Album Review: Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid m.A.A.d. city’

Can we take a moment to appreciate how impressive it is that Kendrick Lamar managed to release a critically and commercially successful album on a major label? Actually, it’s more impressive than that. Kendrick Lamar released a critically and commercially successful album on Aftermath, a label that has failed to release an album from someone other than 50 Cent or Eminem since 2006. That fact cannot be understated. Over 240,000 people bought good kid m.A.A.d. city last week, a minor miracle in the contemporary hip hop landscape. Of course, first week sales numbers will be irrelevant with regards to how the album is viewed down the road, but Kendrick certainly won’t have any trouble eatin’.

There are two ways good kid m.A.A.d. city functionswithin the Kendrick Lamar canon. The first is as personal narrative, an introduction to 17 year old Kendrick and mid-2000’s Compton. A classical tale of conflict, told with the aim of answering just who Kendrick Lamar is. The second function of good kid is an extension of Section.80’s broad societal analysis, a pointed critique of institutional racism, gang culture and economic inequality. What makes good kid so much more engrossing and effective is that it handles both functions effortlessly, weaving a sincere narrative with teeth that will probably spawn doctoral dissertations down the road.

Good kid has been repeatedly compared to feature films, everything from Fargo to Boyz in the Hood, and all hyperbole aside, the album is distinctly cinematic. From the cover art to the last seconds of “Now Or Never”, we view 17 year old Kendrick through a camera lens, witnessing each scene unfurl in a frighteningly visceral manner. After a few listens, Kendrick’s mom’s minivan, Sherane, the homies and Rosecrans Ave are imprinted in your mind, home invasions and shenanigans-filled blunts filling your vision. Good kid’s narrative is filmic as well, split into chapters and climaxing in identity crisis. It’s no surprise that the sub-title for the album is a “Short Film By Kendrick Lamar”.

The closest stylistic hip hop comparison for good kid isn’t Illmatic or Reasonable Doubt, it’s Lupe’s The Cool. Good kid isn’t nearly as aloof or plodding as The Cool, but the narratives are surprisingly similar. Of course, good kid is far less self-loathing and is more of an outlet for hope than despair, but the “shining light in the hood” narrative is present throughout both. Anyways, good kid lays out Compton as land of temptation (the homies, Sherane) and violence, where friends are indivisible from enemies. Kendrick isn’t involved in gang life, but he robs houses, smokes blunts and freestyles with the homies. At one point, he is the subject of police brutality. At another, he is set up by Sherane and her brother and robbed. The story is told via a number of skits that, while occasionally obnoxious, lend impressively to the continuity of the narrative.

Hit the jump for the full review…

As a solo track, “Backseat Freestyle” makes absolutely no sense as a Kendrick Lamar song, more fitting for a Gunplay type. Within the good kid narrative, it is all too perfect, demonstrating the naïveté and raw talent of young Kendrick. The ignorant braggadocio represents his (and really anyone else who’s grabbed a mic) introduction to hip hop via Young Jeezy tapes. Little details like the “shenanigans” blunt explain who Kendrick is today, in this case why he doesn’t smoke anymore. “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst” is challenging to say the least, but within good kid, allows the listener to witness the maturation of Kendrick up close and personal.

Speaking on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst”, has a hip hop song shown empathy like this since “Stan”? Rapping from the position of several of his fans, including a gang member and a prostitute, Kendrick speaks on his struggle to be the voice of a generation and to represent the interests of all of his fans. It’s would be impossible to stress how genuine the 12 minute opus is and it has brought me to the verge of tears several times. “It’s a trip how we trip off colors” might be the line of the year and is one of those timeless poetic revelations that will be recited decades down the line.

From a production standpoint, good kid sounds nothing like the L.A. sound of yore. The TDE production cohort, highlighted by Sounwave, really deserves to be known as more than just the TDE production cohort. “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” has immediately become an anthem akin to “ADHD”, in large part because of the effortless guitar loop and Bricksquad-borrowed drum kit. DJ Dahi’s “Money Trees” morphs Beach House’s “Silver Soul” into a sorrowful backing for Kendrick and Jay Rock to weave their verses through. The only misnomer is Just Blaze’s victorious “Compton”, an outlier both sonically and with regard to subject matter. The beats on good kid are subtle and tailored directly for the concept. It wouldn’t surprise me if Kendrick actually had a dialogue with each producer regarding the sound he was aiming for.

Good kid m.A.A.d. city is most impressive in how innately human it is. Kendrick is among the select few hip hop artists willing to recognize his flaws, but unlike Drake, he has a self-consciousness that transcends the banality of sex. Kendrick transcends the very questions he asks. He understands that “Halle Berry or halleluiah” aren’t the only options. On “Now Or Never”, he speaks on his respect for Aaron Afflalo (they went to the same high school) and how he has escaped and then given back to the community. As Kendrick ascends to a similar economic situation to Afflalo, his reverence for doing the right thing will continue to be present, but more impressive is his complete understanding of why doing the right thing isn’t always possible.

It’s impossible to know how Good kid m.A.A.d. city will be viewed in the long-term and it’s silly to speculate. What we can recognize now is Kendrick as essentially a beacon of humanness. I’ve called him a voice of a generation before (and I’m really trying not to get too hyperbolic), but Kendrick really speaks to the deepest emotions in all of us. I don’t live in Compton, you probably don’t live in Compton, but good kid reaches to our deepest fears and insecurities. So please, buy/download good kid m.A.A.d. city and try not to be touched by it. Watch young Kendrick struggle through life and try not to relate in some sense. It’s a great time in history to be a rap fan and Kendrick Lamar is our patron saint.

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