It’s been heralded as an instant classic and for good reason. good kid, m.A.A.d. city is one of the most comprehensive Hip-Hop albums since Jay-Z and NaS captivated audiences with their major label debuts. In his, 25-year-old Kendrick Lamar displays a talent for storytelling and lyrical agility head and shoulders over his contemporaries. The kid is clearly talented, the city fucked up. What results when the two meet is a magnum opus that demands recognition.
Dr. Dre produced the album, having signed the younger emcee to his Aftermath label. The rap legend is also featured on one of the song’s tracks, “Compton,” but this ode to the Los Angeles neighborhood that connects both men serves more as a co-sign than an assist. It’s the outlier of the composition, seemingly recorded to root Lamar in the tradition of West Coast rap that fueled Hip Hop in the early 90s. In its entirety, however, GKMC represents a leap forward in developing gritty narratives past the point of mere exposure. With the skill of a novelist, Lamar complicates the themes of sex, violence and ambition until they’re as real as the lives they touch.
Like Reasonable Doubt and Illmatic before it, GKMC plays like the journal entries of a young man coming of age in urban America. The meaning of the acronym in the title, “my angry adolescence divided,” comes to life in the music but also the album’s cover art. A Polaroid from Lamar’s childhood, it shows him as a toddler on his uncle’s lap. Under the child’s left arm, his uncle flashes a gang sign. Lamar’s grandfather is seated on the right, another uncle on the left. On the table in front of them: a baby bottle beside a 40-ouce bottle of malt liquor. In 12 tracks - with no traces of convincing, explanation or boast- the young rapper takes listeners on a tour of this world, stopping in interludes that border on the anthropological.
Lamar had complete creative control over the project and it shows. It could have featured a song he recorded with Lady Gaga but doesn’t. Gone from it are other telltale signs of compromised major-label releases that often leave Hip Hop heads cold when budding artists make the transition from mixtapes to iTunes. There is, “Poetic Justice,” a mellow banger featuring Drake. But instead of coming off as an attempt at a single (which it should be,) its sample of Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” takes listeners out of the label’s boardroom and into a John Singleton love scene. The song even manages to remind us why we liked Drake before his “Pop That” days.
From beginning to end, GKMC is glaringly authentic. It shines throughout, but especially in “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst," a 12-minute track where Lamar pairs monologues of a young man and woman caught up in the worst consequences of street life. Other titles including; "Money Trees," “good kid” and “The Art of Peer Pressure” stand out for the depth of their lyrical content – where Lamar’s slender voice and nimble flow dominate. At the same time, songs “m.A.A.d city,” featuring MC Eiht and “Backseat Freestyle” boast genre-pushing production. All of this helps to mark GKMC as much-needed sustenance in the world of Hip Hop today.