That only a few great rap albums have been released this year should not diminish the strident, unparalleled brilliance of Kendrick Lamar’s major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city. Lamar’s first LP, the independently released Section.80, was a violent rendering of his street-level LA environment and the many twisted channels navigated by its inhabitants in their search for gratification, redemption or both. Listening to Section.80, it seemed the next step for Lamar was to arch his back, flex his chest and graduate from diamond-grit street hustler poet to suit-clad world-straddling hood king, but there was a serpentine unnaturalness in Lamar that warned against attempting to predict him.
In good kid, Lamar exercises an imaginative ambition and human-poetic confidence the likes of which very few rappers have ever possessed. It is a portrait of the world Lamar grew up in, complete with flawlessly contextualised quotes from his family, friends and peers.
Starting with stealing his grandmother’s car at 17 years of age to see a girl in a different ‘hood, good kid takes you on a monstrously intricate journey through the Compton that shaped Lamar’s youth and which continues to shape the youths of others. The silkiness of Lamar’s flow has reached fever-pitch and he uses it to capture each nuance of each story. From spitting rhymes in a homie’s backseat over beat CDs (Backseat Freestyle) and getting caught up in break-and-enters (The Art of Peer Pressure) to the tortuous mental aftermath of a friend’s murder (Sing About Me/I’m Dying of Thirst) and drowning fear in alcohol (Swimming Pools), good kid runs the gamut of immersive point-of-view storytelling.
The key dilemma Lamar faces is summed up in the two title tracks, good kid and m.A.A.d city. Lamar would disconnect from violence but cannot in a city where every young black man is assumed to be a member of a gang, and is drawn to the tension-release allure of violence.
The production throughout deserves a review of its own, capturing the thick, syrupy smog of LA in a way not even Dre managed, complete with a handful of the finest hooks you could ask for and dual overdoses of enchanting, bass-rich tension and languid swagger. That Dr Dre features on the album’s triumphant final track, Compton, is a masterful passing of the baton, albeit from a king whose iron grasp has been feeble for some years. It is at once the finest endorsement Lamar could receive, and the clearest indicator of the infinitely greater talent and genius of Lamar than the mogul godhead of Compton’s past.
good kid is a concept album with few hitches – none that do not fit inside the greater context Lamar has created and owned – and it comes complete with a powerfully redemptive close. Many rappers preach to their origins (see the final self-titled track on Killer Mike’s 2012 album, R.A.P. Music, which does it better than most) but Lamar has simply told stories; he leaves whether or not you find inspiration in his story up to you.
High in the running for album of the year accolades, it is certainly the best hip hop album of 2012 so far and will be remembered as one of the decade’s best in 2020. At only 25, Lamar is truly something.