Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d City

A year after its release, Paul Thompson looks back at Kendrick Lamar’s major label debut.

Additional Info


ALBUM: good kid, m.A.A.d city

ARTIST: Kendrick Lamar



We don’t know very much about Kendrick Lamar. Sure, there are a few repeated anecdotes—a laced blunt, something about a minivan—but no dense past, no whispered-about origin stories. In fact, most of his biography (a family move from Chicago, peripheral involvement in gang life, false starts on record deals) can be inferred from vague statements in his music and by simple virtue of his being a rapper from Compton. The reality, though, is that this doesn’t matter. What defines Kendrick is how well he raps, not necessarily who the man rapping is. It would seem that he wants it this way, because the year since his major label debut has seen him dedicate himself to rapping ferociously, often about nothing other than rapping. What could have been a transition into superstardom by way of Vanity Fair cover stories and New York Times interviews has instead been a period of relative dormancy, broken up by world-stopping verses that have revealed more about their targets (by way of insecurity-driven responses) than about their author. But it would seem that for the time being, he doesn’t have much to say on the personal side of things. That makes sense, because he did it all on good kid, m.A.A.d. city.

To be clear, if the album is the classic so many claim it is, it’s despite a whole host of imperfections. Rarely has an album that resonated so strongly sported such a sorry ending. The album’s most high-profile guest rapper is one who goes entirely against the album’s aesthetic, but out-raps Kendrick without bringing anything close to his A game. Absent are the generation-specific musings of the brilliant “ADHD”. The contented joy of “Rigamortus”, “Blow My High”, and “Hol’ Up” is nowhere to be found. Hell, you could make a case that the best Kendrick Lamar song of 2012 didn’t make the record. Those are flaws. What are not flaws are the unfilled categories some fans and critics have wanted Kendrick to check off in the personal information department.

In fact, good kid, m.A.A.d. city is as gripping as it is because it deals almost exclusively in archetypes. Instead of a simple cause-and-effect account of his upbringing and how it contributed to his identity, Kendrick turns his experiences into parables, never breaking character to cheapen the experience. It’s a creative minefield—how does one break new ground (especially with such familiar subject matter) without becoming incredibly personal? The answer is so simple it might be insulting: by rapping extraordinarily well. When gkmc works, it does so beautifully, with the Compton emcee moving dexterously over a singular (and decidedly un-Los Angeles) palate of sounds. Even when it doesn’t (“good kid”), Kendrick plays with his voice to superb ends, stacking vocals in increasingly urgent ways, accentuating the love for emotive language only someone who grew up on DMX could have.

On that note, it’s clear from the jump that Kendrick won’t be the isolationist savior Los Angeles has wanted so desperately since ’96. This is made evident quickly on opener “Sherane”. Most analysis of this song has centered on how it plays into the album’s sloppy but functional narrative, but it’s most exciting as a study in how heavily the poster-boy for LA was influenced by off-kilter New York and Atlanta rappers. Wishing to “ride like Arabians” places him in the middle of Queens circa 1992. While the Bay Area has long shown a tremendous affinity for left-field personalities, LA—and Compton in particular—has traditionally been ultra-formalist when it comes to emcees. What makes Kendrick so unique is that he’s able to not just satisfy those stiffs’ requirements, but blow them out of the water, only to turn around and do something completely different. There aren’t any truly bizarre departures on gkmc, but songs like “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Money Trees” thrive because Kendrick lets them breathe, not determined to drown them in an endless sea of capital-B bars.

Along with “Money Trees” (which boasts not only some of Kendrick’s best work, but also a tremendous turn from TDE big brother Jay Rock), “m.A.A.d. city” and single “Swimming Pools” help set the album apart. Both songs show a rare ability to play both sides of an aisle: “Swimming Pools” the cerebral and the hedonistic, “m.A.A.d. city” the overcome and the scheming,. Coupled with evocative lines like “bumpin’ Jeezy’s first album, lookin’ distracted” (from “The Art of Peer Pressure”), these are proof positive that Kendrick is an era-defining talent here to stay.

But let’s step back to “Sherane” for a second. As he will for the next seventy minutes, he plays the middle—not the alpha male, but scraping at their feet, always a half step ahead of the cops and his parents, but never quite on the level of the kids who run the school or the block. Driving straight up the middle in this way should be recipe for a dull piece of work, but good kid, m.A.A.d. city is dynamic, ever-changing and totally engrossing for most of its run. Of course, the conceptual aspects of the album could still use a little bit of attention. If this were actually being judged as a work of drama, the anachronistic narrative would fail almost every test for good character arcs—Kendrick is the protagonist, but he doesn’t really make any meaningful decisions. Everything happens to him, not because of him, and it’s all at the hands of friends and villains who are equally faceless. But maybe that’s the point.

