into his story, the humdrum details of the event—his moms blowing up his cell; the homies bickering over where to roll to next—filling in the blank spaces of yet another wayward night.

The fleeting levity of youth turns to harder lessons of adulthood on title tracks “good kid” and “m.A.A.d. city”. The latter features a vicious turn by OG Compton rapper MC Eiht and a resurrection of N.W.A.’s glorious production aesthetic from 1991. “Sing About Me / I’m Dying Of Thirst” is a somber two-song suite on which Kendrick keeps two promises: the first to a fallen neighborhood soldier, and the second to the Heavenly Father after a tragic turn of events resets the moral compasses of Kendrick and his crew.

The ghost of Tupac inhabits many of these tracks—a few earning the Thug Life Spiritual epithet so specific to his legend—though Kendrick is already twice the lyricist his forebear ever was. Pac was an emotional wrecking ball, making his impact through the power of blind assertion. Kendrick is not without his bombastic moments (“Backseat Freestyle” is the square root of cold nihilism and ruthless determination) but his mic methodology is downright academic compared to that of his role model. Even the obligatory “make that money” joint (“Money Trees”) is laced with illustrative nuance. A downright bitter Jay Rock rips through his guest verse with aplomb and hunger, sounding resentful about being born into a life that requires chasing paper above all else. “Everybody gon’ respect the shooter / But the one in front of the gun lives forever” sings a despondent Kendrick who, judging by the somber beat by DJ Dahi, feels more tethered to the almighty dollar than liberated.

And that’s the brilliance of Kendrick Lamar and, in turn, the entirety of good kid, m.A.A.d. city: an ability to seem unaffected and able to stand outside of its environment for the sake of not just being a participant in a vital piece of American history, but as one of its chief historians. The perpetual motion of Compton, Calif. stops for no one, its madness resolute and unconcerned with the happenstance of a good kid managing to make his way. And as rare as it is for that kid to make the hard right choice— to get out of the car when the directive is most certainly a doomed one—even rarer is it when that kid ends up being not only one of his city’s best rappers, but one of its most astute critics.

4.5 out of 5

RELATED: The Importance of Kendrick Lamar

58 thoughts on “Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city

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  1. 12/19/13…still playing it

  2. Still listening consistently as of July 29th of 2013.

  3. deal with it|

    I’m still listening 7 months later.

  4. solid album.
    way too overhyped.
    I mean, people are calling Kendrick the “savior of hip hop” because of this album without even really analyzing it.
    doesn’t make my top 5 for 2012 by a long shot.
    Personally I think he has way better material in his mixtapes and collabs.
    Album had about 3 GREAT and 3 OK songs and the rest was just filler.
    Art Of Peer Pressure was prob the best track, taking both production and subject matter into consideration.
    Not hating on the dude, but not even close to the classic these kids are making it out to be.
    he went from being rated just right to becoming the most overrated rapper of the year (2012)

  5. My insight is that the album is boring. I would love to know if anyone is still listening to it. Shit, I still listen to shynes debut album. That means its a classic. I still listen to camp lo’s debut album. I still listen to snoops, biggies , nas , jiggas, puns, cnn, mobb deep, bone thugs, tribe, jeru the damaja, rae, wu, ghost etc all these guys released classic debuts. Kendrick Lamars album is not on par or anywhere near as good as theses guys. Is it better then clipse debut or dead prez debut? This album is not a classic. It’s an ok album that would not have even been reviewed in the source magazine in hip hops golden era. Just like j cole’s album it’s a let down. Just hope jay electronica’s album lives up to the hype.

  6. Dude, you sound EXACTLY the same as every other hating clown on the internet. Once again, someone says its awful but provide ZERO insight as to why. Kinda sounds like it just went over your head. And the “I’ve been listening to hip hop for 20 years…” comment means absolutely nothing. You’re a dime a dozen pal.

  7. Yea this comment made you lose any credibility you might’ve had.

  8. Halle Berry or Halleloo. That made me laugh.

  9. Flop. Boring. I’ve been listening to hip hop for 20 years and I can honestly say this was horrible. How is this a album a classic. Is it better than redmans muddy waters? Big puns capital punishment? I can name a thousand albums from the 90s better than this album. Shyne was right.

