The major-label debut from the 25-year-old, Dr. Dre-endorsed Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city, is the Dark Knight of albums: led by a conflicted hero, it is rich, brainy enough not to be too brainy and utterly crowd-pleasing. Billed on its cover as "A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar," it's actually a feature-length narrative through his youth in Compton. The songs are so conversant with one another that Esquire even posted a sort of Cliff's Notes plot outline.
As well as everything works in context, as much as good kid, m.A.A.d city demands repeat complete listens (imagine: a real album's album in 2012!), there are a lot of bites to appreciate on an ADHD level: intricate stacks of imagery ("Me and my niggas four deep in a white Toyota / A quarter tank of gas, one pistol, and orange soda /Janky stash box when the federales roll up / Basketball shorts with the Gonzales Park odor"), clever one-liners ("Hotboxing like George Foreman grilling the masses") and indelible, hooky outbursts ("Ya bish!"; "Every time I'm in the street, I hear ya-ya-ya!"). Its beats both tsk with a mechanical modernity (a la Lex Luger productions) and thud-pivot in a way that salutes hip-hop's past. Lamar is smart, deep and complex but he's also prone to weird voices: there's an Andre 3000 nasality during some hooks, an occasional Kanye growl, and a pitch-shifted Quasimoto-esque helium yelp—all in addition to his natural timbre, which The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones rightly compared to Butterfly of Digable Planets.
Basically, good kid, m.A.A.d city hits all buttons emphatically and with a dazzling dexterity. Its goals of informing and entertaining are simultaneous. In its flood of wordplay and imagery, it feels like an urgent statement, but it could also be read as this deliberate appeal to the taste of rap fans. It ingeniously aligns with their taste and has been embraced accordingly and adoringly. Here are a few samples from the nonstop stream of hugs and kisses Lamar's album has received:
This isn't just a debut album. This is a shot at history.
On a purely technical level, he might be the best of his generation, and it's awe-inspiring to hear him bend such complicated cadences without even breaking a sweat.
Kendrick Lamar has little in common with his forebears, almost no resemblance to his heroes, and not a single thing shared with his contemporaries.
Every so often, Lamar lets loose a wild boast – "I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower/So I can fuck the world for 72 hours" – but the triumphalism feels warranted.
Few artists have the kind of creative talent and work ethic required to pull off a project this ambitiously bold in nuance.
While only time can determine the album's fate, this life chronicle of Kendrick has all-if not more-of the qualities rap's now living and deceased legends have carved in stone.
There are tweets that could be satirically exaggerated:
And ones that exaggerate satirically:
Beyond aesthetics, Grantland's Sean Fennessey hits on a key reason why critics are connecting so hard with this thing:
Lamar's father was a member of Chicago's notorious Gangster Disciples, but fled to L.A. to escape that life. Of course, he landed in Compton, and Lamar's childhood was characterized by guns, crack, anger, and fear. He never partook in and is adamantly opposed to the life, but, surrounded by it, is empathetic to its trappings. It's a jarring theme on the album - I can't remember the last time I experienced a piece of art about the experience of being within and without something so desperately. Illmatic? The Third Man? The Great Gatsby? I'm only half kidding. If half.
Within and without also describes people who love music so much that they make it their job (however temporary) to write about it – they know the industry and the game so well, and yet in most cases, aren't actually part of it. This is particularly true of the specific sort of narrative kind of hip-hop that Lamar delivers.
There's an even easier explanation: In the iTunes age, the careful assemblage of an album is an increasingly lost art. Few albums scrape good kid, m.A.A.d city's level of consistency where 2012 hip-hop albums are concerned (Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music comes to mind). Lamar titled his debut's astounding 12-minute centerpiece "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst." Yeah, so's everybody. good kid, m.A.A.d city is great, just like we needed it to be.
[Lamar image via Getty]