Why the young rapper's much-discussed major label debut is incredibly unique, and what listeners gain from the record's noteworthy risks.
Written by David Drake (@somanyshrimp)
At age 10, I spent a bulk of my first summer within range of WGCI and WJPC-Chicago trying to tape the entirety of Snoop Dogg's “Who Am I (What’s My Name)” off of the radio onto a blank Maxell cassette tape. Inadvertently, I also discovered “Back in the Day,” a nostalgia-soaked song that found 18-year-old Los Angeles MC Ahmad reminiscing about his youth. The irony, of course, was that I was a 10-year-old kid, feeling second-hand nostalgia from a slightly-older young person for the times when he was my then-current age.
Hip-hop is, give or take an industry-dominating, veteran 30-something, still a teen-oriented musical movement. But it’s also a genre driven by old souls (Rakim was 18 when he released “Eric B. is President”), packed with coming-of-age stories from kids for kids: “I’m only 19 but my mind is old.” It's an art form where traumatic experiences catalyze the premature aging of entire generations.
Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city is a record that conveys the paradox of premature disillusionment, but isn’t satisfied with the usual way these stories are told. It’s a thoughtfully dense, intricate articulation of maturity from the perspective of a young man who seems preternaturally self-aware and conflicted. It also seems positioned to simply absorb acclaim, representing intelligence without controversy.
good kid, m.A.A.d. city is a thoughtfully dense, intricate articulation of maturity from the perspective of a young man who seems preternaturally self-aware and conflicted.
It deserves the attention, and the likely sales which will follow, because it’s a truly original, compelling rap record, unafraid to risk taking a moral stand, with the earned confidence to execute these aspirations. At its most engaging, good kid, m.A.A.d. city is mesmerizing music that gains its power not from its difficulty or any formal innovation, but from Kendrick’s understanding of all the ways music can convey truth. The record’s appeal, despite all the high-minded talk around it, is visceral: Kendrick’s deft approach is also a bold statement, which ducks and weaves together a wholly immersive world.
Those skeptical are right to be so, because he has a devoted audience that will stand by him regardless; merely by being an introvert who takes ambitious steps, Kendrick is lauded. It’s a perilously low bar for any rapper who can signify in the right ways for the middle-class and educated. And there are moments that don’t feel as triumphant as they should: victory-lap Just Blaze-style production already felt stale before the release of “3 Kings”; on “Compton,” the album’s closer and only other evidence of Dr. Dre’s otherwise-invisible hand (alongside bonus track “The Recipe”), it feels unnecessary. Like most album-oriented music, some of the songs seem to fall apart when removed from context (as vital to the narrative as “Real”’s exploration of self-respect is, it loses its power outside of the LP).
But good kid, m.A.A.d. city also points to now-obvious shortcomings in his earlier work by transcending them. For the most part, his musical choices here are stronger, the rapping more focused, his lyrics more purposeful. One gets the feeling that Kendrick spent more time making considered artistic decisions on each aspect of this release, even removing perfectly great songs (“The Heart Pt. 3,” “The Recipe”) simply for not fitting into his vision.
Most importantly, Kendrick’s put his own voice front and center. His art is daring because there’s nowhere in it for him to hide. At times in the past, it felt like he was writing (like a true child of the Internet age) to pre-empt criticism, in dense pockets without clear messages and with beats that didn’t draw too much attention to themselves or him. Now, the album’s narrative demands his audience analyze every errant or unexpected word, and the production, which is almost uniformly gripping, frames each verse, drawing attention directly to the lyrics.
The album’s narrative demands his audience analyze every errant or unexpected word.
He refuses easy outs, never falling for false dichotomies, pandering or strident platitudes. In the wake of the album's overarching story, even lines like “what love got to do with it when you don’t love yourself?” (from “Real”) seem like conclusions that were especially hard-fought. Kendrick does not describe, then judge, but instead creates and contemplates. It’s a victory for honest rhetoric.
It is no mistake that Kendrick describes the album as a “short film.” The Compton he’s created behaves realistically, a sculpted, authentically-felt place and time with its own rules and values. Compton is seen through different lenses: arranged by multiple narrators and a variety of voices, through lust and love, through violence, through friendship, through culture.
Witness the widescreen, cinematic presentation of “The Art of Peer Pressure.” The music frames the unease and ratchets up the discomfort, but Lamar’s lyrical touch is subtle. Think about the echoing implications when he mentions that the group listens to Young Jeezy, that he doesn’t normally do drugs but has a blunt with his friends, and the effect of Kendrick’s mother calling his phone at the song’s climactic moment.
Musically, the album is obviously indebted to Outkast (see his delivery throughout; the hook on “Money Trees”; the general interrogative vibe), but has such a strong sense of place that it deftly sidesteps the derivative. Kendrick hoovers up influences from across hip-hop history but deploys them strategically, unexpectedly. Pharrell sings Roy Ayers interpolations over a psychedelic ‘70s groove. The first part of “m.A.A.d. city” nicks not the drums but the arpeggios from a Luger beat, because the tonality of the strings make those beats so bracing, and because that is the best sound for the abject terror in the moment Kendrick describes with such striking imagery: "The first one to get killed/Light skinned nigga with his brains pouring out/At the same burger stand where (censored) hang out/Now this is not a tape recorder saying that he did it/But ever since that day, I was looking at him different."
That track connects present-day (recall that Waka Flocka’s “Hard in the Paint” video was actually filmed in L.A.) Los Angeles to Compton-past: Not just the MC Eiht guest verse and an old breakbeat, but the sample from Ice Cube’s “Bird in the Hand.”
It’s also interesting, though, how rap music is as much a part of the text as it is a source for the record’s producers. Jeezy pops up on the aforementioned “The Art of Peer Pressure,” while E-40’s lyrics “had us thinkin’ rational.” Kanye didn't just open the door for Kendrick’s conflicted feelings (“Projects is torn up, gang signs thrown up,” from “We Major,” appears on “m.A.A.d. city.”) Kendrick and his friends dream of living lives like rappers do. And he sees this as a problem (“A Louis belt will never ease the pain”) but he’s also caught up in it. Because he feels it, too.
Kendrick's a smart rapper because he directly addresses violence and addiction and materialism by recognizing their appeal, and even smarter for being uncertain that this is enough: “Would you say my intelligence now is great relief?” His characters confront these things, things most "conscious" rappers run from or criticize without empathy, the things that much-vilified street rap covers (and glorifies) on a regular basis. Kendrick’s characters live through it, and he embraces that inner conflict, and still draws conscientious conclusions, even if he never quite seems comfortable with them.
Kendrick's a smart rapper because he directly addresses violence and addiction and materialism by recognizing their appeal, and even smarter for being uncertain that this is enough.
Critics will lament that more rap doesn’t accomplish what this does, but it’s the singular nature of this project that makes it interesting; few artists have the kind of creative talent and work ethic required to pull off a project this ambitiously bold in nuance.
Rappers like Meek Mill thrive as athletes, with an almost complete antipathy to self-critique; it would be perceived as weakness, disruptive to their focus, and likely undercut what it is they do well. Kendrick is rare because he keeps it real, too, but spends most of the record wrestling with what that really means. This almost neurotic unwillingness to allow for easy answers should be crippling, and for many, it is. The unnatural confidence required of a rap star doesn’t go hand-in-hand with introspection and self-awareness.
Kendrick breaks with that tradition. For him, Ahmad’s rose-tinted nostalgia on “Back in the Day” would be just as difficult to express as any unrepentant gangster rap could be, because the past is still alive for him. Unresolved.