As little as five days ago, I was worried about this album, and I had plenty of cause to be. Rappers, for the most part, don’t make great major-label debuts anymore, and nobody much expects them to. They might make great mixtapes, but the actual album-release is where label expectations start to come into play, where bald crossover attempts are encouraged, where everyone understands that someone needs to make money. When Wiz Khalifa makes multiple featherweight dance-pop tunes with Scandinavian studio wizards, we’ve all come to understand that it’s just part of the game, like Mitt Romney changing policy positions as the election season wears on and not even acting ashamed about it. Romney’s trying to get elected, Wiz is trying to get that Bing commercial money, and that’s just the way things work. The only real exceptions are things like Waka Flocka’s Flockaveli, albums that happen when an artist is smart enough to realize that he can’t play that radio-rap game and he should just focus on what he’s good at (gut-stomp adrenaline) instead. That’s great for hard, single-minded focus, but it’s not a route for someone as expansive and ambitious as Kendrick. When we learned that Kendrick had recorded a song called “Partynauseous” with Lady Gaga, I was pretty sure he’d straight-up B.O.B. himself on his first-ever major label debut. And Kendrick is exactly the sort of rapper who might do that. He’s a frighteningly talented young rapper who, on past records, has shown an occasional lack of focus, the sort of thing that leads him into wincey territory like that whole “what if I fucked the stewardess” riff from Section.80. He’s certainly always been capable of making a great album, but cultural forces and market forces and diminished new-rapper expectations seemed aligned against it. But Kendrick didn’t just exceed expectations on his major-label debut; he made an album that absolutely obliterates everything around it, that reminds us what a thoughtful rap album can be capable of.
It’s hard to say how much Dr. Dre had to do with Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, or how much he has to do with anything musical anymore. If anything, his appearance on the bigger-than-life album closer “Compton” is one of the album’s rare missteps, since an album like this is not the place for Dre to plug his goddam headphones once again. (An indication of how great this album is: Even a relative misstep is pretty interesting. The track uses Dre for local-icon presence, pulls back its focus to take in the whole city, and gives us the weird spectacle of Dre rapping something obviously written by Kendrick, trying on Kendrick’s tourettic flow the same way Diddy was obviously aping Pharoahe Monch, his ghostwriter, on “The Future.”) Dre doesn’t produce anything on the album, and the album’s music only spends a bit of time flirting with his early-’90s aesthetic, never touching his late-’80s or early-’00s styles. But the album still reminds me of what’s arguably Dre’s most successful piece of album-length starmaking: Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle. Like that album, Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City is a sprawling, expansive, near-orchestral world-building, an image of a young man growing up in a fully-realized and detailed environment. But even if the environment is roughly the same, Kendrick’s character is vastly different.
It’s weird to think that 2012 Kendrick is three years older than 1993 Snoop was, since Snoop seemed completely in control of the world around him: Calm and laconic, his constant intoxication never enough to stop him from snapping necks at the slightest provocation. He was a larger-than-life character. Kendrick, by contrast, is a recognizable, empathetic human being coming up in a place that does not value humanity. The album title more or less spells it out: He’s smart and introspective and wants better things for himself and his family. But he’s also young and prone to doing dumb stuff, to delight in doing that dumb stuff, sometimes because he wants to see himself as the archetype that Snoop once embodied so completely. When he makes it out to better things at the end of the album, it’s partly because he had the talent and the far-sightedness to figure out what steps he had to take. But it’s also, more than once, because he got lucky. On album opener “Sherane,” for instance, he’s blind-horny and about to walk into a bad situation — a bad situation we’ve seen play out in a million other rap songs — but he ends up just missing it, the spell broken when his mother calls him to bother him about bringing the car back, since she’s got to get to an appointment with the city. And on “The Art Of Peer Pressure,” he and his friends, egging each other on, break into a house and only barely manage to escape the police. During the chase, he’s once again on the phone with his mom, but he doesn’t tell her what’s going on.
