“I’m gonna teach you something about the streets,” MC Eiht spits on “m.A.A.d city,” the eighth track on Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city” release, which is really the most apt way to sum up Lamar’s brilliant follow-up to 2011’s “Section .80.” Told in powerful narrative form, the album traces Lamar’s journey from being a teenager growing up in Compton to his current status as one rap’s best up-and-coming artists. In doing so, it teaches the rest of us something about the streets.
The narrative, combined with Lamar’s ability to make subtle observations within catchy, clever lines, makes “good kid, m.A.A.d city” the most powerful hip-hop release of the year thus far.
This narrative form allows for some interesting creative liberties. “Backseat Freestyle,” for example, sounds at first listen like a typical club banger. The pulverizing beat (created by Hit-Boy, the same hip-hop mastermind who penned the beat for Jay-Z and Kanye’s smash hit “N****s in Paris,”) pumps with an 808 heartbeat below lyrical content that wouldn’t sound out of place on a typical Game or Dr. Dre track. But when the listener examines the song in context of the album, he discovers Lamar beating his chest and screaming in the voice of his teenage self, cocky and full of air. The song is catchy and shallow lyrically, but in being catchy and shallow, it actually achieves a meta-rap concept: a song within a song, a concept within a concept.
The narrative climax on “good kid, m.A.A.d city” occurs on and between the ninth and tenth tracks, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.”
The final verse of “Swimming Pools” finds Lamar having achieved a modicum of success but having trouble dealing with it in a healthy way. He finds relief in weed and alcohol, and he is seeking out gang violence. But this ends badly; Lamar’s friend Dave gets shot and the track ends with someone screaming (cleaned up slightly for this publication) “They killed my brother!” Then, in the opening scenes of “Sing About Me,” Lamar talks contemplatively about his own death. The feel is that of a young man who has witnessed death too soon and is now thinking about his own mortality, perhaps for the first time. “When the lights shut off,” Lamar raps, “And it’s my turn to settle down, promise that you will sing about me.”
But the finale, appropriately titled “Compton,” brings the whole album to a roaring conclusion. “Compton” is a celebration of both Lamar’s California-ghetto pedigree and his West Coast success, with a special appearance from Cali super-legend Dr. Dre. The song is grandiose – a gigantic, well-deserved party for a rapper who has released a soon-to-be-classic album.
“Any n***a can kill a man,” Lamar’s father tells him in one of the many powerful skits. “That don’t make you a real n***a. Real is responsibility. Real is taking care of your motherf***ing family.” Lamar’s story is violent, it’s sexual, it’s full of every kind of substance abuse. It’s Compton. But it’s also beautiful. And to use the most overused cliché available to hip-hop analysis, it’s real.
If you are looking for a CD full of catchy club-songs, you will be disappointed. But frankly, if you are disappointed by “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” you are looking for the wrong things in rap music.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars