Review Summary: An album that exudes quality and confidence, but remains humble and thought provoking.
Kendrick Lamar's "good kid, m.A.A.d city" is ferocious. For an album as emotionally exposed and humble as this, it's something of a wonder that Lamar manages to discredit the egoistic, decadent tracks of recent hip hop with quite as much style and confidence as he does. In many ways there's a sense of justification behind his flows that induces a sickly desolation when others are droning on about 'gucci' and 'gold bottles' - as meaningless as the adjective is, Kendrick is very, very real.
After a disorienting section of narrative kicks off the album in 'Sherane', the listener is thrown into a claustrophobic bass line that connotes with lethargy, escapism, and enchantment. Every segment of production on the album, straight from 'Sherane' to the album's concluding track, 'Now or Never', is masterful. It's not as independently striking as what you'd expect on a Kanye album, but it has a complimentary nature that reinforces Kendrick's ambitious imagery - tying into the remarkably consistent storytelling that persists through every track. As evidenced by the juxtaposing transition from calm exposition to racing beats in 'Sherane', Kendrick understands contrast to a T. As 'Bitch, Don't Kill my Vibe' follows afterward, it wastes no time to liberate the listener from the intensity of the prior track, kicking off with soothing synths and a content guitar track.
'good kid, m.A.A.d city', although thematically consistent, is both ambitious between tracks and within tracks. Songs like 'Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe', 'Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst', and 'The Art of Peer Pressure' are particularly progressive, with the latter two practically segmenting into two bizarrely interactive tracks. Like many of the tracks on the album, 'The Art of Peer Pressure' opens with an aloof, casual breeze that transports the listener to one of Kendrick's varied atmospheres. Where Kendrick leads on from this foundation is what really begins to define each song on the album - though there are exceptions. In something of a departure, 'Poetic Justice' starts with a darkly modified vocal introduction that foreshadows a grittier track, yet defiantly delves into another trance-like rap with mesmerizing production and beautifully layered beats.
When Kendrick isn't providing a personal account that bristles relevantly to the familiar, he'll occasionally drift into more grandiose territory. This is most clearly seen in 'Swimming Pools (Drank)' where a pseudo-R&B backtrack accentuates Kendrick's impersonation of arrogance. Fittingly, Kendrick tackles issues of drinking and drugs by perceptively flicking back and forth between alternating personalities - a method also used in 'Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst'. For me, the track is the absolute peak of the album. On paper, the thoughtful lyricism seems clunky and difficult to piece together - but Lamar's incredible understanding of flow seems to just tie everything together astonishingly well. The first verse in its optimistic sobriety is concluded with "And if I die before your album drop, I hope--" before being ingeniously interrupted by gunfire that just hits on every single play. Eventually, as the 12 minute track approaches its latter third the sound shifts entirely to the claustrophobia induced by the opening track on the album. Kendrick pushes musical symbolism and narrative into wonderful territory.
Kendrick's stentorian performance is let down only by his hooks. Even on my favorite track, 'Sing About Me-' its simply unimaginative. The nasal twang to his voice that seems to be both a blessing and a curse is driven into the latter, and is oddly emphasized in the otherwise thoughtful intro. The worst hook by a margin is on 'Real' - sung by Anna Wise. The repetitious droning of "I'm real, I'm real, I'm really, really, real" sounds like a nursery toddler on morphine, and just grates in the worst possible ways. Thankfully though, most of the hooks are at the very least competent, or in the case of 'Money Trees' add a great deal to the thematic presence of the tracks; "Halle Berry or hallelujah" - genius.
In summary, 'good kid, m.A.A.d city' is an outstanding hip hop album. From the lyrics to the production to the snippets of narrative, virtually every second of the album counts and aggregates to the beautiful silence that settles in the conclusion of its final track. Hooks aside, there's a lot to like.