The following is an extended version of my review for Concrete, which you can view here.
Sex, drugs, money, fame: standard procedure for modern-day hip-hop, but impersonal and tired conventions do not a great record make, and on his major label debut Kendrick Lamar is aware of this. Think somewhere between the maximalist ambition of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the inner conflicts of Drake’s Take Care and you’ve got a rough idea of Kendrick’s trajectory, both sonically and lyrically. One crucial element to note though – and this is where good kid, m.A.A.d city separates itself from its peers: this is a wholly personal education in struggle and redemption, very much tied down to temporal and spatial boundaries.
Subtitled A Short Film By Kendrick Lamar, the rapper’s cinematic vision is outright even before the tape machine effects introduce the record – a similar move made by Frank Ocean in his recent record Channel Orange. However, where Ocean’s concepts were at times implicit (to a fault), the West-Coast rapper on the other hand fearlessly presents himself in a candid manner, detailing the narrative of his Compton experiences throughout each of the record’s tracks.
Firstly we’re presented with the adolescent Lamar through the braggadocio of Backstreet Freestyle, with the uncannily Kanye-esque line ‘I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower, so I can fuck the world for 72 hours’. The equally aggressive beat wouldn’t sound out of place on West’s recent Cruel Summer, but Lamar is wise to not let the record continue on this course. Later incarnations of Kendrick include a foray into gang-crime during the title tracks, whereas the turning point of 12-minute long Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst is as stripped back as it is emotional. Make no mistake, good kid, m.A.A.d city is undeniably just as much a journey for the listener as it is for Kendrick himself.
Unsurprisingly, with major label backing comes some impressive guest features, however Lamar is all too concerned with the cogency of his narrative to let it become obscured by irrelevant verses. Even Drake’s appearance on Poetic Justice is a better fit than one would expect, with both vocalists’ verses gliding along a manipulated Janet Jackson-sampled vocal hook.
The immediacy of lead single Swimming Pools (Drank) feels like a response to major label demands but Lamar embraces it, working it within his narrative by cleverly using vocal effects to convey the dangers of intoxication in an extended version. Indeed, it’s a testament to Lamar’s vision that such an ambitious album attracts extended audiences; his choice of sample in Money Trees for example (Beach House’s Silver Soul) ensures that his work becomes tethered not only to traditional hip-hop fans, but also the alternative crowd.
As one would expect, this is a demanding but hugely rewarding record; its strong narrative arc and diverse stylistic tropes more than justify its near-70 minute length. The ingenuity of Kendrick Lamar lies in his ability to work within the confines of familiar source matter in order to transcend hip-hop’s tired clichés. Critics are quick to regard this as a ‘classic’ album – an accolade that only time can bestow – though it’s undeniable that within the following years hip-hop’s greatest accomplishment of 2012 has definite potential to become one.