Thursday 20 December 2012

Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d city

‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ has been trumpeted in many end of year lists and for good reason – this is Kendrick Lamar’s major label debut following years of mixtapes (both solo and with hip-hop crew Black Hippy) and is one of the top hip-hop albums of the year. 

A concept album, the extended narrative depicts a semi-autobiographical take on gang life in Lamar’s hometown of Compton, California.  In a time of single releases and bland filler, this is an album that demands to be listened to in full.

“Lord God, I come to you a sinner and I humbly repent for my sins”, the album begins.  The non-linear narrative is cleverly structured, delivering a story-arc that sees Lamar develop from an impressionable teen to a faith-driven adult.  This opening to the album foreshadows what’s to come, before delving into a vivid depiction of gang life filled with money, sex, drugs and crime.  

The Art of Peer Pressure marks the start of Lamar’s downfall, “I’ve never been violent until I’m with the homies…we tryna conquer the city with disobedience”.  From there, events spiral out of control.  Money Trees sees Lamar dreaming of “living life like rappers do”, sleeping with women and robbing homes, the song’s chorus repeating “Everybody gon’ respect the shooter, but the one in front of the gun lives forever”.  Swimming Pools (Drank) centres on the glamorous and cultural importance of alcohol in raising status (“first you get a swimming pool full of liquor then you dive in”), the second verse of which has Lamar’s conscience “hopin’ to lead [him] to victory”, the lyrics gradually becoming more fragmented as Lamar’s drunken state blurs his thoughts.  m.A.A.d city gives us the album’s narrative in miniscule, beginning with an overall impression of the world Lamar has been swept into, a world where innocents are killed, grudges are held and “all hell broke loose…bodies on top of bodies”.  Half way through we’re told “I’mma teach you some lessons about the street, it ain’t nothin’ but a Compton thing” as we hear first-hand of the city’s violence.  At the centre of it all is “Kendrick a.k.a Compton’s sacrifice”. 

The lyrics are accompanied by slick production – the glossy sheen a foil to the rough scenarios Lamar illustrates.  Glamorous, downbeat and atmospheric, the changing music parallels Lamar’s growth in character and allows the listener to brood on each situation.  Sound effects and guest appearances only add to the complex layers of musical textures.

Integrated into the tracks are a number of spoken interludes adding a sense of verisimilitude to the proceedings.  As such, the album portrays a cross-section of gang life – multi-faceted and shockingly real.  Listening to the album, it becomes clear why Lamar labelled it a “short film” on the front cover.  These skits provide dramatic context to the lyrics, driving the narrative and contrasting varying viewpoints.  The opening track ends with an intrusive voicemail from Lamar’s mother and father (“I hope you ain't out there messin' with them damn hoodrats...where my mother fuckin’ Dominos at?”).  When juxtaposed with subsequent track Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe, the meaning is clear.  Yet that track is also a statement of intent: ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ is Lamar’s opus and nothing will stand in his way.

Swimming Pool (Drank) ends with a violent shootout, leading us into the twelve minute long Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst - the turning point of the album.  The gentle first half laments the deaths of various characters, their verses fading away into nothing.  This causes Lamar to renounce his gang lifestyle: “Tired of running… How many sins? I lost count”.  It’s followed by a skit where Lamar is told he’s dying of thirst (“that means you need holy water”) and he prays and repents for his sins.  Finally, Lamar has become the good kid in a mad city, a nickname he gave himself.  This is followed by Real, Lamar’s statement of being true to himself, and Compton, a love letter to his home-town in which he asks everyone to “serenade the new faith of Kendrick Lamar” and shows his love for the city – “ain’t no city quite like mine”.

And there ain’t no album quite like this either.  Less a rapper and more a storyteller, Lemar’s dense lyrics and internal rhymes are richly provocative.  Listening to ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ is a cinematic experience and a powerfully detailed and visceral depiction.  “One day you respect the good kid, m.A.A.d city”, he says on good kid– it appears that day has come.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe
* Swimming Pool (Drank)
* Compton

Listen: ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ is available now.