Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
For some hip-hop fans—mostly the hardcore and buzz-watchers—good kid, m.A.A.d city was inevitable. Kendrick Lamar had made a hugely impressive showing on some of his early mixtapes, and now that he was moving to a major label (signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath, distributed through Interscope), many felt that it was only a matter of time until he released his masterpiece. And with good kid, boy, does he deliver. It’s a complex, intelligent, thoroughly modern album, one that approaches age-old hip-hop subjects like economic woe, gang violence and youthful recklessness with uncommon clarity and maturity. Structuring the record around a series of flashbacks and stories starring a high-school-aged Lamar, he illustrates his hometown of Compton in vivid color, filling his verses with detailed characters and creating an absorbing sense of place. Throughout, Lamar proves himself a startling lyricist, adept at both longform narratives and cutting one-liners, exploring teenage boastfulness (the brilliantly arrogant “Backseat Freestyle”), illusions of power via violence and wealth (“Money Trees,” “Real”) and how your friends aren’t always the best influences (“The Art of Peer Pressure,” “Swimming Pools (Drank)”). Plus, that major-label budget means he was able to clinch big-name producers, like the Neptunes and Hit-Boy, who all turn in great work, full of spacy basslines, clever hooks and spooky special effects, all of which find a balance between carefree nostalgia and creeping dread. And then, of course, there are the wonderful guest turns from the likes of Drake and label boss Dr. Dre, the latter of whom sounds hungry and revitalized on the root-for-the-home-team closer, “Compton,” which is one of the few moments free of darkness.
With its gritty, through-the-eyes-of-a-kid storytelling, it’s easy to say good kid is Lamar’s take on Illmatic (especially since he directly references “NY State Of Mind” on one track), but it’s a little patronizing. Lamar’s working on his own terms here: Where Nas’ debut was trimmed and concentrated, good kid, m.A.A.d city is ambitious and sprawling, with several lengthy, verse-heavy tracks, including the 12-minute centerpiece “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst,” where Lamar reflects on the consequences of memorializing his community in music. And “consequences” is the key word here, since the marvel of this record is how it investigates the real-life consequences of the crimes and brash behavior that many other albums are content to glamorize and leave alone. Lamar knows there are terrible lows that come with the fleeting highs, and as the album winds down, he begins to doubt if those highs are worth it. With its dark, detailed subject matter and lack of obvious singles, good kid, m.A.A.d city takes a few listens to fully unpack, but once it’s sunk in, it doesn’t get out. Easily one of the best albums of 2012.