“You killed my cousin back in ’94, fuck your truce”

1. Sherane (AKA Master Splinter’s Daughter)
The clumsily-titled introduction to m.A.A.d city is a creative risk, and an intriguing one—especially for someone as concerned with his place in rap’s pantheon as Kendrick is. Not one to shy away from the grandiose, it would seem that the smart money would be on a “Stillmatic”-style opener, or at least “The Wrong N---- To Fuck With”. Instead, “Sherane” sets a remarkably muted tone, more concerned with the specifics of an awkward courtship than with announcing any grand arrivals. Starting in medias res isn’t the kind of ultra-complex move it’s been hailed as, but it’s an effective one for the album. As carefully as the song is crafted, it’s mellow and doesn’t come to any sort of sonic climax. The sense that it’s an important piece of a story, however, makes it feel dynamic and vital. Receiving salacious texts from the object of your desire says one thing; the image of those texts causing you to nearly rear end the car in front of you says another. 9.0
2. Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe
Lady Gaga was supposed to be on this song, and it’s a fantastic thing that she didn’t make the final version. Just like the women (and men, to be honest) of the album’s songs, the hooks are from faceless singers, more utilitarian than creative, and it fits perfectly. In another break from the safe play for rap immortality, “Vibe” is almost entirely chorus. Kendrick has made his name as a ‘lyricist’, the most ill defined of modern rap categories. But instead of being about what he’s saying, the song is about its atmosphere, with the verses being rhythmic breaks above all else. While a decidedly anti-rapper move, it’s the right one when the hook is as massive as this one is. The “only co-sign what radio does” line, however, is a miscalculation, taking the listener out of the album’s already-defined universe. Still, it’s a spacey, instantly memorable number that gives the record some early forward momentum. 9.0
3. Backseat Freestyle
“Backseat Freestyle” didn’t enjoy a particularly good reception when it leaked, at least when compared to the hyperbole tossed at nearly everything Kendrick has done for the last three years. This is fine, because it’s the cleverest moment on the album and one that shrewdly justifies its shortcomings, to the point where a more perfect song wouldn’t make any sense. In one of the only spots where Kendrick lives up to his potential in speaking directly to his generation, he captures a pastime exclusive to those younger than the genre itself: riding around in cars, getting high, and rapping. It’s simple recreation; freestyling in cars like this not exclusive to those seriously pursuing a career in rap, and the two attitudes often find themselves at odds. This isn’t a concept song if you listen to it in isolation, but it is when you put it in its proper context. It’s a great notion, and the song (with an excellent Hit Boy beat) captures a youthful spontaneity and irreverence that’s indispensible in telling the album’s thematic story, never mind its literal one. 9.5
4. The Art of Peer Pressure
It’s a simple concept: people often do things they otherwise wouldn’t when encouraged by their friends. While ‘falling in the wrong crowd’ is the theme of many of our childhood parables, it’s rare that an artist still speaking from that youthful point of view is so cognizant of what they’re going through. And here, Kendrick is able to capture the sense that he’s lost his efficacy over his actions without passing the buck. They’re still his actions: the phrasing of “usually I’m drug free, but, shit, I’m with the homies” is telling. He could just as easily have said “I’m drug free, but my friends aren’t, so I’m smoking”, but for the time being he is whatever they want him to be. It’s a slippery slope that leads to a home invasion and covert police pursuit, but ends uneventfully, as these things often do. The singsong introduction portion to the song is a nice way to highlight just how grim and business-only the song’s main portion is. 9.5
5. Money Trees
In a genre already full of them, “Money Trees” is on the shortlist for rap songs that best embody hunger, tension, and desperation. It’s a testament to Kendrick supreme confidence in his abilities that he commits so fully to the lazy, drawling delivery knowing full well that the already-legendary Jay Rock verse looms at the four-and-a-half minute mark. It’s a confident decision, and it pays off ten times over: the stark difference between that razor sharp verse and Kendrick’s slower slur enhances each rapper’s presence on the song. One of three contenders for supremacy among m.A.A.d. city’s songs, “Money Trees” is perfect from top to bottom. A haunting, fatalistic beat underlies Kendrick’s matter-of-fact verses, where he and his friends have “dreams of living life like rappers do”. Robberies like the ones on “Peer Pressure” are the only natural conclusion, which speaks to the album’s central conceit: none of this would happen if it wasn’t for Compton. It’s also worth nothing that, along with “Swimming Pools”, this is Kendrick’s finest turn at hook duties.10.0
6. Poetic Justice
When the rare glimpses into Kendrick’s personal life do come along, it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s always a little bit out of place in his surroundings. So if seducing women with Janet Jackson samples seems a little bit odd, well, that’s because it is. “Poetic Justice” plays like Kendrick knows how love songs are supposed to be structured, but just can’t quite hit the right emotional cues to pull it off. That might be part of the idea, but it doesn’t work as well in practice as it might in theory. “If I told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room, would you trust it?” is the kind of cloying half-poetry that intends to be evocative, but just comes off ham-fisted. So when Drake shows up for a solid bust mostly unremarkable verse, he sounds like Ryan Gosling to Kendrick’s Steve Carell. All that said, it’s breezy, pretty fun, and never induces cringes or dips too far into the cheesy territory it stares down. 7.5
