Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City

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.

Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City is out now on TDE/Interscope.

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.

Comments (75)
  1. “Taylor Swift’s pretty great burst of bratty craftsmanship Red”

    I guess Kendrick deserves a Thank You for cock-blocking AOTW’s runner-up.

  2. Gotta say, I spent alotta time over at NPR this past week injecting Local Biz into my auditory veins, and I must say…well done Jersey Boys…well done.

  3. I think your take on “Backseat Freestyle” is wrong. That’s not his Dad (his Dad is the one who want’s Dominoes, he has a deeper, raspier voice) that’s one of his homies, and it works similarly (on multiple levels) to what you said, but viewed this way it’s that he’s trying to show off in front of his homies, saying things he wouldn’t normally say (and doesn’t for the rest of the album) just like “The Art of Peer Pressure” proceeding it dictates. Acting in accordance to what his homies would want and not the way he believes he should.

    Also can we talk about how much of a MASTERPIECE “Sing About Me” is!!!!???

    • Sing About Me/Dying of Thirst is some Memoirs of A Geisha type shit when Kendrick takes on the working girl narrative. The multiple narratives are definitely the initial draw, but what I really loved was the way he cut his cadence up with those breathes in Dying of Thirst. Something about that rhythm added a lot to its power. Plus the beat is crazy good. The heaven/hell images that hang over that song are drawn out so well by the poignancy of the melody.

    • “You dyen’ of thirst/ So hop in that water and pray that it works”

      That lyric hit me in the heart.

  4. Brilliant album. Absolutely brilliant.

  5. Can I just say Sing for Me, I’m Dying of Thirst is some straight next level shit. To make a 12 minute long song that doesn’t feel long enough is astounding, not to mention the amazing profound thematic concerns it presents. Quite possibly my favorite song of the year on almost certainly my AOTY, nothing else presents such a cohesive narrative if anything. It’s great to listen to a genuine Album, I have missed them.

  6. this’ll hold me over till WOLF comes and blows everything away.

  7. sing about me, im dying of thirst is an absolute classic. i know i’m not the only one who got a little emotional after the dialogue when the guy’s talking about how tired he is of that life, and then when the woman at the end (kendrick’s mom?) tell’s them they have thirst for holy water….completely dazzling.

  8. I’m not sayin this is better than My Dark Twisted Fantasy but damn if this isn’t as close as it gets to brushing up to it. And, whats even more amazing is that its sounds nothing even remotely like it. Say hello to the new kid on the block…

  9. “Taylor Swift’s pretty great burst of bratty craftsmanship Red.”

    Reading this actually made me download her album.

  10. I completely understand why critics are going apeshit over this record, but the “lazy guitar-plucks and woodblock-thunks and hazy beds of synth” production does nothing for me, a lot of these beats are just too bland. He’s an incredible rapper, no doubt about it, but honestly, I’m sure I’ll listen to the Man With The Iron Fists soundtrack a lot more often than this album.

    • Also, not sure what’s “shocking” about MWTIF being great. It’s a rap album put together by the RZA featuring Kanye, M.O.P., Kool G Rap, Freddie Gibbs, Flatbush Zombies, Pusha T, and the entire Wu-Tang Clan; you were expecting it NOT to be great?

  11. I love Kendrick Lamar too, but no mention of The Sword among the also-rans?

  12. Michael_  |   Posted on Oct 23rd, 2012 +4

    Anyone have any thoughts on the new …Trail of Dead? I’ve been dragging my feet on giving it a listen, and I think it’s because in the past months, I’ve been consuming way too much punk-ish music. I was planning on giving it a listen, but I think a good palette cleanser of some Kendrick Lamar and whatever addictive T. Swift tracks are on Red might be in order to reboot perspective.

  13. “That’s something else impressive: Kendrick’s MC Eiht collaboration made it onto the album, and his Lady Gaga collab didn’t.”

    I realize it isn’t “Partynauseous” but Lady Gaga is on the album as the female voice in “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”.

  14. The sales projection have him doing Cole level numbers, which I find very impressive considering he has not nearly the amount of mainstream appeal. I hate to buy into the Hip Hip needs a savior stuff, but Kendrick may have just saved Hip Hop.

    • I wouldn’t call him a saviour, but like Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange did with r’n'b , he’s given the genre’s new underground a genuine star who crossed over into the mainstream whilst retaining and building on his critical acclaim.

  15. I haven’t been into much rap this year. I guess I’m kinda picky. So I downloaded this out of mere curiosity and not a little apprehension and have been absolutely blown away. Now I have to rethink my almost-solidified year-end list. *Sigh…*

  16. This and the Pitchfork review state that Kendrick is “saved” by his parents calling him on Sherane. I realize the story is out of order and a little hard to follow but to me it is pretty clear Kendrick gets jumped by those guys and later while executing revenge with his friends, ends up causing the death of one of his friends. Also not sure what makes you think that is Kendrick’s dad on Backseat Freestyle but someone already covered that. Anyway, easily the best rap album of the year, I don’t know what could beat it.

    • Yeah, Kendrick is saved by his own realization (which occurs in “Dyin’ of Thirst), with others in his life there to support him (his parent’s messages at the end of “Real”).

      The guys he gets jumped by are Sherane’s brothers (I don’t know if it’s implied that she set him up or not?) They are the ones that ask him all the questions about “where he stay” (basically what gang affiliation he’s with) that echo back in the hook of “Good Kid” which represents Kendrick thinking about what they are saying and why it’s so important when it really doesn’t mean anything. Then his homies go to take revenge which causes the death of Dave’s brother (The first verse on sing about me is from Dave’s brother’s viewpoint blaming Kendrick because he inspired the revenge)

      I missed some stuff but that’s basically it.

