Rapper Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ Revels in Complexity

It’s often difficult to know what to expect of an album that captures so much of the media’s attention (see: the relatively uneven Cruel Summer). Yet, 25-year-old rapper Kendrick Lamar makes his major label debut album good kid, m.A.A.d city a convincing coronation.

Here’s a quick recount of the hype surrounding good kid, m.A.A.d city: In 2011, Lamar was given the unofficial title of the “King of West Coast Rap” by Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Game. Rumors swirled of Lamar collaborating with everyone from Lady Gaga to Drake and Pharrell. He made the cover of the 50th anniversary edition of XXL, as well as the covers of issues of Spin and Complex.

He plays the cards that come with his newfound celebrity status relatively close to the chest—deliberately keeping “The Recipe” (his first radio single, featuring Dr. Dre) off the record, as well as his collaborations with Mary J. Blige and Lady Gaga. Lamar comes off as an auteur, meticulously weaving a dense narrative through good kid, m.A.A.d city, and leaving us with a final product that contains a stunning level of detail.

The complexity of Lamar’s lyrics is highlighted best on “m.A.A.d City,” arguably the album’s centerpiece. Over a tense, arpeggiated beat, Lamar frantically takes us “on a trip down memory lane” to a Compton where a body slumps dead next to a burger stand and where he smokes a cocaine-laced blunt. At the end of the track, he raps, “Compton, USA made me an angel on Angel Dust,” an explication of the “m.A.A.d city” of the album’s title.

It seems to be a contradictory image—we can’t imagine Lamar as an angel that has decided to do Angel Dust. But leave it to Lamar to instill the whole thing with a strong dose of reality—with a careful listen, you realize he’s talking about that cocaine-infused blunt (he claims this was his first real experience with marijuana) that, as he describes it on the track, is the reason why he “rarely smoke[s] now.” It’s as if he’s separated into two characters: the angel and the accidental sinner.

Lamar carries this sense of separation throughout the entire album, allowing him to act as both critic and artist. The track “Backseat Freestyle” sounds like it could have come straight (and un-ironically) fromCruel Summer, but within the context of the album, it’s delivered by Kendrick the eleventh-grader, aping a style which we presume he (and the rest of Compton) idolizes. The message is reversed, and the song becomes a symbol of Lamar’s young naiveté. On “The Art of Peer Pressure,” he strikes a similar chord with lines like “Usually I’m drug-free, but shit I’m with the homies,” and “I’ve never been violent, until I’m with the homies.”

Radio-ready singles don’t seem to be much of a priority on good kid, m.A.A.d city. Murky synthesizers trickle across most of the album, and the chorus-less opening track “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter” abruptly cuts to a minute-long voicemail left by Lamar’s parents. But what’s astonishing is that singles seem to slip into the album’s threads anyway—“Backseat Freestyle,” “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Compton” all feel like they could be dropped into the middle of a party, demanding to be played at the loudest volume possible.  Lamar is the new king, and good kid, m.A.A.d city is his crown.

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