GOOD KID, M.A.A.D. CITY
Prod. by Dr. Dre, Anthony “TOPDAWG” Tiffith, et al.
This one’s been rattling around for a while. Not good kid, m.A.A.d. city, which released roughly a year after Kendrick’s independent album, Section.80, which I suppose probably merits a review of its own. No, my review’s taken its sweet time because I’m extremely indecisive about my opinions on Kendrick’s sprawling narrative on the youthful pressures and fantasies inspired by living in Compton.
Kendrick has neatly wrapped these ideas into twelve official album tracks, although three more that I have not heard are included on the special editions. These form a filmic concept album, more similar to The Wall than The College Dropout in terms of construction; the events follow a linear narrative set in place by the lyrical content and the skits, following the late-night travels of Kendrick at seventeen and his violent, gang-banging friends. Kendrick resists many aspects of their lifestyle, but succumbs due to peer pressure.
Most of these ideas are presented without subtlety; Kendrick’s resistance to violence and drugs are pretty open on “The Art of Peer Pressure” and “m.A.A.d. City,” his lust for neighborhood girl Sherane is vocally present on “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter” and “Poetic Justice,” and so on. This leads to some great moments; “Backseat Freestyle” is a storytelling highlight, explaining how young guys fall into the trap of saying stupid, offensive, and arrogant things in order to chest-beat at their friends. “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is a nice reflection on the album’s themes that explicates the mission statement pretty openly over one of the album’s more pleasant beats. “m.A.A.d. City’s” partial criticism of violence comes with a fantastic “YAHK, YAHK, YAHK, YAHK,” which may be the album’s absolute highlight. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” directly follows and is by far the album’s best combination of music, rap delivery, and thematic content. It’s great stuff; to discuss everything that’s in “Pools” would be to ruin the surprises the album contains.
Unlike The Wall, where missing the film or the stage show can leave one completely baffled by the conclusion, good kid aspires to be very comprehensible through its runtime. And, in doing so, the album establishes a very strong sense of place; the tracks drip of a slightly grittier and “more realistic” version of Compton one can draw from N.W.A.’s classic albums. It all establishes a very strong sense of cohesiveness and verisimilitude.
Unfortunately, that may partially be its downfall. The album’s cover declares itself “a short film by Kendrick Lamar,” and this is true; characters flow in and out of the story and, when Kendrick switches from his young, hubristic teenage character, he switches to another believable youth figure in the story.
But in keeping to these characters, Kendrick loses the ability to write highly impressive lyrics. The lines are extremely conversational (with a couple of notable exceptions) and ultimately don’t stand out as “great rap lines.” It becomes especially apparent when Pharrell’s four-line opening to “good kid” halfway through the album is probably the most well-constructed lyric on the album. What’s more, these characters use gendered and homophobic insults regularly, and while these elements are in-character and don’t seem to be Kendrick’s strong opinions, they’re hardly a positive representation of where hip-hop needs to move to expand out of its limited demographic. On top of that, several of these characters have intentionally annoying or teenager-y voices, with “m.A.A.d. City” largely being rapped through mock voice cracks and a long sequence of “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is rapped in a voice given a heightened helium effect.
This would be helped by the album’s beats or hooks, were any especially notable. However, the hooks largely have to be sung by Kendrick, who is decidedly not a good singer. Ultimately, the compromise is inoffensive, but it’s unfortunate that some of these hooks might have been musically interesting. The beats are generally neo-soul samples a la Kanye West and Dr. Dre, which should be unsurprising; while Dre supplies no beats of his own, he has executively produced the album, probably pulling the twelve individual track producers to work together. None of these beats stand out as much as even the middle-ground of Kanye’s oeuvre, though; to not be overly comparative, the best beats belong to “Poetic Justice,” “Swimming Pools (Drank,)” and “Compton,” the best of which inevitably goes to “Compton,” a saved Just Blaze beat with a hook that recalls “California Love.”
But “Compton” doesn’t even compete with “Heart of the City,” let alone “California Love,” and it makes one question whether or not good kid, m.A.A.d. city was best told as an album. It makes me wonder if it would have made a better short film, or maybe it should be a book in the vein of the works of Richard Wright and his ilk. Still, hip-hop is the language that good kid speaks, reads, lives, and breathes, and no version of this story could be told without Kendrick’s indelible sense of storytelling. I refuse to refer to this as a masterpiece or a magnum opus; I believe this idea can be greatly improved upon, and I believe Kendrick himself can do better. But, as it stands, it’s a great thought.
HIGHLIGHTS: “m.A.A.d. city,” “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Real (feat. Anna Wise)”
NEXT STOP: Nas, “Illmatic”
AFTER THAT: Dr. Dre, “The Chronic”