Hip hop fans are always looking for the next great artist, and right now the best is Compton, Calif. emcee Kendrick Lamar. Blogs and fans alike have been calling him rap’s messiah for a few years now, and as a result, his major label debut album, “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” has been highly anticipated.
Since it’s a concept album, context is everything on “good kid, m.A.A.d city.” The album, which is subtitled “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar,” tells the autobiographical story of Kendrick’s teenage experiences in Compton. Some of the best songs on the album get even better when the context behind them is understood, and as a result “good kid, m.A.A.d city” is greater as a whole than the sum of its parts.
One of the things that Kendrick did best on this album was telling a cohesive story, while still creating songs that can be listened to out of context. To achieve this, the main narrative of the story is told through a series of skits that take place at the end of the songs.
The album might not make complete sense after a single cursory listen, but what Lamar has created here is an album that gets better with each subsequent visit. The skits are presented out of order, and the listeners are left to follow along and put the pieces together by the conclusion of the album.
Songs like “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter” and “The Art of Peer Pressure” play a huge role in introducing the listener to a younger Lamar, and convey the type of person he is. On “Sherane,” Kendrick explains that his “motive was rather sinful” when he met a young girl and that her “family history of gang banging did make [him] skeptical” when he began to get involved with her, but his immaturity and desire for a sexual relationship made him go against his better judgement in the situation.
Similarly, Lamar talks about making bad decisions while being with his friends on “The Art of Peer Pressure.” Although he doesn’t smoke or drink on his own, he shows that he does both when he’s surrounded by his friends. He also goes on to say that they robbed a house, and then listeners come to find out that he hit the wrong blunt while smoking with his friends. Later in the album Kendrick revisits this point and explains that his first blunt “had [him] foaming at the mouth.”
The recollections of violence, drug use, and the loss of a friend go a long way in making this album fantastic, but Lamar’s greatest accomplishment here is his ability to take songs and include them within the narrative while still making the songs accessible on a mainstream level. Songs like “Backseat Freestyle” take on a whole new meaning when heard within the context of the story, but the beat and cadence of the rap make it radio-friendly on its own.
One of the high points of the album is the ambitious track “m.A.A.d city.” The song begins with Kendrick rapping about his upbringing in the hood over a beat that sounds tailor-made for a nightclub, and then MC Eiht comes in and the beat sounds so patently West Coast that it’s surprising Ice Cube or 2Pac isn’t the one rapping over it.
Then there’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” another multifaceted song that features Kendrick rapping from the perspective of two others before rapping his personal response to the first two. There is a short skit dividing the song into two parts, and the second part comes in with a brand new beat behind it. “Dying of Thirst” has the rapper commenting on the culture of violence he witnessed in Compton, and at one point compares himself to Tre, Cuba Gooding’s character in the movie “Boyz n the Hood.” Like Tre, Kendrick was able to overcome the violence and drug use that is so prominent in the neighborhood he grew up in.
The album closes with the Dr. Dre-assisted “Compton,” and the album couldn’t end on a higher note. Within the scope of the story told on the album, “Compton” is the signifier that Kendrick has finally “made it.” He broke free from the violence, drugs and other negative influences that consumed many of his friends, and his rap career has taken him out of Compton and into the spotlight. Throw in the addition of a phenomenal “Just Blaze” beat and a guest appearance by Dr. Dre, and it makes the perfect way to close out one of the best albums of the year.
The word “classic” gets thrown around a lot these days. Every new release is called a classic by fans on the night of its release, and most times the label is far from accurate. While it’s still too early to say exactly where this project belongs in the annals of hip hop, what Kendrick Lamar has achieved with “good kid, m.A.A.d city” is nothing short of brilliance. This album will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Nas’ truly classic “Illmatic,” but will that comparison stick once the initial wave of hype has died down? Only time will tell.
Aidan Cusack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org