“Martin had a dream / Martin had a dream / Kendrick have a dream” – from “Backseat Freestyle”
Just when you thought the G.O.O.D. Music crew or the Odd Future gang were the likeliest acts to take over hip-hop, Kendrick Lamar graces our presence. Or rather, Dr. Dre re-enters our presence. For all of the accolades he’s amassed over the course of his gangsta rap career, Dr. Dre has actually had a bigger impact as a music producer behind the scenes, having harnessed the careers of rap titans Eminem and 50 Cent.
Now, Lamar has been touted as his next protégé, and it doesn’t take long while listening to the Compton-based artist’s 2012 major label debut to notice Dr. Dre’s central touch. Nor can one doubt that Dre’s presence will help propel to mass success an artist that is so much at the top of his game on good kid, m.A.A.D. city that he may arguably be hip hop’s next prince.
He didn’t exactly just stumble into the hip-hop/rap game, but it wasn’t really until last year with his independent label debut, Section.80, that Lamar really found his way into my consciousness. Having listened to the artist’s previous efforts, the album’s slicker production was a major improvement, but it was also Lamar’s continued penchant for incorporating raw, emotionally complex lyrics into the mix that gave us some of hip hop’s finest recordings of 2011. Tracks like “ADHD” and “Poe Man’s Dream (His Vice)” — with their youthful reflections and inner-monologue encryptions — comprised an album that wasn’t so much successful as it was revelatory, and it planted the seeds of an artist who knew how to calculate his musical and lyrical abilities without pretentions.
The same can be said about good kid, m.A.A.d. city, which takes everything that was gripping about Section.80 and tightens the production for a stronger outing than before. It utilizes Dr. Dre as a crucial ingredient — literally, because he’s featured on a deluxe edition track called “The Recipe” — but really, so much of Lamar’s resilience and maturity reflects Dre’s own personality that good kid, m.A.A.d. city not only reminds us of the albums released during hip hop’s ’90s heydey, but also proves how perfectly well and alive old-school hip hop is given the seeming necessity of genre shake-ups in music today to make it big.
When it all comes down to it, though, this is Lamar’s show — or rather, his “short film” as is mentioned on the album’s cover art — and there’s no stopping him. Clocking in at close to 70 minutes, good kid, m.A.A.d. city could technically qualify as a feature film by Academy standards, and the album absolutely lives up to that label, with tracks serving as “scenes” to an enveloping story of Lamar’s upbringing in and around his Compton neighborhood. The subject may not be particularly new to the genre, but the tracks are all weaved together via tape recordings of the people in the artist’s life, effectively commenting on the scene displayed before or after them and maintaining a thematical thread that supports Lamar’s music.
This kind of conceptual arrangement is just one aspect of Lamar’s talents that separates him from the rest of his contemporaries. If anything, good kid, m.A.A.d. city is at its most unique and most incredible when Lamar displays his greatest weapons: his attention to detail and great magnification of the many follies that afflict him more now than when he was growing up.
Album highlights “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “The Art of Peer Pressure” both have these very demanding beats that one could easily dance to at the hottest clubs, but they best think twice about what they’re actually doing. Lamar lays down lyrics about the comforts of alcohol and hanging with the homies that work on a superficial level, but there’s a much darker, more cryptic subtext lying beneath that makes the listener do a double-take. With the severity of his wordplay fighting against the grain of the beat, the artist molds these tracks that make you stop and think about what he’s really trying to say. He rises to the occasion to create a fantastically fresh, multi-layered aesthetic and a revealing portrait of himself at the same time.
Lamar has stated that one of his major influences is 2Pac, and both the flow and the instrumentals of tracks like “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “good kid,” and the final track, “Compton,” make those influences pretty apparent. They’re most certainly welcome, like revisiting an old friend, while at the same time, Lamar injects enough of his vocal and lyrical spin alongside his influences that they feel entirely new again. He balances out the album with more current hip-hop stylings as well as the Beach House-sampled “Money Trees” and the Hit-Boy-produced “Backseat Freestyle.”
There is a kind of sonic inconsistency to the album that I believe some people might see as a flaw, but I think it’s purposeful. No one track sounds like the one that came before it, leading to a real progression of sound that follows the narrative Lamar implies over the album’s running time. Starting off darkly with “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter” and ending on the revealing “Compton,” the story always moves forward, and each “scene” serves its purpose in the larger scheme of things, providing a running commentary on the inconsistencies and resulting consequences of Lamar’s adolescent choices.
Lamar gives a performance of equalling quality to his previous efforts but manages to outdo them all with a force of character and artistry that, with Dr. Dre’s guidance, can become the next classic hip-hop album of the public consciousness and solidify Lamar as a domineering artist in the hip-hop community. There’s so much more I could say, but I think there’s a lot to take away from good kid, m.A.A.d. city that you’d only understand by listening to it for yourself (rather than me babbling on about it). It’s hard enough putting into words what I actually feel about this album, but believe me when I write that it is this year’s best hip-hop release and one of this year’s finest achievements in any genre.
Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city is now available on all formats via Aftermath Records.
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