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.