Big hype albums rarely deliver, but Kendrick Lamar's Afternath debut is the exception that justifies every ream of buzz.
Kendrick Lamar's recipe for good kid, m.A.A.d. city. is simple: rep your city, then ignore its music. Despite Dr. Dre's involvement, the album's steady production owes more to OutKast than, say, N.W.A. Kendrick's ability to draw inspiration from other regions while still carrying the West Coast torch is the driving force behind his stellar Aftermath debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city.
It's cohesive and enjoyable throughout. But it still takes a capable emcee to bring it all together. Kendrick, as you know, is a masterlyricist with a crisp delivery and a keen feel for beats. He can ride a calm drum pattern like "Bitch, Dant Kill My Vibe" with ease and, in the next breath, subdue the blistering "Backseat Freestyle." He effortlessly oscillates between smooth and staccato flows.
And his soul is old. He's 25 but his mind is advanced beyond his years. The breadth of his imagination, his unfailing nuance, and his ease steer the album. And to ensure that no stone of old soul-whoring is left unturned, MC Eiht (fresh outta 1987) shows up on "m.A.A.d. city" to add a pinch of vintage with his outstanding guest verse.
The most distinct quality of Good kid, m.A.A.d. city. is that it gives voice to every good kid -- irrespective of trade or gender -- undone by a mad city. The stories are not Kendrick's but they're presented with authority. It's Boyz in the Hood meets The Wire meets The Documentary (Game's brilliant debut, also via Aftermath). It's a survey of the jungle through the eyes of the prey.
Characters are vividly limned but never judged. There's an undertone of spirituality throughout, but he rarely sermonizes.
Kendrick demonstrates a laser-focused approach to album making -- sticking to the concept, tweaking his vocals to signify the characters, etcetera. That's exemplary commitment, but it comes with a small price. It means shoving superior songs to the bonus section. "The Recipe" (bonus track), for instance, is a better Compton anthem than "Compton" (album track).
Minor gripes aside, though, good kid, m.A.A.d. city is a clear winner. Its mere existence is a triumph. It's an hour of that clever, headphone-friendly, anti-stupidity rappity rap that's historically guaranteed to go double plank. The blatant push for brainless rap by besuited moguls of musicland, notwithstanding, you have to admit that letting Kendrick stay true to himself was the right call.
You have to salute them for ignoring, for once, the 9-15 year-old demographics in whose sticky wallets music bizness dohllaz are tucked. Why they did it, I don't know. But I'll gladly accept this present, no questions asked. If it means one more rapper emboldened to confidence, I'm pleased.
Essentially, Good kid is for those who listen to music with headphones and soak in every lyric and tweet their favorite rhymes and nerd out over things like album art and skits: "What that Jeezy song say, ni--a? 'LAST TIME I CHECKED I WAS THE MAN IN THESE STREETS." That particular skit plays on a song where Kendrick and his boys are scheming on an illegal "Money Tree." The message is this: hip-hop can be a guiding force in the lives of the youth and a soundtrack for life. The success stories in rap give hope to the hopeless.
After hopelessness comes salvation. Fittingly, "Compton" closes the album with a triumphant Just Blaze beat and brings out the optimist in Kendrick. "Now we can all celebrate," he proclaims on the album coda.
On a hip-hop level, this album succeeds. It has metaphors and double entendres and hardbody beats and such. And if that's all you want, that's all you'll get. But you'll come to love good kid for other reasons: color, flavor, action, imagery, the element of surprise. The songs run long (average runtime: six minutes) but they're never dull. Its characters -- nagging parents, young lovers, trash-talking buddies, dope dealers -- are not just in Compton, they're in every city.
Release Date: October 23, 2012