Label: TDE, Aftermath, Interscope
Producers: Dawaun Parker, DJ Khalil, DJ Dahi, Hit-Boy, Jack Splash, Just Blaze, Like, Pharrell Williams, Rahki, Sounwave, Scoop DeVille, Skhye Hutch, T-Minus, Tabu, THC, Terrace Martin, Tha Bizness
Features: Jay Rock, Drake, MC Eiht, Anna Wise, Dr. Dre

On “The Art of Peer Pressure,” the fourth song from his masterpiece, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, Kendrick Lamar puts you beside him in the backseat of a white Toyota sedan, quarter-tank of gas, one pistol, some orange soda. It’s the sort of aimless driving you do when you’re 15: long, laconic loops through your own neighborhood, maybe crossing over into foreign territory to look for sex or trouble or cheaper tacos. And there’s something about the Jeezy line.

You must remember those afternoons. The handful of hours between school letting out and your parents getting home stretched and dilated into a sort of parallel existence—you were braver, wiser, more sure of yourself than you ever could be in real life. Everyone in the Toyota is ready to grab South Central Los Angeles by the throat and shake it until it’s dead; everyone in the Toyota is taking “Trap or Die” to heart.

Everyone, that is, except for Kendrick. “Bumping Jeezy first album, looking distracted.” The premise of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is that the outside world has the power to corrupt. That’s clear enough: the smog, the gangs, the fried food, the Riots. It all flows through adolescent Kendrick. Like so many American kids, his nerve endings are being sparked and pulled in too many directions to study Thug Motivation 101; he settles for it washing over him.

What makes Good Kid such a uniquely thorough reading of the human condition is that the good kid isn’t always good—or more specifically, isn’t good through and through. When his friends want to rob a house or stage a break-in at Kendrick’s job, or when a beautiful girl on Myspace lures him to unfriendly blocks, it unlocks something deep within Kendrick, something at odds with his better judgment. That’s why “Backseat Freestyle” is so important: that youthful bravado is sort of silly, but it’s also one of the basest feelings a teenager can have.

Good Kid spends a lot of time reconciling Kendrick’s better self with his gut-level desires: that’s what “Peer Pressure” is about, and it’s where the album ends up, with its third-act religious awakening. But at its best, the record gives itself fully to the dark side. “Money Trees” is about the literal and psychological preparation for a home invasion, from freestyling in the Toyota while he and his friends scope out a target to throwing gang signs during the getaway. Of course, that’s only the framework. Kendrick’s mind spirals beyond, to the memory of an uncle who, before he was murdered, predicted his nephew’s musical success. “That Louis Burger never be the same/A Louis belt will never ease that pain.”

Or take “M.A.A.D. City,” where he taunts you (“Fuck you shooting for if you ain’t walking up, you fucking punk?”) and lays out his moral code (“You killed my cousin back in ‘94, fuck your truce”). There’s the unabashed love from “Poetic Justice,” the windows-fogged lust of “Sherane,” the chest-out triumph of “Compton.” Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City might have been painted as a moral reckoning, but it’s really a detailed, even empathetic look at our most impulsive natures, because sometimes those are the selves we have to face. —Paul Thompson