good kid, m.A.A.d city
, January 10th, 2013 12:07
"Compton, Compton…Ain't no city quite like mine." Like many of the lyrics that constitute Kendrick Lamar's much-lauded good kid, m.A.A.d city¸ this hook seems throwaway at first glance. In fact, as a standalone song 'Compton' is lightweight; divorced of its context, there is little hiding beneath the gloss of Just Blaze's triumphant horns and clattering percussion. Surfacing as it did - prior to the album's release - the grand baton passing between Dre and Kendrick was a sobering anti-climax, bogged down by the occasion itself and not playing to the strengths of either artist. Perhaps this wouldn't be the life-long classic that the rap media was so desperate to declare it. But Kendrick is not a singles artist, and we should have known that we were witnessing a pre-emptive victory lap. Because when 'Compton' appears in sequence at the tail end of the record, it somehow feels very different; an appropriate moment of recognition for the city to which he owes everything, but that could so easily have swallowed him whole.
As it turns out 'Compton' is just the beginning of Kendrick's story. It functions here as a simple tribute, but what it fails to capture is what the album's other 11 songs do so vividly; the beating heart of the troubled, complex city which Kendrick calls home. He places the listener in his life, focusing a lens on small decisions that can have massive impact, before zooming out to reveal a thousand other kids doing the same thing – just trying to forge a path. He puts you in his family home, caught between a nagging mother and father whose love shines through eventually. Then you're in the car with his friends, bumping Young Jeezy and inevitably running into trouble. You're there in the club with all its illusions of pleasure; chasing girls for bragging rights; gangland clashes; quick thrills and aspirations.
Compton's presence is felt every step of the way, the city where jumping off a building can be deemed as playing it safe. Young men are senselessly shot dead for the colours they're wearing, or for straying too far from their own neighbourhood. This is not some glorified fictional reality, but a real-life account from somebody who made it out alive with the level-headedness to put it into song. Even chasing after girls can leave you in a world of trouble, or rather, the wrong girl can – Sherane A.K.A Master Splinter's Daughter; credentials of a stripper from Atlanta, cousin of a gangbanger. It's there in the first song, the album's concept deftly outlined and the dangers which lie ahead are so delicately foreshadowed.
Despite the tensions which weigh heavily on Kendrick's mind, he resists passing any judgement on the effects of poverty. There are few (if any) moments which could be interpreted as overtly preachy, but he's intent on helping the listener to see the world through his eyes. Although his descriptions are vivid, the experiences themselves fly by in a blur as he grasps for clarity and meaning. At the same time he's just a regular young man running on adrenaline and testosterone, bewitched by Sherane and led astray by his friends. There's a moment of palpable horror in 'The Art of Peer Pressure' as he's so nearly caught-out during a home invasion – just "one lucky night with the homies." Then there's the preposterous and brilliant 'Backseat Freestyle' which takes a raw, post-A Milli beat and runs with it, as Kendrick aligns himself with Martin Luther King while dreaming of fucking the world with an Eiffel Tower sized dick.
Perhaps the best moments of good kid, m.A.A.d city, though, are those in which Kendrick puts his vulnerability to the fore. The two eponymous centrepieces of the record – 'good kid' and 'm.A.A.d city' – are not characterised by the braggadocio of Compton's past, but with fearful paranoia. The latter song particularly, which finds Lamar's voice in a higher register, looking over his shoulder as stabbing strings and snappy hi-hats create a sense of chaos. In a clever transition the song's beat then flips back into a vintage west-coast thump, as a rousing MC Eiht verse draws the line between schools old and new. Lamar stands tall as the modern man at the head of Darwin's evolution of Dre protégés, while the hunched, monotone figures of 50 Cent and Game linger in the Twitter-beef shadows, bickering into relative obscurity. If this is to be the sound of Compton's future, then sign me up.
Lamar has long been touted as an 'important' voice and good kid, m.A.A.d city is appropriately ambitious. In another rapper's hands the concepts might have been overcooked or the messages too self-righteous, but Kendrick manages to achieve scale while remaining firmly grounded on two feet. The skits between songs are more than a funny-once sideshow, but darn near essential in holding together the album's composite parts; snippets of reality that turn simple stories into a grand narrative with characters that you care about. He describes the many pressures in his life – peer pressure, the pressure to follow god, or the pressure of the American dream as seen through rap videos – all of which are inescapable and deep-rooted into Compton life. The downtrodden 'Bitch, Don't Kill my Vibe' almost feels addressed to those pressures, as Kendrick retreats for a while into his own headspace. The peripheral voices and meta-narratives peel away to leave Kendrick in a rare moment of calm - "sometimes I need to be alone," he sings.
Trying to unpack good kid, m.A.A.d city is a monstrous task, with each of its narrative threads worthy of its own essay. Binaries recur endlessly offering Kendrick guidance on how he is supposed to act; family and friends; religion and sex; drugs and sobriety; love and violence; good kid, m.A.A.d city. Meanwhile his life is moving at a million miles an hour - a close friend dies in his arms, he's robbing houses, he takes a job as a security guard but is quickly fired, perhaps a rap career takes off?
Above all of these ideas though, Kendrick seeks to use good kid m.A.A.d city as a positive force. On 'Real' - a prelude to the celebratory 'Compton' – Kendrick's mother tells him to give back to the people of his city: "Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids from Compton. Let 'em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person." This message could just as well be the album's mission statement, and on those terms you'd have to say it's succeeded. good kid m.A.A.d city is arguably the most critically acclaimed album of 2012, but more importantly it seems to have connected with people on a mass scale. Selling more than Rihanna's latest in first week US sales, Kendrick has unarguably emerged as a major voice in both hip hop and popular music. What makes his success such a triumph, though, is that his vehicle was this immensely detailed, but accessible and warm-hearted origins story – the birth of a star.