  17. Manages to blow me away without including Cartoons & Cereal, which is still my favorite Kendrick song. Maybe gunplay can throw it on his album. It would be awesome if gunplay made some more songs with that direction.

  18. oh word? this album was a tittybanger and i had no idea it had a storyline. 6/5 climaxes? maybe… maybe…

  19. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  20. Schoolboy Q – Habits & Contradictions
    Ab-Soul – Control System
    Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city

    Your turn Jay Rock…

  21. Yeah – I don’t get why fuckin the stewardess would make people think you were a terrorist, but “Hol up” is still a great song. I just love when K.Dot raps over those elevator muzak type beats.

  22. Compton could be a great track. Kendrick and Dre written by Kendrick over a great Lord Knows type Just Blaze beat. Unfortunately the hook is teeeerrible or at least sung terribly. Lamar is just not good at picking people to sing his hooks. I felt the same way about “No Make up” and a couple other tracks.

    • that hook is so weak. was thinking the same thing – it’s like a watered down lord knows – and everybody knows drake phoned his shit in on that track. such a shame. then they switch up the beat to the baby shit for rozay? Why? bummer.

      If lord knows was given to kendrick and on this album – it would have been a 10/10 on p4k NO QUESTION. that beat was an absolute MONSTER.

      • actually FUX that if lord knows closed out the album you could put a motherfuckin lock on this shit for 100% best hip hop since MBDTF

        also, the baby picture on amazing hip hop albums (minus farter III which is shit). why? i fux with it.

      • I always liked what Drake did with Lord Knows. Rick Ross is annoying on it but it’s still a nice break in the middle from N Night Shebibilan’s production.

  23. waiting to have some alone time with this

  24. who wants to see a pic of my cock lol ill show it im so drunk right now

    • Why do you go on stereogum when youre drunk? The internet drunk is never good, unless youre watching lots of dumb youtube videos.

  25. ps this album fuckin rules man so good balck people are taking over music i love it cant wait till wolf and earls album numbers kinda sucked but hodgy has gotta be gay right

  26. This is exactly the album I hoped Kendrick would make.

  27. Where my muthafuckin’ Dominos at?

  28. Why do people keep comparing this to MBDTF? It sounds nothing like it.

  29. While this record has a fantastic narrative, the productions are uninteresting. I hate that feeling though, because it seems shallow to me, like passing over a woman that stimulates you intellectually because she’s flat and/or likes Jack Johnson. If you shoo Dre away from this dude and hooked him up with El-P or Brandun DeShay or someone like them you’d have the no-contest hip-hop AOTY.

    • I thought the production elevated the narrative even further, being as cohesive and complementing as it was with the story. I mean, you put Kendrick on El-P or Brandun DeShay and you get him out of an element he needs to thrive in, throwing storytelling on some more weird shit. He definitely needed the West Coast vibe on this.

      Shit like Sherane, good kid, m.A.A.d city, Backseat Freestyle…there was so much context behind the beat. And the beats/narrative are hard to amputate from one another in this case; I have a feeling that if he wanted to put us up on some experimental shit to rap on, it would probably distract us from the necessary narrative.

      Personally speaking, I thought the beats were quite spectacular.

  30. All I have to say is that P.O.S. picked the wrong week to drop his decent to good hip/hop album. He isn’t going to be seeing ANY buzz because m.A.A.d. city is all everyone’s going to be talking about for a couple of weeks.

  31. K-dot truly delivered on this debut album. He’s remained true to himself and is going to be a main stay in the Hip Hop game for many years to come. I wish him much success.

  32. SHIT IS HOT BUT HOLD UP. RAP MUSIC STARTED WITH BIG BEAST AND UNTITLED.

    • R.A.P. Music was all killer (mike) and no filler.

      As much as I love the interwoven storyline and intricately detailed verses throughout good kid, m.A.A.d city — I gotta stand up for Killer Mike who simply spit straight truth on his LP.

      Love em both, but R.A.P. Music is still my favorite rap album of the year. Plus as far as closers go: “R.A.P. Music” > “Compton”

  33. YES! another rap track, another Beach House sample!

    Silver Soul ~ Money Trees

  34. I’d like this album a lot more if I’d never heard ATLiens.

  35. Listened to this several times now. It’s good, but I definitely don’t get the hype unfortunately. MBDTF, when I heard that I was seriously floored. This has some nice moments, but nothing I felt was truly innovative or mind-blowing.

  36. Exactly how big is the Eiffel Tower?

  37. Sorry to be a spelling nazi, but it`s Arron Afflalo, not Aaron.

  38. A lot of kids are going to treat this album as the trendy flavor of the month, especially with the Pitchfork co-sign. But I want to state this- for a lot of us who grew up in South Los Angeles or who came from the inner-city- this is our story, our reality.. There are a lot of alternative kids of color who come from neighborhoods like the one featured on this album. This album resonates a lot deeper for people who experienced what Kendrick experienced and knows exactly what it feels like to come from that environment, that city, that hood. Just wanted to clarify that for some of us, this is more than just music. It’s artistry takes it to another level of appreciation. The bar has been raised.

    Also, for those still confused with the narrative, I have a detailed analysis in my review: http://atribecalledx.com/2012/10/30/kendrick-lamar-good-kid-m-a-a-d-city-album-review/

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