By Daniel White
Following up on his acclaimed independent release Section .80 in 2011, Compton, California based emcee Kendrick Lamar’s newest album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, represents the rapper’s ascent into the commercial world of hip-hop. With Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, Lamar balances the fine line of providing thoughtful and personal expression, while also appealing to a wider commercial audience.
Lamar makes sure to stick to his California roots, with features from veteran Compton rapper MC Eight, as well as legendary rapper/producer and founding member of the groundbreaking gangster rap group N.W.A., Dr. Dre. Featuring Dr. Dre as executive producer, and Drake as a guest spot on the track “Poetic Justice,” the album introduces a clever appeal to a commercial audience. While I was initially wary that Drake was involved with the project, the refreshing production, minimal guest spots, and creative concept help to let Lamar’s voice come through with resonance.
The album starts out strong with “Sherane A.K.A. Master Splinters Daughter” which introduces the concept of the album: Kendrick takes his mother’s van out to go meet a girl named Sherane and during the process gets caught up with his friends. At the end of several of the tracks there are short interludes telling Kendrick’s story as he rides around with his friends through the city of Compton and is confronted with the realities of his environment – racial profiling, gang violence, and drugs – while his mother leaves voice mails on his phone because she needs to use her van.
Early on in the album the theme of peer pressure and negative influence from Lamar’s surroundings takes a front seat in their ride. The interludes act as the chronological telling of the events that are taking place, while many of the songs themselves act as Lamar’s narrative to express his inner thoughts. The listener gets to hear the events taking place, followed by Lamar’s introspective reaction to the events.
Lyrically, Lamar is sharp throughout, mixing various tones and cadences: from representing his own conscience with a higher pitch on “The Art Of Peer Pressure,” to his use of alliteration and skilled breath control on “Good Kid.” Lamar also does an admirable job of adapting to the different beat tempos, succeeding with both an impassioned aggressive flow, and a more laid back approach, as heard with “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst.” As seen with “Money Trees (Feat. Jay Rock),” Lamar also shows a knack for creating poignant hooks without seeming contrived: “Halle Berry or hallelujah / Pick your poison tell me what you doing / Everybody gon’ respect the shooter / But the one in front of the gun lives forever.” Lamar’s voice is about as authentic as they come in the landscape of current hip-hop.
Production wise, the album is surprisingly cohesive for using such a wide variety of producers, which can probably be attributed to Dr. Dre‘s influence as executive producer. Including production credits from The Neptunes, Just Blaze, and Soundwave, the album is consistent with its seamless mixing of sample based beats, with original compositions. Production standouts include the intergalactic organ melody and spacey snares on “Sherane A.K.A. Master Splinters Daughter,” to the rich feel-good horns and crashing cymbals on the soul-sample based “Compton (Feat. Dr. Dre).”
While the majority of the album is tidy and consistent, the third track “Backstreet Freestyle” seems a little out of place in relation to the overall tone and style of the album. The concept of the track fits in with the albums tale telling structure, but Lamar sounds like he is forcing a Lil’ Wayne impression in the form of a freestyle, which – needless to say – deviates from the album’s otherwise predominant authenticity. My only other complaint is with the song length of the two tracks leading into the last song. The first one, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst,” clocks in at over 12 minutes, while “Real (Feat. Anna Wise Of Sonnymoon)” comes in at over 7. If these songs were separated, the album wouldn’t feel as longwinded as it leads into the finale. The songs alone are enjoyable, but the fact that the two longest tracks on the album come right after each other creates a sense of redundancy.
In terms of commercial music, hip-hop doesn’t get much better than Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. There’s a certain accessibility to Lamar’s honest lyrics that comes across as being intelligent and perceptive, without being the least bit preachy. Lamar encompasses a sense of humility that is rarely seen in the “swagger ridden” entity that has become mainstream hip-hop. By utilizing his acute sense of storytelling, along with a beat landscape that is eerie and ecstatic in all the right places, Lamar create a sophomore effort that is conceptually rich and precise in execution.
Standout Tracks: Sherane A.K.A. Master Splinters Daughter, The Art Of Peer Pressure, Good Kid, Swimming Pools (Drank), Compton (Feat. Dr. Dre).
Overall Score: 8 out of 10