Few rap records managed to pierce the mainstream consciousness this year like Kendrick Lamar’s major label debut. A follow-up to 2011’s standout Section.80, the semi-conceptual good kid, m.A.A.d city balances smooth grooves and impressive instrumentation against Lamar’s malleable flow and weighty lyrics. Very much an autobiographical piece, gkmc frames Kendrick’s adolescence in the rough streets of Compton against the stark counter-pressures of hood conformity and parental aspiration.
Each track is exceptionally crafted, affording the skip button little to no utility. In classic concept album fashion, the album opens with a poignant voiceover to be revisited later on. A seamless bass transition drops us straight into opener “Sherane,” a dimly-lit party hip-grinder introducing teenage Kendrick’s love interest. On “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” Kendrick spits coolly over a treble-heavy two-chord guitar track. A heavily quotable chorus more than redeems the overt profanity, and a fully orchestrated string outro slams it home. Guest spots are used sparingly and effectively, ranging from K-dot’s Black Hippy label-mate Jay Rock on “Money Trees” to ubiquitous Torontonian Drake on head-over-heels crush ballad “Poetic Justice,” over a rather well-utilized Janet Jackson sample. West Coast rap mainstays MC Eight and executive producer Dr. Dre hit hard respectively on “m.A.A.d city” and “Compton,” firmly entrenching the record in its roots.
Lamar’s artistic inspirations evidently stray far from Compton, however, as sample-mining the relative obscurity of two Danish groups on “Bitch” and “The Art of Peer Pressure” will show. The latter ends with a particularly candid snapshot from Lamar’s youth in which he was passed a blunt laced with PCP, which ultimately shaped his decision not to smoke.
By far the most ambitious track falls near the foot of the album. “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is a sprawling 12-minute effort in two parts, bridged by an emotionally draining voiceover that ties together the album’s narrative with themes of childhood innocence, loyalty, prostitution and tragedy.
Artistic ambition aside, the record isn’t without effective single material. “Backseat Freestyle” depicts a brash and overconfident young Kendrick laying down classic braggadocio with abandon, while “Swimming Pools (Drank),” a stone-cold serious track depicting alcoholism may well find itself ironically tossed in amongst this year’s party anthems. While Lamar himself has publicly dismissed the “classic” label, gkmc has cemented his heavyweight status in the rap world. In the words of the man himself, now everybody serenade the new fate of Kendrick Lamar.
By: Simon Marsello