Every rapper likes to think they’ve got their whole city on their back. As if, just by being a talented artist from some loaded locale and making the leap in logic that your story is important, it actually bodes well for the rest of the jerks in your hometown. If you shine, everybody shines, right? This is the assumption that Kendrick Lamar’s major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, ambitiously confounds. The best way to put on for your city, it turns out, is to drop the martyr complex, display some empathy, and give a voice to as many individuals as possible.
We begin with teenaged Kendrick Lamar (on “Sherane A.K.A. Master Splinter’s Daughter”) macking on a girl, striking up a relationship, and heading over to her house, only to be interrupted by his moms who needs the car, and dad who, well, since mom is leaving him a message anyway, is going to jump on the chance to ask where the hell Kendrick put his damn dominoes. The rap captures that frustrating feeling of being almost-free that’s central to being a teenager, and with the mom-and-dad skit, the sense that one’s parents are doing their best but acting like kids, especially when they yell at their kids. It’s an intro track as vivid as that busted-up and crinkled polaroid on the album’s cover.
From there, good kid unfurls, putting on for the city of Compton by rendering it with novelistic detail. At times, Kendrick, who has an immediately identifiable, chameleon-like ability to internalize others’ vocal tics—very Lil Wayne—literally giving voice to the characters in his city. “Backstreet Freestyle” finds Kendrick shifting his natural nerdy, wordy delivery into a sort of loony, wino ramble, wishing for his dick to get “as big as the Eiffel Tower.” He becomes, for a little bit there, the hood hedonist with nothing to lose.
“The Art of Peer Pressure” details Kendrick staging a break-in with his friends. Young Jeezy’s debut is their inspiration. The point here isn’t that hip-hop’s the cause of these actions, but that it invigorates them because it speaks to them. The hope hidden in there is that if Jeezy can move some kids to imagine themselves as budding crime lords, then hopefully Kendrick’s mindful raps can inspire, as well. He isn’t here to damn gangsta rap, but he doesn’t feel obligated to buy into all of its bullshit, either. He’s here to build something different with the same sounds, flows, and ideas. Kendrick’s an idealistic hip-hop pragmatist, using his forefathers’ tools to make his version of hip-hop.
He’s toying with expectations and sensitive-rapper roles, including the kind of maudlin J. Cole-isms that held back his last full-length release, Section.80. “Real” begins as another track full of smart-rapper condescension towards women, then spirals out to the clueless dude-bros trying to get with them, and then, to Kendrick himself. Guest verses from fellow Black Hippy member Jay Rock (“Money Trees”) and MC Eiht (“M.A.A.D City”) are the most rewarding guest spots on the album, standing in contrast to Kendrick’s endlessly knotty, idea-packed raps. They make the immediate appeal of the streets palpable.
Listening to good kid, m.A.A.d. city today, I’m not reminded of very many rap albums. I’m most reminded of the 1977 movie Killer of Sheep, a Watts-made realist drama that sensitively portrays the black working class of Los Angeles. Like Kendrick’s raps, which introduce listeners to a group of flawed but never evil characters — even a resident who Kendrick believes murdered someone isn’t judged — Killer Of Sheep director Charles Burnett’s wandering series of vignettes oscillate between pleasure and pain, but never condescend. Scenes of a young girl singing along to an Earth Wind & Fire record share space with an extended Laurel & Hardy-ish routine where a few residents buy a car engine from a pimp and then break it, trying to load the thing into their truck. good kid‘s cover even looks like a scene straight out of Killer Of Sheep.
When good kid‘s final track, “Compton,” whirls into gear, it’s the big-budget movie God’s-eye-view helicopter shot that brings all these characters together. From good-kid Kendrick trying to do right, to his break-in-happy buddies, to teenage-love Sherane, to nutty, though well-intentioned mom and dad, to wizened, dope-dealing pals like Jay Rock. They’re all in Compton. This Just Blaze track is the moment when the blurry little Polaroid goes wide-screen and high definition. It’s the album’s big bold star move, appropriately, saved for the end.