good kid, m.A.A.d city is an album by a 25-year-old about being 17. It’s about him remembering, sometimes whimsically, and other times wincingly, his own tortuous, ugly, and sudden journey to adulthood. It’s about provincial soundtracks to universal experiences. It’s about peer pressure and trouble at home. It’s about the very internal struggle between kids and their environments, and it is set in a place with stakes no higher than storied Rosecrans Avenue in Compton, California, the scene of so many of this album’s touchstones. And yet, good kid, m.A.A.d city’s triumph is that it is greater than the sum of its influences. It takes rap to a new place. This is a great album for many reasons, but a historic album maybe just for one: it is a gorgeous, poignant, real, and fitting final curtain for the era of gangsta rap it was borne from.
The album’s full title is good kid, m.A.A.d city: A Short Film By Kendrick Lamar. Like the Roots’ 2011 album undun, good kid, m.A.A.d city spins an in-depth narrative of kids in the trap and treats tracks like scenes. It casts its story in smoky, impressionistic tones like those Lamar espoused on “A.D.H.D.” from last year’s Section.80. But this album has none of undun’s fatalistic drama; it’s set in the wide world adolescents create for themselves in hotboxed vans and rumbling house parties, away from the classroom and out of their parents’ sight. Its young characters are blithely naïve to tragedy until the moment it strikes, and when it does, it shakes their world. undun’s subject Redford Stevens possessed a weary sense of mortality that seemed greater than his experience could have provided, but good kid, m.A.A.d city’s Kendrick Lamar is a memory, and his immaturities are set out in the harsh, unforgiving light of hindsight.
Lamar describes himself as “17 with nothing but pussy stuck on my mental” on opener “Shearane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter.” On this track, Kendrick – back then he was called “K Dot” – borrows his mom’s van to see a girl he met at party, spindles of G-Funk guitar creeping from the car speakers and into the song’s misty production. He’s pursuing a rap career with some promise – the track “Backseat Freestyle” is both the moment he discovers his talent and a merciless barrage of lyrical aptitude over Hit-Boy’s quality production – but can’t seem to stay out of trouble. Peer pressure is the invisible hand that drags Lamar and his friends to the edge again and again, humiliating the voices of reason and pushing him to make decisions he doesn’t feel comfortable with. He parties too hard, robs houses, and realizes “I’ve never been violent, until I’m with the homies.” When a member of his crew is shot to death in front of him, Lamar is forced to reexamine himself and grow up fast, and the album’s tone shifts dramatically from youthful indiscretion to something more introspective. “I suffer a lot,” he admits. “Maybe because I’m a dreamer and sleep is the cousin of death.”
As captivating as good kid, m.A.A.d city’s story is, perhaps more affecting is Lamar’s stylistic gifts, as well as the album’s structure and subtext. Though he famously received a high-profile endorsement from Dr. Dre – making him the next in a distinguished lineage that includes Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, and Eminem – Lamar invokes something greater than his Compton pedigree. He brings together unique sounds from a musical region that has been defined by sectarianism. At times, he sounds like Death Row’s Snoop Dogg and Kurupt, but at others – like on “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” – he adopts the rhythmic tunefulness of Ruthless Records’ Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. On “Swimming Pools (Drank)” he channels “Guilty Conscience”' Dr. Dre -- removed from the moment and attempting to talk some sense into a protagonist. And on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” the album’s revelatory centerpiece, he is a eulogizing spoken-word diarist in the make of Andre 3000. Lamar’s no impressionist, however; his lyrical gifts weave a complex, yet uniquely-West Coast set of influences into something that feels new and forward-thinking. More meaningfully, perhaps, is the emotional depth of tracks like “Real,” and especially “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst.” The second verse of the latter song is told with great empathy from the perspective of a prostitute, the sister of the subject of Section.80’s “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)”, who slept with Lamar’s deceased crewmember the week before. In the wake of so much hurt, Lamar sees someone he would have objectified as something more. His wisdom is deep, but it is earned; the chorus to the “Money Trees” is “the one in front of the gun lives forever,” which says more in one sentence than most rappers come close to saying in a career.
That “Compton,” a Dr. Dre feature and the album’s last song, is clearly the weakest here speaks volumes about what Kendrick Lamar has achieved with good kid, m.A.A.d city. When placed in Dre’s signature G-Funk mold – the soundtrack to so much of this album’s story – Lamar’s purview feels limited. It’s a striking juxtaposition to end this album with, an undeniable image of how rap has grown, and who will lead it into the future.