7. good kid
First of all, whoever let Pharrell keep his hook on this song needs a seriously stern talking-to at the hands of their immediate superior. The beat is quietly interesting: the choir chants creep up on you when you least suspect, making epic a song that’s pretty tame for the majority of its run. But that chorus is just dreadful—the writing, Pharrell’s half-assed singing, everything about it. Fortunately, the final portion of each of Kendrick’s verses, where he doubles up his vocals and picks up the pace, breathes some life into the track. Still, while there are some interesting things going on with the writing here—there’s nary a wasted syllable, and the focus on the authorities after spending most of the album thus far with Kendrick’s peers is a good way to round out the album’s universe—it’s easy to lose them in the song’s messy structure. Where the second verse should be a harrowing narrative about unjust police presence, it ends up being a desperate attempt to keep the song from collapsing in on itself. 7.0
8. m.A.A.d. city
On an album that otherwise plays guest appearances right up the middle, the inclusion of MC Eiht is incredibly inspired. On the surface, it would seem that he’s an obvious choice, being from Compton and all. But if you think about it for a second, you remember that Kendrick is about ten years too young to have grown up with Eiht. Couple that with the fact that he’s been very open about New York hip-hop being his road into the genre and all of a sudden he and Compton’s Most Wanted seem worlds apart. Either way, when the song’s A portion ends and Terrace Martin throws you headlong into the early ‘90s, it sounds as authentic as could be. To his credit, Eiht is in fighting shape, but even a vintage verse from the pioneer can’t keep up with the unhinged performance Kendrick turns in. His verse that comes after Eiht’s couldn’t be more different from his one that comes before, and each makes the young emcee sound like he’s on the edge of a nervous breakdown, but might take someone with him. Couple this with the Sounwave-produced first half and you have an instant classic. 10.0
9. Swimming Pools (Drank)
With the possible exception of “ADHD”, “Swimming Pools” is the song in Kendrick’s catalog that best makes use of his vast array of talents. First of all, the hook is superb. Kendrick’s melodic ear isn’t always on, but when it is, he’s able to find a pocket that most rappers spend their whole career searching for. On the other end of the spectrum, the verses—especially the schizophrenic second one—are exacting and technically impressive in ways few songs are. What’s more is the fact that no matter how daring the technical approach (the second verse’s flow is the rap equivalent of running full-speed down a hill, unable to stop or slow down without falling), it never distracts from what Kendrick’s trying to communicate. Thematically, we also get to see the best of both worlds. Not only is there analysis of his surroundings from afar, but there’s also the slightly incongruent image of Kendrick at a party where he doesn’t quite feel comfortable. Whether focused outward or inward, the song has a keen eye for why the party is so alluring, no matter how destructive it might be. 10.0
10. Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst
While it’s certainly in fashion right now—and while it worked for Kendrick only two tracks ago—the practice of putting two separate songs together as one record isn’t always advisable. This would be one of those times. The “Sing About Me” portion, while often affecting and always honest, is already terribly drawn out, running almost twice as long as it should. So to stretch the song from a much-too-long seven minutes to an unbearable twelve is a decision that escapes all reason, especially when the washed out, defeated “Sing About Me” is followed by the grim “Dying of Thirst”, a song so bleak it doesn’t come close to rewarding the listener for sticking out the entire listen. Even when it’s impressive (and it is, at a few points), “Sing About Me” comes dangerously close to being too self-serving to be taken seriously. “Dying of Thirst” seems to hinge on a series of images and vignettes, but they’re all straight out of central casting for ‘gangsta rap album; conscious category’. 7.5
11. Real
Speaking of songs that are too long, “Real” is a song that can’t justify its place on the album, never mind eating up an entire seven minutes. The hook is atrocious (a whined—and, inexplicably, repeated—“I’m real, I’m real, I’m really, really real”). The verses aren’t much better: the first is inane rambling about ‘love’ that could be an outtake from B.o.B.’s first album. The third verse is almost redeemed by the last bar, where Kendrick ends a string of clichéd complaints about commercial rap culture with the lament that hating it doesn’t make him real, but by that point it’s too little, too late. The verses are delivered like sleepwalking during a dull dream. The beat is a synth-based ambient mess. 4.5
12. Compton
And in lots of ways, this is more disappointing than “Real”. “Compton” could be an excited, triumphant victory lap for a conquering hero. It certainly tries to be that, but instead of letting Kendrick’s eccentricities bleed through, a sign of victory over the archaisms he fought against on Section.80, Kendrick is comfortable here to play second fiddle to Dre, someone no one with a quarter of Kendrick’s talent should be sharing a track with in 2013, never mind deferring to. The verses are entirely anonymous and could have been written and recorded by three people on your twitter timeline right now. While he turns in uncharacteristically average work for most of the track, Just Blaze’s outro is undoubtedly the song’s saving grace. 4.5
Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is a the lead writer at 2dopeboyz and a frequent contributor to Passion of the Weiss.

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