Kendrick Lamar is keen to capture his adolescent years’ volatile mind frame by reminiscing, accepting and sharing his inner demons and bitter memories. Even more so than his remarkable independent releases, Overly Dedicated and Section 80, good kid, m.A.A.d city is a true display of his meticulous nature. The quality of precision shows in the music, the lyrics, the concepts, and the structure, making the Compton native’s debut one of the most cohesive bodies of work in recent rap memory.
It starts with a recording of a prayer, and fades in on a 17-year-old Kendrick, whose focus in life is pillaging of “pussy.” Fluidly dashing and pausing over a nocturnal backdrop, K-Dot’s lustful mind frame only awakes with the encounter of two gang bangers. Just like that, the anecdotal intro, “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter,” which creates the mise en scène for the album, cuts into the first of many voicemail recordings (essentially interludes) from Kendrick’s mother and father. Not only do these voicemails adjoin the plotline, but they also aid as reminders for young Lamar to stray from the street life, serving as yin to the violence-driven yang of Compton.
It’s crucial to note throughout the majority of good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar plays himself as a 17-year-old teenager, who’s driving around Los Angeles in his mother’s caravan with his gang-affiliated homies. This narrative is the mainstay throughout the project. It accentuates a sense of excitement, shedding light on a side of the talented wordsmith that hasn’t been dissected until now. Starting with “Backseat Freestyle,” with its bigmouth, punch-line antics over a thumping Hit-Boy production, this is a pre-fame MC who’s foolishly blazing off raps with friends. It doesn’t, however, means the flow is elementary or his quotable are shabby; he channels multiple voices and executes crisp-clean double- and triple-time bonanza with ease.
But fun and games aren’t the only elements that constitute a young Kendrick’s late-night escapade. On “The Art of Peer Pressure”—a spacious, internal monologue—he highlights the rowdy behaviors he displays in front of his friends, while having an almost opposite sentiment inside his psyche. This thought further explores on a more in-depth lane on “good kid,” in which the first-two verses discuss the allure and fear administered by—quite ironically—gangs and police sirens that both flaunt colors red and blue.
The album reaches a creative and cinematic climax on “m.A.A.d city.” Whether it was meant to depict his puberty or the panting sufferings of reality, K.L. purposely tweaks his voice into a higher pitch, and frantically describes the “mad” elements of Compton. Gun-driven, gang violence widespread throughout the ‘hood has become a part of Kendrick’s DNA. It’s a tempting draw, even when he attempts to fight it. And toward the end of this epic, the rapper epitomizes his lineage claiming that he’s an “angel,” who was made on “angel dust.”
After the violence subsides, Kendrick leads the “short film” near its epilogue on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” The first-two verses speak from the perspectives of siblings as subjects that Kendrick touches on current and previous albums. It’s a tearjerker, and an impressive delivery of emotions that can’t help but let the listeners visualize empathetic portraits of those gunned down and faded away.
While Kendrick rolls deep, affiliated with TDE and Aftermath, there’s not a bevy of features. All of the guest appearances on the project assist as cameos with fitting roles. Drake on the suave, love serenade “Poetic Justice,” Jay Rock on the tale of hustler’s ambitions in “Money Trees,” MC Eiht serving OG knowledge on “m.A.A.d city,” and Dr. Dre passing the torch to Kendrick on “Compton” all serve a thematic purpose. None of their names or verses outshines the star of the movie. They’re all knitted into the drape known as good kid, m.A.A.d city, helping to mold a fuller image.
Overall, good kid, m.A.A.d city is an invigorating LP. Every record is both complexly arranged and sonically fitting, foregrounding Kendrick’s vivid lyricism and amazing control of cadence. There’s not a single loophole. From the prayers on “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter” to the triumphant ending on “Compton,” each skit and track interweaves one another, solidifying a complete picture. While only time can determine the album’s fate, this life chronicle of Kendrick has all—if not more—of the qualities rap’s now living and deceased legends have carved in stone. It’s an undeniably stellar major label debut from Kendrick Lamar, which will certainly hurt the self-esteem of many rappers out now while also inspiring them to reach these heights. —Jaeki Cho (@JaekiCho)