October 23, 2012
When Kendrick Lamar told The Stool Pigeon back in August about the time he witnessed the filming of Tupac’s ‘California Love’ video just down the road in his native Compton, he spoke in reverential tones, recalling seeing the late rapper and his producer, Dr Dre, returning as superstars to the streets that raised them. Fifteen years on, and this time Lamar himself is Dre’s protégé; the notoriously troubled LA neighbourhood a weighty presence throughout his major label debut.
It’s been a year full of furiously hyped releases with a hit-and-miss success rate, from Frank Ocean’s widely lauded Channel Orange to Lana Del Rey’s rather anticlimactic Born To Die, and good kid, m.A.A.d city is another. Fortunately, this one follows through on its promise.
Lamar’s buzz began some time ago, the result of a furiously fast-paced work ethic, one well-received full length and a hatful of mixtapes, as he began to emerge as the foremost talent of an exciting collective known as Black Hippy. Interesting, then, that only one of his crew appear to make the cut for his big money Aftermath release; a handful of features instead handled by some of hip hop’s veterans, from MC Eiht to Mary J Blige, and, of course, Dre himself.
Opener ‘Sherane A.K.A. Master Splinter’s Daughter’ is a coming-of-age, sexually charged love song, an articulate paean to teenage desire, before ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’ sees Lamar’s affected flow lope over a wistful Sounwave beat. Greg Kot, writing in the Chicago Tribune, describes Lamar as a “character actor”, using the platform this release affords him to perform a “12-act play about his hometown”. It’s a useful way to consider good kid, m.A.A.d city, as Lamar’s versatile vocal style twists and turns not only rhythmically, but also in pitch, tone, mood and character.
The swaggering arrogance of ‘Backstreet Freestyle’ is perhaps the best example of this, a showcase of flows and flavours, brags and boasts, all crammed into a breathless three minutes, while an extended version of the already released single ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’ sees Lamar flitting between a number of pitch-shifted voices representing different parts of his psyche, all throwing in their two cents about his approach to the devil’s nectar.
One of the things that makes good kid, m.A.A.d city so stimulating is its restlessness. A number of tracks refuse to stick to one beat or idea for their duration, such as the lengthy ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst’ or ‘The Art Of Peer Pressure’; a track that starts out with a gently rolling piano-led production that morphs into Aquemini-era Outkast atmospherics. Over the top of the latter, Lamar nails home one side of the album’s split-personality theme: that of the push/pull dynamic between a life of crime and the warmth of family and community, with a bleak description of some unsavoury activity that the young rapper simply explains with the shrug of a lyric: “that’s ironic / cos I’ve never been violent / until I’m with the homies”. The two fulcrum tracks that combine to give the album its title display this thematic schism in more straightforward terms, and a number of skits coming at the end of many tracks include dialogue that drives this idea home in yet more explicit terms.
The slightly weak closing duo of ‘Real’ (featuring Anna Wise) and ‘Compton’ alongside uncle Dre seem slightly tacked on, and maybe the ambitious ‘Sing About Me…’ would have made a better sign-off, but this does little to damage good kid, m.A.A.d city’s credentials as one of the strongest rap albums of the year.
Read this review in context over at THE STOOL PIGEON