  10. Ofcourse this is a great album… For our generation it is.. Which album was better ?

  11. This link is pretty cool explanation of the album.

  12. “He’s just some dude wandering around with no real insight” is probably the worst assessment of Kendrick Lamar on the internet.

  13. exactly. He’s just some dude wandering around with no real insight. And the skits do all the heavy lifting in terms of the narrative. Yawn at this already-overrated album. Kendrick’s awkward voice, awkward flows and lack of insight makes this a 2.5

  14. shoulda been a 5/5. Instant classic imo. Didn’t find a single thing wrong with it. Brilliant lyricism and incredibly versatile flow and musicianship.

  15. Great review….I wouldn’t call Poetic Justice a throwaway either, but it does feel a little out of place (it’s a dope track though) Out of context, Backseat Freestyle sounds weak…in context it’s brilliant. And damn good kid and m.A.A.d city are amazing. Probably the best hip hop album I’ve listened to since MBDTF. He doesn’t disappoint.

  16. yaaaaaa its pretty awesome

  17. I have to say guys im not loving this.

    Kendrick is an amazing rapper and great lyricist.

    I just didnt really like any of the beats and the choruses were all a bit weak.

    The art of peer pressure is the only standout for me.

    There are no tracks on par with Hiii Power, Rigamortis or Ronald Regan Era.

  18. Yeah, the beat on “Backstreet Freestyle” is probably the only slight misstep. It doesn’t sound like a beat I’d expect to hear Kendrick on but I let it rock. Replace “Backseat Freestyle” with “Westside, Right On Time” with Young Jeezy and I’m satisfied.

  19. Good review. GKMC is really REALLY good. There’s a certain Outkast vibe to Kendrick Lamar on this album. From his wordplay, cadence, storytelling and production. GKMC is cohesive, accessible and it doesn’t
    pander. Some tracks are kinda lengthy but I’m glad he kept the features
    to a minimum. I still contend BJ the Chicago Kid should’ve been on at least one of them hooks on GKMC but the album is incredible. It’s easily top 10 for 2012 right now. I didn’t skip anything on the first spin either which rarely happens to me. Dear new rappers, this is how you drop a major label debut.

  20. yup, love that track and the Janet Jackson sample. Shouts to Scoop DeVille.

  21. This album is the definition of a complete album. Nothing needs to be added. Nothing needs to be taken away.

  22. saul goodman|

    I can’t full-heartedly agree with calling backseat freestyle a track that doesn’t really work that well. To me, its the perfect segway into art of peer pressure. The swift change in tone between the two paints kendrick using two completely different situations/experiences. Like, just the basic idea of a car being a harbinger of good times and the bad.

  23. Totally agreeable, if it’s heard just as a single… it is weird.

  24. “Throwaway track” may have been too harsh a term. I heart Janet always. (It’s possible my subconscious made sure to place Drake and “throwaway track” in the same sentence. You know, as fodder for the haters.)

  25. JohnRHealey|

    I’ve heard it more out of context from the album than I have in. Maybe when I listen more as a part of the album it will grow on me.

  26. I agree with you there. I don’t like the hook of “Real”, everything else is fine.

  27. I dunno, Backseat Freestyle felt in place with me. The album highlights Kendrick hanging with the homies and how they are influencing him. I feel like what he is doing on that track, freestyling with friends and acting a fool in the backseat of a car is pretty much what everybody does with their friends.

  28. I don’t care for “Real” from a production standpoint, but as far as importance to the album’s narrative, I think “Poetic Justice” feels out of place.

  29. His “ability to seem unaffected” makes the whole album sound flat and uninteresting to me.

  30. JohnRHealey|

    Agreed. “Backseat Freestyle” is the one that doesn’t sit right with me.

  31. I agree. The throwaway for me is “Real”.

  32. I’m not sure I would call Poetic Justice a throwaway track..

  33. Yup. Sounds about right.

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