Author: Joe Siegal
“Good kid, M.A.A.D. City,” the major label debut from 25-year-old rapper Kendrick Lamar, is deservedly one of this year’s most talked about releases. In the album, Lamar weaves together an impressively compelling and pensive narrative that is one of the strongest recent examples of a cohesive, thoughtful hip-hop album. The album sold 241,000 copies in its first week on sale, after its October 22 release, leading to the number two spot on the Billboard 200 list, and launching Lamar into mainstream stardom.
“good kid, M.A.A.D. City” serves as a fitting introduction to the technically adept rapper who gained an underground following with free mixtapes and his independently released album “Section.80.” On “good kid,” Lamar, now signed to Interscope Records, shows a more mature and focused perspective as well as polished form. Spanning almost 70 minutes, the album broaches the issues of gang violence, drug abuse, alcoholism and poverty through the story of Lamar’s Compton, California upbringing.
While the generally strong “Section.80” concerned similar themes, “good kid, M.A.A.D. City” sees Lamar confronting his own problems and those of his community in a more cohesive, personal style, linking the album’s 12 songs through fictionalized vignettes that portray scenes of his teenage years, involving his parents and friends. While skits on many rap albums are skippable throwaways, the story arc here, and its contemplative subject matter, is what makes this album different from other recent major-label hip-hop releases.
Within the narrative, Lamar touches on tropes familiar to hip-hop fans, while turning them on their heads. On the album’s opener, “Sherane,” he’s falling for a girl he met at a party, but when he gets to her house, he’s confronted by two men and the song cuts off abruptly. While the subject matter of this song isn’t unique, here Lamar is rapping about the perspective of his tenth grade self, concerned with little other than chasing girls, until his environment dictates otherwise.
Once it is established that Lamar is rapping as his younger self, much of the album takes on a more identifiably self-aware tone. For example, the glossy, energetic track “Backseat Freestyle,” when listened to out of context, is quite bombastic, with lines like “all my life I want money and power/respect my mind or die from lead shower.” With its infectious beat by in-demand producer Hit-Boy, and Lamar’s freakishly aggressive, fast-paced flow, the song could conceivably be played at any party, or on the radio. In the context of the story, though, it takes on a different meaning, and “Backseat Freestyle” begins to sound like Lamar is to an extent, critiquing the influence of popular hip-hop on his adolescent psyche.
This proves to be a major theme of the album, as Lamar ruminates on the conflict between the material ambitions imparted to him by hip-hop music and the contrasting reality of being surrounded by a destructive culture of gangs and drugs. On the excellent track “M.A.A.D. City,” rapping over a hard-pounding, ominously dark beat, Lamar adopts a nervous-sounding, high-pitched cadence, rattling off lines about his experiences as a non-gang affiliated teen, and the self-perpetuating cycle of violence in his hometown. He describes himself as “Compton’s human sacrifice,” suggesting that through the influence of his music, “our next generation maybe can sleep/with dreams of being a lawyer or doctor/instead of a boy with a chopper that hold the cul-de-sac hostage.”
It’s with this poignant direction that the album reaches its strongest points. The start of the two part, 12 minute “Sing About Me/I’m Dying of Thirst” sees Lamar rapping from the perspective of those he’s talked about in previous songs, then explaining the motivation behind his music, explaining, “I count lives all on these songs/Look at the weak and cry, pray one day you’ll be strong/Fighting for your rights, even when you’re wrong/And hope that at least one of you sing about me when I’m gone.” Lamar here portrays himself as a cultural martyr, living through the tribulations of his upbringing in order to tell stories for the future benefit of his community.
The narrative ends after the next track, “Real,” but the album is punctuated by the Dr. Dre-feature “Compton,” a triumphant victory lap for both Lamar and Dr. Dre, who served as executive producer for the album. The beat, made by veteran producer Just Blaze, combines high-pitched synths reminiscent of Dre’s production style with a blaring horn section, as Lamar and Dre rhyme about their hometown pride. The unabashed positivity of the song (especially Dre’s mid-verse plug for his Beats headphones) contrasts the introspective end of the album in order to finish on a more uplifting note, with what is one of the more accessible, radio-ready songs on the album.
Looking at the commercial success of this album, it’s clear that there is a sizable audience for conscious rap in the mainstream market. With “good kid, M.A.A.D. City,” Kendrick Lamar has crafted what may be the best recent example of a crowd-pleasing hip-hop album with a deeper level of significance, cementing his place as a budding star.
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