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”