There’s a temptation to lump Kendrick Lamar in with the cabal of internet-famous MCs whose talent at crafting verses remains far outstripped by their talent at commanding a media cycle. The astounding quality of good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Lamar’s sophomore LP, not only establishes him as an outlier from this group, but also suggests that his artistic talent places him in another league entirely.
A Compton-based rapper and a member of the Black Hippy crew (a small conspiracy to Internet fame in itself), Lamar has characterized his sound by the inclusion of raw, clicking beats and a contemplative focus on storytelling. good kid, m.A.A.d. city, even more so than his debut LP, Section.80, lets these predilections run riot, to astounding results.
There aren’t a lot of MCs at work in Lamar’s stylistic neighborhood. The closest point of comparison would probably be Frank Ocean’s astounding channel ORANGE, from which Lamar borrows Pharrell’s moody beatsmanship, some tape-hiss assisted segues, and a weakness for confounding punctuation. However, Lamar’s talent as a lyricist simply outstrips Ocean’s, and does so by drawing fearlessly from a variegated thematic pallet.
From the first couplet of opening track “Sharene a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter,” Lamar establishes himself as a storyteller of uncommon vision and patience. The track starts out with a tale of seduction similar in shape to many populating the annals of West Coast hip-hop, but, in its final act takes a left-hand turn into menace, confusion and a level of “real” unimaginable at the song’s outset. Along the way, we’re casually treated to couplets like, “It’s deep rooted, the music of being young and dumb / It’s never muted, in fact it’s much louder where I’m from.” The fire and brimstone sample that starts off the track (and, by extension, the album) does much more than add unearned epic scope; it introduces the themes of sin and redemption that play out repeatedly throughout the LP.
“Swimming Pools (Drank),” extends this metaphor to a narrative of Lamar’s alcoholic tendencies, and “m.A.A.d. city” enlists the help of MC Eiht to talk about the history of violence in Compton. Lamar and Eiht don’t endorse or preach against that legacy, they simply bear it witness, in an unstoppable, machinegun patter of acutely observed verses.
“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” in addition to possessing a title sure to make the world’s poetry MFAs curdle with jealousy, features Lamar in a bravura performance of lyrical ventriloquism. He expends his lyrics in investigation of his own actions, as seen from the meandering point of view of friends and acquaintances. He owns every moment of this narrative marathon, proving that in addition to his powers of observation, his contemporaries can’t match him in terms of sheer endurance.
good kid, m.A.A.d. city does so many things right that it’s hard to cram them all into the space of one review. The LP takes risks without sounding desperate, bears unmistakable marks of its Los Angeles origins without sounding constrained, and has the good sense to pack every one of its perfectly executed maneuvers into a temperate twelve tracks.
There’s enough grist in good kid, m.A.A.d. city to go on talking about for at least another month, which means that both in terms of scope and style, Kendrick Lamar has created one of the finest albums of the year.