“The Art Of Peer Pressure” is a great example of another great writerly thing that Kendrick does: He’s as specific as possible about every situation, and that specificity paradoxically makes the album scan as something more universal. Through all the album’s narratives, he makes sure to anchor things with concrete details: Street intersections, what songs are playing in the background, the ridiculous fact that he’s finishing up the rerun of Martin that he’s watching before he heads over to his girl’s house. And because he fleshes these situations out completely, I can hear bits of my own dumb-kid past in Kendrick’s dumb-kid stories. (“The Art Of Peer Pressure,” in particular, brings up a moment where this kid Nicky, sitting next to me in the back seat of our friend’s mom’s station wagon, threw a Snapple bottle at a parked police car for absolutely no reason. No consequences that time either, but that didn’t stop me from spending hours thinking about what those consequences might have been.) Even the more nebulous songs, like “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Poetic Justice,” fit into the album’s overall fabric because Kendrick has taken the care to set up their circumstances. And on the twin album centerpieces “Good Kid” and “m.A.A.d. City,” Kendrick lays out exactly what’s at stake: The impotent, powerless rage that comes with being a victim, and the dangerous flirtations that happen when you imagine no longer being a victim. On “m.A.A.d. City,” the Compton local deity MC Eiht shows up, his mere voice showing the stark difference between the person Kendrick imagines he could be and the person he is.
That’s something else impressive: Kendrick’s MC Eiht collaboration made it onto the album, and his Lady Gaga collab didn’t. Kendrick put a ton of care into the construction of the album, probably leaving serious money on the table to make sure it was the statement he needed to make. Relatively lightweight tracks with Dr. Dre and Mary J. Blige are relegated to bonus-track status, and so is “Black Boy Fly,” a dizzily great song about the pride and jealousy Kendrick felt in watching local-boys-made-good Aaron Affalo and Game — peripheral figures in the grand scheme of things, but guys that obviously loom huge in Kendrick’s imagination. “Black Boy Fly” is a great song, one as smart as anything on the proper album, but it doesn’t really belong in the LP’s narrative, so it’s a bonus track. That’s a smart and disciplined decision. The stuff Kendrick left off the album is almost as important as what’s there.
And the context of the album changes some of these songs, too. When it found its way to the internet last week, “Backseat Freestyle” was a thrilling pure-rap workout. On the album, though, we hear Kendrick’s dad encouraging his gifts, forcing him to sit there and rap along to this beat. And so all its talk of bullets and bitches emerges as ideas that Kendrick is playing around with while he’s trying to find his rap voice — things he’s talking about because those are the things that rappers talk about. And even with all that context in place, “Backseat Freestyle” is still a thrilling pure-rap workout; it just has more levels now. And that brings up another point about the album: Even with all its layers, all the parsing its lyrics demand, Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City is great on purely musical terms. Kendrick is a dazzling technician, one whose triple-time delivery and gift for multiple voices seem to branch naturally from his seething passion and restless eloquence. The album’s producers have put together a varied but cohesive tapestry, full of lazy guitar-plucks and woodblock-thunks and hazy beds of synth. Kendrick is a writer, but he’s also a great musician, one who knows what sort of tracks work best with his voice. Even when you don’t feel like digging through his words, it’s a great ride-out rap album.
A year ago, I saw Kendrick live for the first time — a college show in Charlottesville, Virginia, a town where Kendrick had never been. I already liked Kendrick a lot before that show, but there, playing to an audience of college kids who knew ever word of every Section.80 track, he became something else to me. Potential just dripped off of him; he radiated crazy short-man intensity. But potential is one thing, and an album like this is another. He’s made good on that potential. Like Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel… and Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange — its chief album-of-the-year competition, as far as I’m concerned — Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City shows what happens when fleshed-out major-label production, furious talent, and crystalline artistic intentions join together to pull one person’s internal struggles into the light.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Titus Andronicus’s hearty blast of neurosis Local Business.
• Bat For Lashes’ gorgeous druidic sigh The Haunted Man.
• Taylor Swift’s pretty great burst of bratty craftsmanship Red.
• The shockingly sharp RZA-curated soundtrack album to The Man With The Iron Fists.
• Interpol frontman Paul Banks’s solo album Banks.
• Black Moth Super Rainbow’s psych-murk return Cobra Juicy.
• P.O.S.’s wounded, incisive punk-rap album We Don’t Even Live Here.
• Pig Destroyer’s roiling grindcore Book Burner.
• The all-star Philip Glass tribute Rework: Philip Glass Remixed.
• …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead’s new album Lost Songs.
• Diamond Rings’ glammy synthpop joint Free Dimensional.
• Main Attrakionz’ cloud-rap opus Bossalinis & Fooliyones.
• of Montreal’s rarities collection Daughter Of Cloud.
• Talk Normal’s chanty, tribal Sunshine.
• Yellow Ostrich’s breezy indie rock LP Ghost.
• Bastard Sapling’s black metal boundary-pusher Dragged From Our Restless Trance.