Kendrick Lamar 'good kid, m.A.A.d city'

Kendrick Lamar
good kid, m.A.A.d city
(Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)

Anticipation. Excitement. Concern. Disappointment. Relief. Elation.

This is the sequence of emotions hip-hop fans have had to cope with when considering Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. The Compton rapper has been openly talking about a follow-up to Section.80 since that debut record’s release in July last year, and ever since we’ve had to deal with snippets of music and wordplay every bit as profound as the news that often accompanied them.

In August of 2011 there was his incendiary contribution to The Game’s ‘The City’ (which would eventually be released as a single in March), and January found him delivering arguably his greatest slice of conceptual wordplay to date when he closed ScHoolBoy Q’s Habits & Contradictions on ‘Blessed’. But Lamar provided the biggest hint of his future with ‘Cartoons & Cereal’, the seven-minute shakedown of suburban stupor and gang crime that would be liberally leveraged to propel the talk of a forthcoming album.

Then came more concerning developments. In March, MTV announced that Top Dawg Entertainment had struck a deal with Aftermath/Interscope Records. It marked the end of Lamar as an independent artist, and the start – or so people assumed – of the major label fuckery. By August we had a rough date (and a rough name) for the record, but we also had Lady GaGa taking to Twitter to announce a collaboration with Lamar on a track called ‘Partynauseous’ (it since seems to have disappeared). All the while Dr. Dre was creeping about in the background, the implication over a number of months being that he was going to have a large say in the creative direction of good kid, m.A.A.d city.

There were other challenges for Lamar too. Since the release of Section.80 – arguably the finest album of 2011 – the rest of his Black Hippy crew had stepped up their game. ScHoolBoy Q and Ab-Soul are proving particularly potent in 2012, their respective albums Habits & Contradictions and Control System being strong contenders for critics’ end-of-year lists, if not the top spot itself. While Kendrick was busy preparing the most anticipated record of 2012, Q and Ab were busily moving the goalposts.

Indeed, it was ScHoolBoy Q and Ab-Soul’s absence from good kid, m.A.A.d city that was one of the most initially disappointing aspects of the record. Kendrick had lent fire to his crewmates’ albums, and it was puzzling that he hadn’t asked them to return the favour. Listeners were baffled too by the exclusion of ‘Cartoons & Cereal’, Lamar’s most fully formed work in a short career already littered with aural gold.

A first run through good kid... can be challenging, and more than a little confusing. There’s nothing as instantly majestic as Section.80’s ‘A.D.H.D.’ or ‘Fuck Your Ethnicity’, and the cuts from the album that have been heard already – ‘The Art of Peer Pressure’ and the jaw-dropping T-Minus produced single, ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’ – are sliced and spliced here with intros, interludes and epilogues. But that eternal ritual of listeners the globe over to sit and stare at a record’s slip upon first listen – and in particular the subtitle on good kid that reads “A Short Film by: Kendrick Lamar” – provides the clues you need to start deconstructing Lamar’s carefully calibrated code.

On repeat listens a story begins to emerge. It’s Los Angeles, 2004, and a 17-year-old Kendrick is looking to entwine himself with Sherane, sultry siren and pic-texting paramour. The only problem is Sherane’s from a different postcode – her Paramount a couple of miles east on Rosencrans from Kendrick’s Compton – and such concerns have the potential to kill a young black man who’s snuck out in his mum’s Dodge minivan.

The minivan is the MacGuffin of the tale. Throughout the record we’re treated to semi-comical voicemails from Kendrick’s mother and father, the former needing her car to collect food stamps from the county building, the latter more concerned with his side order of Domino’s. Kendrick, though, is too distracted to pay attention to his parents (at least at first), piloted only by a fifth of vodka and his lust for Sherane’s “Atlanta stripper credentials” – that is until he pulls up to her house and is jumped by a couple of gangbanging cousins.

