Review Summary: Why haven't you listened to this yet?
In 2009, a young West Coast rapper formerly known as K. Dot dropped his moniker in favor of his birth name, Kendrick Lamar. In light of his most recent release, the epic “Good Kid, m.A.A.d City,” this seems only logical. More than just a stunning exploration of hip-hop realism, where MC’s take it upon themselves to be the faceless advocates of the city, this album presents itself as the work of an auteur; both activist and deeply personal. Couple these powerful intentions with a clear capability to execute and you get an album more captivating than anything else that’s come out so far this year.
“Good Kid” is a true novel (or short film, as the cover art urges), running at almost 70 minutes and boasting two songs over the 7 minute mark. Each song is a suite, evolving unexpectedly but pleasurably, always falling in where it should in the album’s overall architecture. This is Prog-Rap, abandoning the boxed in structures of out-and-out commercial hip-hop for the free-flowing, self-sustaining chug of the narrative. No song ends before it’s meant to, and none overstay their welcome.
Thematically, this is a classic coming of age story. The wizened Kendrick reflects with incredible candor on his experience as a teenager (still K. Dot at this time) growing up in Compton through the lens of a single, life-changing day. The genius lies in how he merges reflection and real-time events into a single entity, so that when K. Dot fires off lines with adolescent impudence (“I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower/so I can *** the world for 72 hours”), we feel all at once the reality of that confidence and the weight that bears down on our future narrator, who knows things aren’t quite that simple.
As the album carries on, K. Dot comes closer and closer to the awareness that goes hand-in-hand with maturity. The turning point of the album, the two-song secession that serves as a title track, shows him pulling himself out from underneath the thumb of denial. The lead single, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is among the most genius tracks here, particularly because it’s sure to be in heavy rotation at clubs and parties everywhere for the next few months (“and the record on repeat”), despite its lyrical gutting of the party lifestyle. These inversions of rap convention are consistent throughout, and never come off as cheesy. It’s genuine social commentary.
Things become darker quickly(both lyrically and musically), and it becomes clear that this album is about searching for redemption. References to God abound, but there’s more to it than a call to conversion. It’s about the struggle to become a *real* man (see the climactic “Real”), eschewing the easy, empty, youthful ventures of sexual conquest, psychotropic experimentation, and senseless violence. It’s about coming to terms with your sins in order to define yourself outside of the context of dominant culture. Most importantly, it’s about helping others do so too.
Everything about this record, from the urgency of the rhymes, to the delicate atmospheres of the beats, to the cold, empty spaces that surround the tracks, comes together to form what is almost certainly a modern classic. Kendrick, if this really is a short film, I gotta say I’m pretty excited for your first feature length.