Release Date: October 23, 2012
When, in the midst of their storied battle, Jay-Z taunted Nas with “You ain’t lived it / You witnessed it from your folks’ pad,” it was intended as a diss, a seemingly street-certified rapper questioning the credibility of a more introverted peer. But the line had the inadvertent side effect of highlighting its target’s greatest strength: Nas is a writer, and good writing is about watching and listening, first and foremost. The living of life is a secondary skill.
Last year, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar did a lot of witnessing from his folks’ pad with Section.80, a sometimes clunky but nonetheless wonderful series of observations on his confused generation. With good kid, m.A.A.d city, his major-label debut on Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint, Lamar brings himself — and his folks — to the forefront of the narrative.
So what happens when the witness looks inward? He turns anxious, of course. Across 12 tracks stretched to nearly 70 minutes (plus three to five bonus tracks, depending on which “deluxe edition” you choose), Lamar has crafted an appropriately jittery epic about the endless stress of growing up in Compton. His internal dialogues splatter across multiple musical movements as peer pressure suffocates and gangs wage war and lovers quarrel and alcohol intoxicates and friends die and mothers nag (though he should really return her damn car already). This good kid could probably use a Xanax, but thankfully, his rap style is perfectly primed for this sort of internal tension: His flutters, tics, and growls are welded to a sinewy double-time flow that falls somewhere between E-40’s and Andre 3000’s, though it often lacks the glee of the former and the calm of the latter.
If this all sounds daunting, it should. It is. But the 25-year-old manages to hold everything together in the midst of such chaos through sheer craftsmanship. For one, he is a fucking amazing rapper. On a purely technical level, he might be the best of his generation, and it’s awe-inspiring to hear him bend such complicated cadences without even breaking a sweat. He loosely strings tongue twisters like “I’m looking right past ya / We live in a world we live in a world on two different axles / You live in a world, you living behind the mirror / I know what you’re scared of / The feeling of feeling emotions inferior.” Like Nas before him, he possesses a lyrical flair so evocative that, in the moment, it can be easy to mistake his strings of disconnected images for actual narratives. But where Nas mostly dealt in deadpanned reality, Kendrick’s pen frequently veers into the abstract (“A relay race with a bouquet”) or the grandiose (“A cry out from heaven so loud it can water out a demon with the holy ghost till it drown in the blood of Jesus.”)
Moreover, where Nas is guarded and cynical, Lamar is an open optimist. Much of his appeal comes from a certain security in revealing his insecurities. On the album’s closest thing to a party record, “Backseat Freestyle” (produced by Hit Boy, but sounding more like a crumpled-up Swizz Beats hit, all jittery bells and thump), he says, “Her body got an ass that a ruler couldn’t measure,” which sounds like a line from one of those awful Flo Rida hits that we’re all ignoring, but then he couples it with a more tempered reaction: “It make me cum fast but I never get embarrassed.” For so many rappers, power is inexorably connected to their strength in the bedroom; for Kendrick, it means being able to admit a weakness in that area without ever compromising his pride.
For an album with this length and breadth (16 different beatmakers are credited in total), good kid proves surprisingly cohesive on the production side. The closest point of reference is the cold spaciousness of ATLiens-era OuKast, but as the record progresses, that sound sinks slowly into the fusionist mud of those sprawling and solemn mid-2000s Roots albums. The specter of current-day radio is present, too — Drake producer T-Minus contributes the rising hit “Swimming Pools (Drank)” — but more in the service of the larger aesthetic than as a diversion from it.
Considering all of Lamar’s hometown Compton flag-waving, the city’s extensive rap legacy falls low on his list of direct influences. But it hovers quietly in the background, revealing itself sporadically and to great effect. It’s as if he’s weaved incidental music into the album’s DNA — “m.A.A.d city” opens at a pitch similar to the radio-riot thump of Kanye’s “Mercy” before abruptly shifting to the giant, grimy breakbeats of classic Compton’s Most Wanted, complete with a scene-stealing cameo from MC Eiht. The Just Blaze-produced, Dr. Dre-assisted “Compton” makes use of a similar trick, sounding like a misplaced circa-2003 New York mix-show staple until making a welcome dissolve into a DJ Quik-inspired talkbox vamp in the album’s closing minute. That track felt a little dull when released as a single a few weeks ago, but in the context of the album it’s an apt curtain call: Lamar finally pulls himself out of his head, takes a good look around his neighborhood, and realizes that he loves it.
It’s hard to say if good kid will become the stone-cold classic that Lamar is so clearly aiming for. Given that Dre or Jimmy Iovine or whoever else could’ve gotten their mitts into this project and bogged it down with a bunch of melodramatic hits from the Alex Da Kid factory, everyone involved should be commended for having the good sense to let Kendrick be Kendrick: They let him make a record that’s not just uncompromising to radio interests, but also to uninitiated listeners across the board. It’s a completely exhausting listen, one that might prove easier to admire than enjoy. But at the very least, it’s never anything less than fascinating. A master craftsman should be entitled to some degree of self-indulgence.