Review: Kendrick Lamar – “good kid, m.A.A.d city”

October 24, 2012 13 comments

Ice Cube’s “Doughboy” spoke the definitive line in John Singleton’s essential LA inner-city character study, “Boyz n the Hood,” in reference to the media’s handling of his brother Ricky being fatally gunned down before leaving for college:

“Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood. They had all this foreign shit. They didn’t have shit on my brother, man.”

The portrayal of street culture, “the hood” and the people who live, and interact, within its confines has been a topic of controversy for years, even before the 1991 release of that film. But, the misconceptions are still evident over two decades later. Humanity is curiously absent from much of the news coverage, popular fiction and even, sadly, the music; that of which often tends to reap benefits of the violence, poverty and desolation of the ghetto without representing the tragedy woven into the cultural fibers. “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” Compton-MC Kendrick Lamar’s first studio album, (and second official album) is an attempt at bringing a personal reality to the individual experience of trying to survive reasonably in unreasonable conditions.

But, be aware: Kendrick Lamar is no savior.

GKMC follows an LP that is, on the surface, unconcerned with the listeners empathy, sympathy or general understanding. The story here is raw and uncompromising. There are no solutions, redeeming characters — beyond the protagonist (a 10th grade-aged Lamar) — and, from the beginning lines of opener “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter,” no concern for introductory fanfare. GKMC gets right into its modus operandi: making the listener feel more than comprehend. Part of that success is just how accessible the pathos of a character like Kendrick is.

The story here finds a young Lamar innocently trailing the tail of a female (Sherane herself) under purely lustful pretenses. This gives way to a series of decisions that includes borrowing his mother’s van, (much to her, rather subdued, chagrin) cruising with his ne’er do well friends, succumbing to uncharacteristic pressures of crime and drug abuse, and earning the consequences of stoking the fire of the hostile climate he was raised in. Like any great anecdotal thread, one must walk on eggshells to avoid spoiling the defining moments, but these moments are only as strong as the soundtrack fueling them. GKMC isn’t a book-on-tape (though Shyne may not have been informed of that), so the songs dictate the atmosphere of the narration. That means, when we’re first introduced to Kendrick’s crew, it’s on “Backseat Freestyle,” with a bombastic Lamar turning up the gusto for the entertainment of his peers, and simultaneously finding his clearly unique talent. Naturally, the Hit-Boy beat providing the backdrop imbues the scene with the appropriate platform for his cartoonish boasting. But, in great dramatic form, this scene soon segues into Kendrick, still in that back seat, on his way to reluctantly commit an amateur home invasion.

On good kid, much of the impact is seeded in that exact juxtaposition of a morally conscious teenager acknowledging wrongdoings around him, all while actively indulging in the ideology that harbors such wrongdoings. “Money Trees” personifies, and subsequently devalues the glorification of the almighty dollar (“A dollar might, say fuck them niggas that you came with. That’s just how it feel.”) “Good kid” and “m.A.A.d city” each touch on the inherent violence (by gangbangers and law enforcement alike) ever-present in Compton, but remains aware of the limited options available in such a toxic environment. The former of the title track/mid-album duo features the heartbreakingly revelatory line, “I got ate alive yesterday. I got animosity building, it’s probably big as a building. Me jumping off of the roof is just me playing it safe.” Even the perennial wolf in sheep’s clothing radio single “Swimming Pools (Drank)” weaves itself into the over-arching theme of over-indulgence and avoidance of reality in the inner city.

Now, you’ll notice that not one of those ideas or themes is presented with an air of pretension or need to proselytize beyond the events of the narrative. Kendrick uses the golden rule of any great playwright, “show, don’t tell.” Which is a hell of a feat for any musician to pull off, let alone with a sequence of circumstances as detailed as the ones that occur here. And, theoretically, none of this should come together as clearly as it does. Very few characters are fleshed out beyond speaking points, the “antagonists” almost always seem to pop in solely to take lives or invoke violence, and the timeline is a bit shaky. But, what ties all of these characters, scenarios, guest features, producers, ideas and specifics together is the one thing we all knew was evident before ever hitting play on good kid: Technical proficiency.

Kendrick Lamar is one of the most versatile and nimble MC’s currently making music. There’s a reason why the sustained mid-tempo of the album’s 12 tracks isn’t a distraction, and it has everything to do with Lamar’s vocal delivery and lyrical prominence. “The Art of Peer Pressure,” the recount of the aforementioned home invasion, is nothing to praise as far as beats go, but lines like, “I never was a gangbanger, I mean I was never a stranger to the folk neither. I really doubt it. Rush a nigga quick and then we laugh about it. That’s ironic ‘cause I’ve never been violent, until I’m with the homies,” brings a reality to the accompaniment. All of a sudden, the solemn starkness of the production becomes a tool to be used for additional tension. Even when the topic is completely divergent in tone, the beats are only present to serve Kendrick’s direction. The Drake-assisted “Poetic Justice” sees Lamar responding to the carefully chopped Janet Jackson sample, as if he were the Lucky to Jackson’s Justice. All parties involved in the recording seem to have yielded for the greater good of the project.

That sense of unity bleeds to the rotating door of producers, all of whom conformed to one succinct, universal sound for good kid. Though tracks contributed by Tha Bizness, Sounwave, Pharrell, T-Minus and Just Blaze fit their individual sounds as artists, they’re markedly more subdued and self-aware. Each producer hiding their more defining attributes as to not break cohesion. The liner notes give way to even more surprising contributions and samples that could’ve been more proudly displayed, (the Grant Green flip on “Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst” and the Beach House sample on “Money Trees” come to mind) but are instead scarcely administered, as if to avoid muffling the most important aspect present: Kendrick’s words.

This is what makes the final voicemail message from Lamar’s mother at the end of, penultimate closer, “Real” so effective:

“If I don’t hear from you by tomorrow… I hope you come back, and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let ‘em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back, with your words of encouragement, and that’s the best way to give back.”

Lamar’s role as a genuinely noble individual in an unhealthy environment is one of many, but he uses his experiences and talent, not to preach, but to simply share his story. Not for penance of what he may have done “with the homies,” or to be a hero; good kid is the voice of all the Ricky’s who never made it out of the m.A.A.d city to tell their own story. Kendrick knows, Kendrick shows but, most importantly, Kendrick cares.


9.6/10

good kid, m.A.A.d city is in stores and on iTunes now.


Kendrick Lamar – The Recipe (Black Hippy Remix) Lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – Swimming Pools (Black Hippy Remix) Lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – Real Lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – The Art of Peer Pressure Lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – Backseat Freestyle Lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe Lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – Black Boy Fly Lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – Good kid Lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – Collect Calls Lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – County Building Blues Lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – Poetic Justice Lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – Compton Lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – The Recipe Lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – Money Trees Lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – Now or Never Lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – M.A.A.d city Lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter Lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst Lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – Swimming Pools (Drank) Lyrics