Kendrick Lamar

good kid, m.A.A.d city

(Interscope / Aftermath / Top Dawg; 2012)

By Brent Ables | 29 November 2012

Elegiac and actually epic, the contending fraught narratives of “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” succumb to two different kinds of entropy. The first verse, a heart-prodding confessional from a banger called K-Dot whose brother has just been killed in a hit, is cut short by the sharp sound of gunshots: “And if I die before your album drops I hope—” K-Dot, staring down glassy-eyed fate, pleading with his last breath that Lamar tell his tale. The second verse, a heart-curdling statement of battered purpose from a defiant prostitute, fades gradually away into silence, dissipating into the acrid air of Compton like a spent soul giving up its hold on matter. K-Dot’s only flaw is that he spends his last moments in repentance; the working girl’s only virtue is that she repents nothing. One lives and one dies, but Lamar makes no judgment about who’s better off. Later in the track, speaking now in his own voice, we find Lamar before a mirror asking whether he himself is really afraid of death. Maybe, as Nas hath written, sleep is the cousin of death; what does that make the dreamers? He fantasizes about the war of street life being played out on a divine level: “I hope I hear a / Cry out from heaven / So loud it can water down a demon / With the Holy Ghost / Till it drowns in the blood of Jesus.” And he asks that his mother be blessed. His mother, nagging and wise, stressed, close to the divine.

Voicemail messages from Lamar’s mother—a character, surely, but then so is Lamar himself—give good kid, m.A.A.d city its moral center. She calls intermittently throughout the album to remind Lamar to bring back the van he borrows at the beginning of the album, to wish him well, and occasionally (as on “Real”) to full-on sermonize. The fateful last words of the album, which lead directly back into its beginning Looper-style, are spoken by Kendrick to his mother: “I’ll be back in ten minutes…” On the other side of the line, we have skits that give us glimpses into the doings of Lamar’s increasingly ill-willed crew (including the moment when K-Dot’s brother is shot.) The guys in these skits come across like Wu-Tang used to in their own interludes: thirsty and dangerous, yes, but also funny and likable and flawed. Never mind that the voices on good kid are mostly anonymous; the story is the thing. Rap concepts and conceits can be as cheap as a Clams knock-off beat, but when they are put into play with such pathos, realism, and taste, they remind us that rap-as-performance extends farther than the mic and the production board and even the combination of the two.

Which is to say that most every detail on this album is worth relishing and revisiting. (Key exception: the appearance on “Poetic Justice” of a certain Canadian rapper whose name shall not here be uttered.) It’s all, as they say, good: the psychedelic swirls unmelding under “Swimming Pools (Drank),” the exhilarating vocal modulations of “m.A.A.d. city”‘s blistering second half, the lovely violins which close out “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.” I’m loath to make the comparison to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) for such an importantly different album, but good kid, m.A.A.d city and Kanye’s masterwork have this, at least, in common: the big moments are so overpowering that it’s easy to miss how much is going on at every other second of the track. Both albums rise above their competitors—and yes, if you were wondering, this is the best rap album of 2012—not just because of champion verses and immaculate drops, but because they recognize that the most brilliant foreground only shines against a well-defined backdrop. Lamar is a rap game Orson Welles, employing his own kind of “deep focus”: the possibilities of depth, of texture and intensity, are here perfectly placed and handled by a steady and invisible hand.

Executive Producer Dr. Dre knows how to adorn the edges and fill the gaps, yes, even if he occasionally goes a bit too far in the Maya-Angelou-reading-scripture direction. But he also knows how to make a collection of beats and rhymes into an ethos all its own. Thus he and Lamar, with all their unlikely alchemy, use rap tropes new and old to fashion a unique but primordially resonant depiction of young people quenching their thirst at the wrong wells, partaking of the wrong blood in the wrong temples. Lamar, star and stylist, plays his part perfectly, uttering not a syllable which doesn’t contribute to the power of the whole. Even his silences are perfectly placed, as when the working girl on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” pauses for a retort before chiding listener Lamar for lacking a rebuttal. Too many MCs approach their craft as if they were trying to bludgeon the listener into submission. Sometimes, as with Killer Mike’s 2012 sledgehammer of a single “Big Beast,” one is happy to succumb. But Lamar reveals himself to be a greater artist yet because he employs negative space and tension as masterfully as he wields words.

Which—let’s talk about that. Is it enough to say that Kendrick Lamar is the strongest and most original MC to break into the mainstream since Weezy F. Baby dropped Carter III (2007)? The underground has seen more eccentric personalities (Danny Brown) and harder ones (…Danny Brown), but Lamar’s versatility and authority with a mic feels downright anachronistic in the cloud-rap era. Nobody raps like this in our barren post-Outkast world. Take “Backseat Freestyle,” produced by Hit-Boy (who brought us the immortal “Niggas in Paris” last year) and absolutely murdered three times in three minutes by Lamar. For each verse he assumes a new voice and a new flow, peaking with a hungry growl and a series of “BIAAAAAAATCH”-es that rise by progressive halftones to the uppermost reaches of Rap Olympus.

And yet “Backseat Freestyle,” which has all the pick-me-up of an adrenaline shot to the eyeball, isn’t even the highlight here. That honor could go to “Money Trees,” where over a yawning, luxurious beat, Lamar encapsulates in a chilling aphorism the nihilism of inner-city street life and hints at a different, darker immortality than that alluded to in “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”: “Everybody gonna respect the shooter / But the one in front of the gun lives forever.” It could go to the one-two knockout of the titular centerpiece tracks: “good kid,” a Neptunes-produced banger with atmosphere to spare, and “m.A.A.d. city”‘s high-drama verbal showdown between a conscience-addled Lamar and a devilish antagonist embodied by Compton legend MC Eiht. It might, improbably enough, even go to “Compton,” the celebratory finale where Dr. Dre steps to the front of the stage and audibly remembers how good it feels to rap to the tune of a Just Blaze beat. Celebrating his and Lamar’s moment; passing the torch (and the blunt) with contentment and grandfatherly pride.

However, it’s not these tracks that play in my head as I fail to sleep these nights. “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”—I keep coming back to it, wondering if everyone harbors this wish to be remembered in song. What immortality can mean when it takes the form of tones, timbres, rhythms, pitch, cadence: life echoed, given and giving anew. Lamar’s characters don’t finish their stories, but then neither will he, and neither will you. What’s left, the song suggests, will at best be a fragment of all we had to say. But few among us will have said it so well.