Almost a full year after the release of good kid, m.A.A.d city, it's amusing to recall the pre-release naysayers who expressed doubts about whether "Swimming Pools" could ever be a hit single, whether Kendrick would ever be more than an "internet star" or a "mixtape rapper," and who questioned the wisdom of Dr. Dre signing TDE to a label deal.
Long before gkmc, Kendrick Lamar had distinguished himself as a master of innovative flows and uncommonly rigorous lyrics. His debut album Section.80 contained enough powerful compositions—think "A.D.H.D" and "Keisha's Song"—to make it clear that he was a talent to be reckoned with, someone capable of blazing an indelible trail across the hip-hop stratosphere. But nothing on his five preceding mixtapes or that remarkable debut prepared listeners for what was to come.
More than a collection of great songs (and there isn't a single weak link among the 12 songs on the original release) gkmc was a fully formed hip-hop Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age-narrative. The form dates back to the 12th century Arabic author Ibn Tufail, but more recent examples, like James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, J.D. Salinger's A Catcher In The Rye, and (the possible precursor to the album's title) Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City all concern the moral development of the young protagonist facing all manner of trials and tribulations on their way to enlightenment.
The closest parallels in hip-hop would be Nas's Illmatic and Biggie's Ready to Die, both of which have cover artwork featuring a—you guessed it—portrait of the artist as a young man (although the baby with the fro pictured on the cover of RTD was just a stand-in for young Christopher Wallace). Kendrick's album art—a time-faded Polaroid of the artist as a baby surrounded by family members with their eyes blacked out—signals the level of art to which this album aspires.
The album eschews chronology in favor of a fractured narrative structure—in much the same way real memories come cascading back in whatever order they please. But the storyline can roughly be summarized as the journey of a kid with musical aspirations growing up amidst L.A. gang culture (as well as strong family structure) who becomes a grown man destined to rewrite Compton's chapter in hip-hop history.
Along the way we hear about his burning desire for Sherane, his dad's desire for Domino's, and his friends from around the way who lure him to hop in the car with them because they've got a "packet of blacks and a beat CD," which leads to the epic "Backseat Freestyle" as well as other dead serious adventures. When Kendrick raps about "respect my mind or die from lead shower" the threat of said showers is very real, as we are reminded at the 2:00 mark of "Sing About Me / I'm Dying of Thirst." It's hard to say what's more heart-rending, the mid-song assassination or the fact that Kendrick just keeps rapping with barely a pause. (And of course the aforementioned thirst is a thirst for the baptismal holy water of redemption.)
More than the debates about how soon it's appropriate to confer "classic" status on this monumental work of art, the best measure of the greatness of gkmc is the immediate influence. Big Sean's Hall of Fame and Danny Brown's Old both show the influence of Kendrick's audacious artistic ambition—they are not the first, nor will they be the last. That "Control" verse was cool, but the truth is that nothing was the same since Kendrick dropped that good kid, m.A.A.d city. — Rob Kenner