Kendrick Lamar’s new album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, is seeing trendy comparisons to Nas’ 1994 classic, Illmatic, and inciting people to pop off at the mouth for Lamar’s new record being a one-of-a-kind hip hop record respective to this generation. Before this review is fully underway, I’d like to explain and refresh memories.
When people hold this new album from Lamar in the same classic cloud as Nas’ debut, I don’t think it’s necessarily meant as a slight to Illmatic. But why the comparisons? Both albums are told from first person perspectives of young men growing up in wild neighborhoods, but Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city lends itself as a more thrilling ghetto story, whereas Nas seemed to be inspired by a lot of the treachery in his Queens, NY neighborhood in observation. This album details the life of a young Kendrick Lamar trying to keep his head above water in the sea of funk that apparently is Compton, CA, much like Nas did with his earlier work, only with more first-hand experience.
Anyone who’s lauding this album for being the cornerstone of the current hip hop climate is only partially correct. While good kid, m.A.A.d. city is definitely Kendrick’s most well-rounded and brightest release to date, his previous album from 2011 titled Section.80 was the real generation-definer. It’s completely understandable for someone who was born in the 80’s and still finds themselves living on Section 8 to empathize much more directly with Section.80 over the new good kid, m.A.A.d. city. But in an era where listeners typically just snatch up a couple of their favorite singles from iTunes, rather than buying the entire LP, good kid, m.A.A.d city is a swift backhand to the collective face of the hip hop world.
The second song, “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”, has already seeped into online hashtag lands, and good kid, m.A.A.d city has only been available for about a week. When he announces “I can feel your energy from two planets away”, we can only imagine his uncertainty to fit with his new-found role in the hip hop hierarchy. Considering XXL’s cover story on him this year, Lady Gaga co-signings and other righteous buzz, this is Kendrick sniffing out peers lining up to soak in the spotlight shining on him over recent months. It’s a song begging you to unplug yourself from the stresses of life.
That lax vibe is quickly dismantled by the following “Backseat Freestyle”, which features a monstrous beat courtesy of Hit-Boy and perhaps the most radio-ready hook on the album. Think “A Milli” meets “Niggas In Paris”, and you might have something close. Any beat at any tempo is not exempt from Lamar’s bizarre vocal inflections that wreak havoc over the entire album.
At times he’s nearly screaming at you. At other times, one could picture Lamar telling some kind of demented bedtime story, speaking clearly and softly about living in Compton from a folding chair. “The Art of Peer Pressure” joins Kendrick with his friends, riding around town, basically doing dirt, which ends with a successful evasion of the cops by one turn.
“Money Trees”, and specifically Jay Rock’s verse contained, see Kendrick and Jay Rock getting grimy for the almighty dollar and explain the depths that people plunge to for it, and similar current struggles. One of the best lines on the entire album comes from the chorus on “Money Trees”, “Everybody gonna respect the shooter, but the one in front of the gun lives forever.” (I can’t help but relate it to a recent Ron Ron line also from this year, “Death is the only thing you suckas in the street will respect.”)
“Poetic Justice”, the only fully female-targeted track on the album (and that’s how breakout, classic hip hop albums tend to unfold), features a Janet Jackson vocal sample continuing throughout. This one is perfect for the two-steppers still lurking among the club scene, further insisting that there are tracks from good kid, m.A.A.d city that should fit comfortably in most hip hop club settings. A guest verse from Drake doesn’t hurt that notion, either.
One song on the album that’s actually worth hitting the forward button for is the Neptunes-assisted instrumental on “good kid”, which also features a chorus from Pharrell himself. It sounds forced, as though it doesn’t really belong on the album. But the following “m.A.A.d. City” offers nearly six minutes of rap fury, including a guest verse from Los Angeles rap icon, MC Eiht. Some menacing violins make for a gangster rap-infused orchestra alongside a rugged beat from Top Dawg Entertainment’s own in-house producer, Sounwave. This song exhibits Kendrick’s uncanny ability to paint a depressing picture of where he’s from, but an ability that will keep you on the edge of your seat all the while. At about this point during the album it’s realized that Kendrick is occasionally cracking his voice on purpose to make the story of his adolescence all the more real and thrilling.
“Swimming Pools”, a highly-legit lead single that boasts the catchiest chorus off the album, is a drinkers theme song. The haunting, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”, is the most grounding track on the record. It reinforces the idea that tomorrow is promised to no one.
Though the chorus on “Real” is rather flat, this song could be one of those underlying hits with younger listeners. Kendrick peppers the words “love” and “real” in an aim to break them down and add to the fingerprint-like understandings of what those terms actually mean.
The final track, an unmistakable Just Blaze production on “Compton” with two guest verses from Dr. Dre himself, has that anthem-like, home run trot feel to it. Some talkbox effects at the end encapsulate the album and wrap it up in a true-to-form West Coast rap story, just in case you missed the record’s overall theme that rides out through your first listen.
Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city plays like a reverse-role version of the 2001 movie, Training Day, starring Denzel Washington, which depicted a story of two cops, in which Washington’s character was training his rookie officer counterpart. Much of the movie is told through their time spent fighting crime in Los Angeles in a single day. But instead of Kendrick telling the story of two cops, one could reach for the idea that he’s telling the story of himself as a citizen growing up in LA, surrounded by gang violence, and the settling influence of family ultimately turning out to be the most humbling part of his life.
Much of this album is Lamar basically puffing his chest out as a teenager with the surrounding peer pressure and wild Compton terrain taking its toll on his mental state. It’s a record that is as equally appreciated in headphones as it is in rush hour traffic, a perfect combination of spotless beats and vivid storytelling. It’s a cinematic-like portrayal of a kid with his head on straight, but still finding himself caught up at times.
This might be one of the most poetic, earnest, hood-hardened rap albums to ever hit shelves, and surely within the past ten years. But who would’ve thought that a writer would have to consider whether including spoilers in a mere album review or not? good kid, m.A.A.d. city unfolds like a movie, one that you’ll want to see over and over again and tell all your friends about. Get your popcorn ready.
Buy GKMC on iTunes