When Kendrick Lamar decided to call his major label debut (and second album overall) a short film, he didn’t do it lightly. It is a daunting task to undertake the creation of a story album with singles that both fit in with the story arc and can play on the radio with zero context, and as all of us have seen, far too many bands and artists have attempted it half-heartedly. But this is no cop-out - isn’t some half-baked rock opera or album narrative just for narrative’s sake. Even more importantly, it isn’t a self-absorbed and self-loathing mess of emotions without context, which is what nearly every semi-autobiographical narrative album becomes. What Kendrick Lamar does here is truly inexplicable, and if you listen close, you will find yourself deeply moved by this piece of art. But if deep thoughts and self-assessment aren’t your thing, you should still take a listen. Together with Dr. Dre as his executive producer and overseer, Lamar has created the best west coast rap album we’ve seen in years.
The story of good kid, m.A.A.d city has a frame structure. The album starts with a fuzzy recording of several young men. “Lord God, I come to you a sinner, and I humbly repent for my sins” they pray together, asking Jesus to enter their lives. As the prayer ends, Lamar enters. The setting changes to a party at the beginning of the summer (several weeks earlier) - Kendrick is 17 and talking to a girl named Sherane. Within the first four minutes, we understand several things about Kendrick’s world (“Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter”). He lives in Compton, California, and both he and Sherane come from rough backgrounds. Her mom was a crack addict and her cousin has been in numerous gangs. Kendrick’s family is more dependable, but living is tough. They are on food stamps and things are tense between his mom and dad. Kendrick is a good kid, but he’s gotten in trouble with bad friends once or twice, and his mom is skeptical whenever he goes out. Amongst a landscape of poverty and violence, Kendrick’s relationship with Sherane is an oasis in a mental desert, and he stays out late for moments of escape from the day to day (“Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”). He dreams of making music and making people happy even in a dire situation. When his friends start supporting his goals, he starts hanging with his friends more, driving around and freestyling out rolled down windows (“Backseat Freestyle”). It’s here that Kendrick is closest to himself. But it comes at a cost - his friends don’t stick to driving around with beats CDs, and Kendrick ends up riding along when they break into a neighbor’s house and rob him (“The Art of Peer Pressure”).
I could continue, but I don’t want to spoil the story. The only clue I’ll give away is that the album’s introduction is foreshadowing - Kendrick spirals further into peer pressure and begins to see how much this pressure plays into the depravity of his city and the youth culture. But with a conscious decision to turn his life around, Kendrick becomes a beacon of hope. He takes everything that Compton has given him and gives back to the city. With fame and success, he hasn’t decided to run away from his past - rather, he tells his story as a parable of humanity and selflessness. Seriously, has any record you’ve listened to this year brought up these topics?
While the narrative and philosophy alone are more than enough reason for anyone to fall in love with this record, Lamar’s tracks win plenty of points individually, too. For example, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is (within the narrative) about Kendrick realizing the larger picture of alcoholism in his home and in his community, even within the tiny context of a party. But out of it, Lamar’s single is still ludicrously addictive, and it’s destined to become one of the year’s most memorable sing-a-longs. Even more so is the case with “Backseat Freestyle”. This is the story of a young man completely disregarding any discouragement from society to pursue his dreams. Honestly, what better thing is there to play on the radio? If everyone in your car isn’t yelling along by the time Kendrick gets to the third verse, you might want to take them to a hospital. Another solid single is the bonus track “The Recipe”, featuring Dr. Dre, and sampling the Twin Sister song “Meet the Frownies”. Even on this weed anthem, Lamar comes off as slightly pensive, weighing in his mind what people really want within the California dream. Kendrick doesn’t hold out on us as far as singles go, but calling them singles without looking deeper is doing them serious injustice. Plus, a guest appearance by Drake never hurt anyone.
I really can’t say enough good things about good kid, m.A.A.d city. It is easily one of the best rap albums of the year, and will make you think harder than most rap albums this decade. Lamar closes his album with “Compton”, a love letter to the city that grew him, featuring an appearance by Compton’s greatest, Dr. Dre. The track is undeniably joyful, even after 11 tracks documenting the gang fights, violence, and reproach of the city’s seedy underbelly. But the track feels 100% honest, because Kendrick understands something that most don’t. Seattle’s Gabriel Teodros says on his song “Mind Power”, “I will not be defined by where I’m from and I will not be confined to where I’m from”. Within a Compton context, Kendrick Lamar gets this. He is not confined to Compton, but he’ll spend the rest of his career giving back to the city that gave him everything he has.
good kid, m.A.A.d city is out now on Top Dawg/Interscope. Grab the deluxe version (with “The Recipe” and a few other good ones) on iTunes or at Target.