Let’s set the record straight. Kendrick Lamar’s new album, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” is not a debut, at least not in the traditional sense. The 25-year old phenom has been in the game for the greater part of nine years, a period that’s seen him release five mixtapes, an EP, and a full-length digital album, all the while honing his chops on collabs with the likes of Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg, and Lamar’s idol, Dr. Dre.
Dre is well known as a mentor to young MCs, but Lamar is a special project for the hip-hop legend—both teacher and student share Compton roots. And as Dre ushers Lamar into major-label stardom, the pupil turns his attention back home. On “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” he creates a musical landscape of the town he grew up in, casting himself in an autobiographical drama. It’s a work made vivid by Lamar’s blistering flow and chameleonic voice, but made unforgettable by his challenging of the conventions of gangsta rap, whose canon “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” both joins and transcends
Lamar’s lyrics often meditate on the fetters that his community placed on him, and “The Art of Peer Pressure” offers a sobering view of these restraints. “I never was a gangbanger / I mean I never was stranger to the folk neither,” says Lamar, playing the role of an innocent youth who is nevertheless dragged into a life of crime by “the homies.” The story comes at us rapid-fire; Lamar’s stream of words roll over a beat that chugs like a locomotive, hurtling the tale of robbery and deception further and further toward its sunless conclusion.
Though “The Art of Peer Pressure” depicts a tragedy, Lamar generally avoids the outright preachiness that dominates the work of many of his “socially conscious” colleagues. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” will most likely garner the most radio play out of any of the tracks, but not because it’s the best. Superficially, the track is standard pop-rap fare. The ear-catching vocal hook, backed by punchy orchestral accents, is a seemingly unabashed party anthem that bounces over a beat of tinny hisses and Soulja-Boy-like snare drum “whops.” But the track most ready for consumption is actually an essay on consumption of another sort. Lamar displays a refreshing thoughtfulness as he reflects on the pervasiveness of alcohol in urban youth culture: “Some people like the way it feels / Some people wanna kill their sorrows / Some people wanna fit in with the popular / That was my problem.” The song even guest-stars Lamar as his own conscience, who, in a pitched-up and nimble voice, warns the rapper of the party-hard lifestyle so commonly touted by his less pensive peers. Lamar is always making a statement, but his ability to sneak his messages into seemingly simple pop tunes keeps things from being heavy-handed.
Sometimes it seems Lamar is outright mocking the shallower practitioners of his genre. “m.A.A.d. city,” a look at Compton’s harshest side, is clearly meant to be disturbing, but its comically simplistic beat and furious synth-violin riff, repetitive enough to derange, can only be a dark caricature of what Lamar associates with his violent compatriots. And in a moment of self-parody—perhaps a jab at other agile-tongued performers as well—Lamar, in the middle of a seemingly endless stream of verbage on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” literally fades himself out mid-rhyme. He knows all too well that a barrage of words without substance is practically an invitation for the listener to tune out.
Though the album is driven by its heavier material, Lamar decides to end on a joyful note with the exuberant closer, “Compton.” Dre shows up for this afterparty and spends the four minute celebration trading verses with Lamar, as the two rappers laud the rich hip-hop culture of their hometown and congratulate one another on their triumphs. The production, while warm but spacious on the rest of the album, is given a last-minute jolt by Just Blaze to match the thriving energy of the rappers. The blaring brass resembles a fanfare, signifying that we’re in the presence of hip-hop royalty; Lamar, entering princedom, just might inherit the throne someday.