This is all established in the opening cut, ‘Sherene A.K.A. Master Splinter’s Daughter’, and the rest of the record builds a story on both sides of the incident. Thus we’re passengers in a car full of young men bent on revenge, listening to The College Dropout on repeat. We’re there at the outrageous parties, and bearing witness to the swiftest of violence. good kid, m.A.A.d city is that rarest of beasts in the modern age, the hip-hop concept record.

As such, Lamar’s creative decisions begin to make sense. The music is more about swollen bass than meaty beats – suppressed vocals, clattering percussion and squelching, upturned jazz samples carefully compiled on top of one another, much like a darker take on A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders. Likewise, the features are sparse and designed simply to drive forward the narrative. Jay Rock is the only other Black Hippy member on the record, and as he so often does with his guests, Kendrick brings out the best in his crewmate. Drake and Compton veteran MC Eiht make up the other two spots, and both serve their songs rather than the other way round – perhaps surprising when it comes to Drake, the man rap music loves to hate.

It’s the same approach to the songs themselves. ‘Cartoons & Cereal’ was dropped because it didn’t fit the story Lamar’s trying to tell – or maybe because it would have made the record too long. Instead, each of good kid’s cuts slowly builds towards a narrative climax. The ignorant bombast of ‘Backseat Freestyle’ rolling into the desiccated growl of ‘The Art of Peer Pressure’, which in turn flips into ‘Money Trees’, the album’s centrepiece and perhaps its strongest song -- a sunbaked tale of robbery and social aspiration that feels like all-encompassing shorthand for the underside of LA life. There’s a mesmerising rhythm to the songs and sequencing, as if we’re right there rolling along in the minivan with Kendrick, taking in south LA’s languorous boulevards. Even a track as bombastic as ‘Swimming Pools’ is carefully weaved into the fabric of the record, its drinking song characteristics easily peeled back by the listener to reveal something that’s the complete opposite. Everything on good kid m.A.A.d city is focused and streamlined for a purpose.

The rapping is likewise harnessed to serve a point, technique taking a backseat to storytelling – although this isn’t necessarily saying much: Lamar’s bursting, off-beat style is custom made to draw attention to his most pointed observations. Martin Luther King’s dreams for racial equality are carelessly conflated with a teenage Kendrick’s desire for money and power, while stories of slinging crack and cocaine are substituted for dead-end streets, cheap cognac and savage beatings. Later, the 12-minute ‘Sing About me, I’m Dying of Thirst’ takes us to the spiritual cleansing, Lamar’s thirst being for the holy water that will – hopefully – absolve him of his sins and set the crooked straight.

And this is Kendrick Lamar’s major concern on good kid, m.A.A.d city: to reject the environment that created him and mould something better in its place. Section.80’s purview was just as passionate, but wider and arguably more naïve. good kid is Lamar disappearing down the rabbit hole of his own past and tapping into his belief of personal redemption. He addressed this earlier in the year with his feature on ScHoolBoy’s ‘Blessed’, in which he urged the former OxyContin runner to flip his final deal into legitimate (and legal) rap success, but on good kid, m.A.A.d city the same sentiment is delivered as part of an all encompassing narrative.

So what has Kendrick Lamar achieved with this record? It’s hard to judge the degree of its greatness simply because it’s so unlike anything else out there right now. You certainly don’t doubt that it will be a contender for ‘Rap Album of 2012’, or even just ‘Album of 2012’ (and some would declare it a shoo-in already on both counts). In coming years you suspect good kid might suffer a little in not having a standout single to help delineate it from its cross-era contenders, but Lamar’s single-mindedness in leaving assets available to him on the table suggests he has no regrets.

What this album certainly has done is twofold: it’s proven – finally – that you can release a rap record of uncompromised artistic quality under the umbrella of a major label. The body count on this front is alarming, with Yelawolf being the most recent example, Radioactive, his Interscope debut, a disappointing mess. But perhaps more importantly, good kid, m.A.A.d city is that rare record – like a Death Certificate or an OK Computer or a Master of Puppets – that quietly escapes the bubble of hype in which it was delivered; it’s something so beyond what anyone expected that it immediately begins to write its own legacy. And that’s the most potent omen for how Kendrick Lamar will be addressed in the hip-hop history books.

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