Album Review: Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city

Posted: October 18, 2012 in Album Review, Best of 4th Q 2012
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It is worth acknowledging that this is exactly the type of album on which rap writers love to cut their teeth, bring out their axes to grind, and throw all of their personal prejudices and hang-ups into the mix as well.  There will be those who praise this album as the greatest rap album of the last decade and those who decry it as a massive disappointment.  It’s the type of album where pay-per-click websites are dying for their staff to write about it, and it’s the type of album writers love to talk about in the most hyperbolic terms possible to attract as much attention as possible.  Critics have been spending the last week discussing why this album is doomed to fail: the excessive hype, the fact that Kendrick is being asked to deliver a classic major label debut despite the fact that he doesn’t have a track record that necessarily suggests that’s a probability, the fact that the things Kendrick does best don’t necessarily translate well with the popular radio rap aesthetic, the fact that very few rappers deliver their first classic album on their third full length album, and the likelihood that Aftermath/Interscope would force him to sacrifice too much of his creativity and individuality in favor of more commercially viable material.  It’s also worth noting that all of these seem like legitimate concerns.  Add to that the pressure on Kendrick to deliver an album that both returns the West Coast to the forefront of the industry and an album that shows that rappers who can rap their ass off are still allowed to do so in the world of mainstream rap.  It’s fair to say that expectations around this album seem nearly insurmountable.

good kid, m.A.A.d city starts with the sound of someone flicking on an old reel to reel era family video of two boys praying to Jesus to beg forgiveness and ask salvation and guidance. Eery keys begin to penetrate mid-prayer slowly developing into the backdrop of a story tale dedication to “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter.”  There’s a constant push and pull through good kid, m.A.A.d city, between a teenager who wants to do the right thing, wants salvation, but is constantly challenged by sin, desire, and the allure of women and the streets. It’s a push and pull felt by everyone one form or another, accentuated by the temptations of the city and the magnetism of the lifestyle presented by the rappers he and his friends idolize.

This has been a great year for albums that are musical cohesive, or stylistically cohesive, good kid, m.A.A.d City is not always either of those, but it maintains its cohesion through a much less frequently used methodology – and one that’s much more difficult to pull off on a rap album – thematic and narrative cohesion.  The story that Kendrick has to tell is a different narrative of authenticity in rap music.  good kid, m.A.A.d city is a narrative relevant to 2012 and a personal narrative from an artist who grew up in a society filled with drugs, crime, violence, and poverty, who tried to stay out of trouble, but couldn’t always avoid its enticement.  It’s a story that nearly anyone can relate to, but it’s also the real story of so many of today’s rappers.  What makes the story unique is that unlike most of his peers, Kendrick Lamar is comfortable telling it and owning it, and recognizes that the listener will connect to it despite his lack of posturing and the refusal to bow to the whims of the record industry’s misguided perception of who a rapper – particularly a rapper from Los Angeles or Compton – should be and how he should act on record.  The fact that this album was made at all is a minor miracle, and the fact that Kendrick pulled it off so well on a mainstream stage is nothing short of remarkable.

Many rappers have channeled Boyz N The Hood over the years, but Kendrick may be the first on a mainstream level to publicly invoke Tre Styles (on “Dying of Thirst”).  good kid, m.A.A.d city is the story of a seventeen year old who believes in his soul that morality is important, but is captivated – as any seventeen year heterosexual male old is – by fast women. He’s not a gang member, but he might jump a suburban kid when he’s with his friends.  He doesn’t usually use drugs, but succumbs to peer pressure on occasion. He’s not a criminal, but he gets racially profiled, he’s not in a gang, but he gets harassed and jumped by gang members. “The Art of Peer Pressure” a great story of a young teen that generally avoids drugs, violence, and crime, but gets caught up with all three hanging out with his homies on one particular day.  He manages to escape catching a criminal charge, but is able to acknowledge the impact of the day’s events, and the negative – yet thrilling – influence of his friends.  The repeated mention of Young Jeezy’s Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 by the kids in the song, as well as Kendrick as narrator, provides an interesting commentary on the influence rappers have on those searching for role models.  There’s a fine line walked throughout the album of allowing the listener to witness the daily activities and transactions of ghetto life, without the narrator stepping in and stating that he is the architect of it all (as so many rappers profess).  Kendrick is a narrator who is not quite able to live a virtuous life, but who wants to, but he’s smart enough to recognize that this tension and the moments where he fails to walk the straight and narrow are some of the most interesting stories he has to tell.

The concept of water and being able to swim, is one that is thematically prevalent here as well.  Obviously there is the single “Swimming Pools (Drank),” a song ostensibly about the pleasures of having a swimming pool full of liquor, but under the surface represents a critique of the addictive escapism of alcoholism and drinking for pleasure.  One criticism of the album will be that at times the imagery and the explanation of it will be a bit heavy handed for some.  The interludes often provide an overt explanation of themes woven throughout the songs, but they also serve to tie the songs into the overall story and concept of the album.  For instance the imagery of thirst (“Dying of Thirst”) is explained as need for holy water, or baptism at one point.  The album would undoubtedly be a little more enjoyable for some listeners if Kendrick allowed them to make these connections for themselves, but ultimately Kendrick wants to make sure that his message is not lost on the masses for the pleasure of the few.

If good kid, m.A.A.d city was merely a heavy-handed story of an impressionable youth who struggles with peer pressure, the influence of rap music, and the lack of opportunity in Compton it would likely be an interesting album, but what will makes this album so successful is the quality of storytelling, song-writing, stylistic diversity, lyricism, and production.  When Kendrick stated that good kid, m.A.A.d city would be nothing like Section.80 many worried that meant he was abandoning his underground rebellious voice for one more suited for mainstream approval.  Whereas Section.80 was a good album that appealed to many, good kid, m.A.A.d city taps into something universal.  The reality is that he stepped up and delivered an album that will likely have a profound impact on the rap game for years to come.

Kendrick Lamar “Swimming Pools (Drank)”

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