2012 has been a very good year for hip-hop, a year that has seen the emergence of a number of singularly brilliant talents all with distinct voices. Mykki Blanco, Joey Bada$$ and Angel Haze are just some of the artists who have made hip-hop so exciting this year. Those artists have all emerged via hip-hop’s traditional underground mixtape routes. Kendrick Lamar is a rapper who has already made his name with a number of mix tapes and last year’s independently released debut album Section 80. It demonstrated just how good Lamar is; his major label debut good kid m.A.A.d city solidifies his burgeoning reputation and stands out as a landmark contemporary hip-hop album.
Lamar is a 25-year-old from Compton, California. Where he comes from and his roots in arguably hip-hop’s most famous and notorious city defines his work and, indeed, this album. It is important to take the album as one whole work. Taken in exclusion, breathlessly exciting hard-edged cuts like the braggadocio of Backseat Freestyle may give a false impression as to Lamar’s character and ideology. good kid m.A.A.d city is instead a continuous story. A concept album describes Lamar’s life growing up in Compton. Lamar himself describes the album as “A short film by Kendrick Lamar”, and it’s an apt description; there is a filmic quality to all the album’s 12 tracks. There are dramatic flourishes, rising crescendos and introspective lulls. In short, it is far more than your typical rap album.
The album begins with a 17-year-old Kendrick driving his mother’s van to meet a girl named Sherene, as described on the spacey brittle beats of opening track Sherene aka Master Splinter’s Daughter. The track ends with a voicemail recording of Kendrick’s mother imploring him to come home hoping that he is “not out with those hood rats”. The spoken word interjections are a major feature of the album, which help to embellish the story and themes.
Throughout the album, Lamar embraces the stereotypical lifestyle of a young hip-hop loving kid in Compton. As he begins to rap in Backseat Freestyle he is high on confidence and an unshakeable belief in his own ability: “All my life I want money and power/ Respect my mind or die from lead shower.” The juddering bone shaking power of the Hit Boy produced beats make this an intensely thrilling four minutes of hard edged hip-hop.
Later on, Lamar is caught up in illegal activities, egged on by his friends in The Art Of Peer Pressure: “Never been violent, until I’m with the homies.” There is a real honesty and conviction to Lamar’s lyrics, which leave you as a listener hanging on every word and rhyme. As the album progresses the tension and drama rises and Kendrick’s story gets ever more tangled and intense.
One of Lamar’s main skills is the ability to adapt his voice to different styles and different lyrics. On m.A.A.d city his vocals sound positively unhinged, a fevered exclamation as he explains his part in his homies’ acts of violence. You get a clear sense of Lamar’s conflictions and the moral and spiritual dilemmas he is grappling with. The album’s closing sequence of songs are all but unmatched in terms of quality by any other hip-hop record released this year. Swimming Pools (Drank) is a languid, blurry drawl of hedonism and excess, culminating in a disorienting swirl. But the 12-minute Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst is the real standout moment and the album’s key track. It sees Lamar rejecting violence and gangsta culture, proclaiming that he is “tired of running”. The timbre in his voice and power of his words is genuinely affecting.
Lamar has enjoyed the patronage of Compton’s most famous resident Dr Dre. Dre’s presence as executive producer provides a link to hip-hop’s past, and this album is an intriguing contrast between old ideals and new forms. Kendrick Lamar is a rapper who knows exactly who he is and what he is about. On penultimate track Real, he proclaims that what is important is not money or the power of gangsta life but embracing family and responsibilities. It’s a world away from NWA and Snoop. Dre himself makes an appearance on the closing track Compton, providing a low-key foil to Lamar who proclaims himself “King Kendrick Lamar”. It would take a fool to argue against him.