For die-hard hip hop fans, Kendrick Lamar has widely been considered one of the most “buzz worthy”, “interesting”, and “talented” up-and-coming artists for more than a minute now. With his first largely recognized release, 2010’s Overly Dedicated, he went from a promising, young LA rapper, to one of the “underground” blogosphere/rap Internet’s most widely embraced MC’s. With last year’s Section.80 he arguably dropped 2011’s “best” (as subjective as that term is) hip hop album, and found some serious critical acclaim from the hip hop scene, and general music junkies alike.
However, even with all of his love from critics and hardcore hip hop fans, he’s still truly failed to move big units, or find a great deal of “mainstream” attention. Granted, any hip hop fan worth his or her headphones will at the very least recognize his music at this point, the relatively subdued (compared to most popular hip hop), yet extremely lyrically ambitious style he comes with has left him largely invisible to the masses. In an era where “hot singles” seem to drop every twelve hours, and style usually outshines substance (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that) – it’s hard not to understand where his difficulty to gain real commercial traction, or the same level of fame as many of his peers, has come from.
While his music has always exhibited a rare mix of insight, infectious beat selection, and tenacious wordplay, his heady writing and often extensive vocabulary puts his music in a different “space” than most of what gets major play these days. Add in the fact that he seems to have firmly committed himself to releasing nothing but cohesive and consciously designed concept projects that convey a strong message, his almost throwback approach to his craft has made him an “odd man out” of sorts on the greater music landscape. While virtually no one has questioned his talent, and most hip hop fans would predict big things for him, he’s still a mostly unknown artist outside of the genre’s more dedicated listeners.
But, fresh off of a grueling touring schedule, several dozen high profile features, and a highly publicized co-sign from Dr. Dre, good kid, m.A.A.d City, is more than likely about to mark Kendrick’s “break out” performance – and just maybe – a major shift in the modern popular hip hop scene too…it’s that powerful, it’s that “different” – and maybe more importantly – it’s that impressive a piece of art. While stylistically worlds apart, it invokes the same feeling of Kanye’s major debut, The College Dropout, in that it very well could challenge even the most casual rap fan’s perception of what hip hop can, and some would probably say “should”, be…
As previously mentioned, a big part of the Kendrick Lamar experience is the fact that his last few releases have all come with strong concepts behind them. This one is no different. On the surface, the album brings its listeners through an extremely eventful, but believable, journey through a night in the life of a young Kendrick as he navigates through the hazards of an early 2000’s East Los Angeles. Without ruining the narrative for anyone who hasn’t sat down with this one yet (which we refuse to do in this review), it’s a near cinematic musical experience, which exhibits some of the most vivid hip hop storytelling in recent memory. But, naturally, it’s a dark, at times gruesome, story. However, despite the grim realities that are conveyed, it has one of the most empowering and positive messages of any recent hip hop project too.
To dig a bit deeper into the subtext of what Kendrick Lamar presents, he uses the concept of “one night in Compton” to tell the story of how he grew up to become the individual that he is today. He pulls no punches, and throws us right into some of the situations that are all too common in the poverty-stricken neighborhood he came up in. He lucidly, and in great detail, describes the undeniably present and intelligent thought process of his younger self – an adolescent who has no choice but to live with gang violence being rampant (and often glorified) around him, crime being seen as a means to material comfort by both his close friends and potential foes, close proximity to rampant drug use, and how they all affected his development. Luckily, the story ends with these decidedly negative forces turning him into the artist, and success, that he is today.
The result of this obvious commitment to narrative is an extremely focused album that is designed to help the listener understand the dichotomy that often exists in the youth of underprivileged areas – a desire to do “good” in an often “mad” environment. It’s definitely a breath of fresh air when most albums these days are often a collection of singles, than a cohesive experience. By no means though, is the album pretentious, and it definitely doesn’t sacrifice its aesthetic or primal appeal to turn itself into a soapbox either.
With that said, it definitely maintains its “listenability”, and never comes off as “preachy”. It’s hard to argue that Kendrick isn’t making enjoyable music, which at the same time is designed to send an obvious message. To make a bold comparison, several of the tracks here carry the same weight of some of Tupac’s most insightful work, like “Changes” and “Brenda’s got a Baby”. They’re great listens from a pure musical standpoint, but maybe even more impressive when they’re broken down for their message.
While the high quality of the album’s writing should be apparent by now, and is honestly the most notable aspect of the project, it shouldn’t go without saying that this one is just as impressive from a musical and technical standpoint as well. Kendrick Lamar exhibits numerous different deliveries, as he weaves in and out of different situations throughout the story he tells, and they’re all on point. While he admittedly has one of the more “unique” voices in hip hop today, his ability to effortlessly ride a wide variety of beats puts him the same league as guys like Tech 9 and Eminem, as one of the more impressive technical rappers in the industry.
We even got some extremely impressive feature verses, despite the fact that this one is one of the least feature-reliant major hip hop releases of the year. Drake comes with some of his best work on “Poetic Justice”, which captures the essence of the Pac and Janet Jackson film of the same name – and even samples the singer. TDE’s own Jay Rock absolutely destroys his verse on “Money Trees” and might even outshine K. Dot’s impressive performance. In a nod to the “glory days” of West Coast hip hop, legend MC Eiht comes out of hiding to mark a turning point in the story, and mind state, of young Kendrick in the album’s most trunk worthy track, “m.A.A.d. City”. Dr. Dre even makes a triumphant appearance on the last “official” track of the album, to signal Kendrick’s emergence as an artist, and success despite his tough circumstances.
From a production standpoint, the album is very reminiscent of Kendrick’s earlier work. While it’s definitely far removed from the sound of what typically gets play on the “pop” hip hop scene, it doesn’t sacrifice on the bass-heavy, percussion that is prevalent these days either. However the sometimes Jazzy, sometimes rough, vibe this one delivers should help this one gain some traction from a commercial standpoint. It might not have the catchiest beats compared to most major releases, and they definitely are a bit different from the established “norm” these days, but they’re all, without a doubt, quality and cater to the percussion heavy tastes that seem to currently define popular hip hop.
All in all, and from start to finish, we get some well above average efforts from several of the industry’s most widely embraced producers on “good kid, m.A.A.d. city“, like Pharrell on “good kid”, Hit-boy on the rugged “Backseat freestyle”, and T-Minus on its lead single “Swimming Pools (Drank)”. But, instead of coming with their own signature styles, they seem to adapt more to the overall vision Kendrick Lamar had for the project. As a result, this one feels as musically cohesive and deliberate as any recent hip hop project, and is impeccably well done.
In addition to the twelve tracks that make up the “official” portion of the ‘Good Kid, mA.A.d. city’ album, the set of bonus tracks that are included with the retail version of the project are impressive – and include the Dre driven “The Recipe” which might be Kendrick’s most recognizable and popular track to date. While each of these tracks stand apart from the album’s main narrative, they fit in perfectly with its concept. For the most part, they are much more positive and “feel good” than the rest of the album, and almost seem like a victory lap of sorts, celebrating Kendrick’s newfound – and likely soon the rise – stardom, and mark a fitting end to what very well could be an “album of the year” candidate – regardless of genre.