Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Album Review: Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, M.A.A.D City

Yes, Good Kid came out over two weeks ago. Yes, it's a critically lauded album. But when an album carrying the weight of returning Compton  back to its glory days, you take time with it. I have spent about three weeks with Kendrick's latest release. I had extremely high hopes, as I loved Section.80, and fellow Black Hippy releases from earlier this year, Habits & Contradictions and Control System. The aforementioned Black Hippy efforts solidified my confidence in the rap collective. And with just one more member needing a proper release, Jay Rock, this first wave of proper solo albums might end up being cited as the impetus for a west coast rap revival.

This album is a study in different flows, characters, beats, and styles, as much a result of his roots as his originality. Good Kid does as much for advancing the legacy of Compton as it does for paving the road for Black Hippy. ScHoolboy Q struck the iron first with Habits & Contradictions, Ab Soul threw a curve ball with Control System, and now Kendrick used every resource available to produce a modern masterpiece with Good Kid -- it's difficult to separate Kendrick from his colleagues due to the resurgence of the rap collective and the overall movement of recapturing Compton as a dominant rap force. 

To focus on the album as a whole is difficult; it's dense. When a friend of mine, equally as excited for the release as I was, asked me how it sounded, I could only reply "dense." There's a lot here, more than I anticipated. Yes, it lacks the sudden impact and familiarity as Section.80, though Kendrick himself said it would be, though this album is also ready for radio: a Drake feature, an already charting single with "Swimming Pools, and Aftermath's backing. It's the contradictions, following ScHoolboy's lead, that demand multiple listens and your full attention. If properly marketed, this could spark an upheaval of what we consider marketable rap - music with substance and a message. 

The songs' diversity make Good Kid feel like a mixtape and Kendrick the keystone, bearing the weight of progressing rap. A microcosm of the album is the lengthy, yet earned, "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst". To understand this song is to translate the entire album. It features multiple, well-developed characters; a helplessness cast by inheritance, the implausibility of escape; necessary skits, never feeling superfluous; and two distinct movements. Lamar's first character is a difficult concept to grasp at first, but certainly helps you grasp each character following. With the first listen, it's someone struggling with the loss of his brother, but with each listen a layer is revealed, finally displaying a meta character - it's Kendrick playing a fan of a pseudo-Kendrick rapper. The second character sees a former Kendrick song dedicated to a woman discredited by a working girl. She wants nothing to do with Kendrick's progressively messaged songs, quagmired in the working girl life, seeing his efforts as futile and exploitative. Lamar refutes his previous character's plight to be remembered in song, but by being in a song adds a layer of irony -- I told you this was layered and complex. This is a song of dedication to those trapped within the ghetto, fully aware that their mentality is set, but hoping someone, possibly Kendrick, will carry their message out of the void. Kendrick is the third character here, spitting a verse inundated with references and messages from Nas, Biggie, and the "classic" era of progressive hip-hop: a rapper accepting his position and influence, defending it. All of this is enough for entire album, but Kendrick one ups himself by adding a second movement to the song, shifting the dreamy beat with a skit detailing a turf dispute and revenge. A militaristic beat is brought forth, characters are thrown out. What follows is the most powerful four and a half minutes of music I have heard in recent memory: a litany of gruesome situations, rules to survive by, and an ever present struggle for change. This is Lamar's best song to date. 

With an understanding of "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst", the rest of Good Kid seems much more serious, stripping back any humor displayed by Lamar's characters featured on the album. It's a jaw dropper the umpteenth listen thought that I believe will only get better with time, as the Black Hippy catalogue grows. I could go into as much detail with almost every other song on the album, but writing about "Sing About Me..." was exhausting, much like the first couple listens through Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. But this isn't a calculated obfuscation of art, it's organic music from a true human. Nothing is manufactured, and that, from an outside perspective, is horrifyingly eye-opening.

Final Grade: A+
I know, I know, such a bullshit grade and Flatted Third has already marked two albums as classics, but fuck you - have you heard this thing?

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