Every movie has a preview: If we treat rap virtuoso Kendrick Lamar’s latest release, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, as a feature full length (Lamar fittingly refers to the album as a “short film”), his “Cartoon & Cereal” single released earlier this year, would serve as the preview.
In the latter, white noise protrudes from a television that travels through Saturday morning infomercials and cartoons. “Hey, what’s up doc?” The sampled Bugs Bunny soundbite juxtaposes the moody synths creeping from behind. “Elmer Fudd said, shoot em’ down,” repeats Lamar monotonously. It’s a nightmarish jingle that reflects the concrete jungle just outside Lamar’s Compton residence.
This concrete jungle and the many experiences Lamar encounters in it, is essentially what good kid is about. Conceptually-driven the album follows in the aesthetic of coming-of-age hood filmsBoyz n the Hood and Menace II Society. And like Boyz‘s Tre, Lamar performs the part of a still-learning young man, cynical of his future as he rides around with the homies, fully aware that every right and left turn could lead to death or imprisonment.
Context is an integral part of good kid. Each song segues into one another providing a chronological timeline, as Lamar grows from naive and lustful youngster, to vigilant and self-aware adult. Even the album’s track-list lends itself to the context. 12 songs, with Lamar’s transition from the former to the latter, occurring between “Poetic Justice,” and “good kid.”
The first half of Lamar’s journey is compelling. He steals his mother’s van in hopes of “getting a nut” in album opener, “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter;” participates in the everyday antics of his gang-banging friends in “The Art of Peer Pressure” and reminisces about a past relationship in “Poetic Justice.”
Here, Lamar is the antithesis to the Section.80 wise-man that rose to prominence last year. The rapper featured on the first-half of good kid is careless, oblivious to the troubles that surround him. He makes his mindset known from the very beginning: “Her favorite cousin Demetrius has a reputable family history of gang-banging, did make me skeptical / But not enough to stop me from getting a nut.” “Backseat Freestyle” furthers this mentality: “Damn I got bitches, wifey, girlfriend and mistress / All my life I want money and power.” Women, money and power–hip-hop’s troublesome three and Lamar strives for it.
This Lamar serves an important purpose: To emphasize how far present-day Lamar has come. As much as fans wish Lamar descended from the rap heavens to inevitably become the genre’s “savior,” that is not the case. His lyrical prowess and self-awareness are not inherent; only through his experiences has the rapper attained what he’s heralded and praised for.
The second-half of the journey centers around Lamar’s conscious awakening. The narratives become more frantic as Lamar realizes he is “easy prey” in “good kid.” The paranoia comes to a climactic high in “m.A.A.d. City,” where Lamar adopts the vocal delivery of someone who just witnessed a murder (“Seen a light-skinned ni**a with his brains blown out / At the same burger stand where — hang out”).
The once-apathetic Lamar is suddenly aware of the violence and crime around him. When Lamar refers to himself as Compton’s “human sacrifice,” it seems to imply that willingly or not, he has become a martyr-like figure for his troubled city. Now he is more alert. He has a conscious in “Swimming Pools (Drank),” contemplates his story on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” and addresses the importance of self-respect on “Real.”
Lamar’s “short film” ends with album finisher “Compton,” serving as the music for the credits. The story that Lamar tells and how he tells it, is essential to the album. The Compton he creates is seen through multiple lenses. Lust, love, friendship, chaos, family–through those lenses Lamar creates a detailed narrative that challenges his listeners, and reinforces the unanimous belief that Lamar is nothing like his contemporaries.
Musically, the album owes itself more to the futuristic rap sounds of Outkast, than it does anything from the west coast. “Sherane” is essentially Lamar’s “A Life in the Day of Benjamin Andre.” But the album utilizes influences and sounds from across the music spectrum. They’re used strategically: Pharrell Williams sounding like a modern-day Roy Ayers on “good Kid;” the Lex Luger-like arpeggios in the first-half of “m.A.A.d. City,” and the g-funk synths of 1990s gangster rap that follows in the song’s second half, and the Beach House sample on “Money Trees.” The production only perpetuates Lamar’s story, supporting the tone of the lyrics they accompany.
Contextually the album works but when analyzed individually, it’s blatantly obvious what songs serve the sole purpose of furthering Lamar’s narrative. “Poetic Justice” and “Real” are prime examples. They flow collectively but individually, they immediately lose captivation. Also “Compton,” although luscious and definitely one of the album’s “driving through the hood” headbangers, comes off as unnecessary.
It sounds more like an ode to Dr. Dre’s legacy than it does a triumphant celebration of Lamar’s success.
In Section.80 Lamar was the voice for a generation, a preacher preaching to the lost and hopeless. In good kid he is the voice of a generation, a member of the congregation hoping to find solace from within. It’s a compelling contrast that reflects the crossroad Lamar is currently at: Being a speaker for his generation while still learning about himself.
Every good story or movie has never been easy to digest. They take readers and viewers on a journey that may take multiple returns to fully understand. good kid transcends the average album, the songs creating a telling narrative that once heard, is hard to escape.
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