08 December 2013

good kid, m.a.a.d. city || kendrick lamar || 2013

It's difficult to make a deeply personal album without seeming narcissistic, but Kendrick Lamar nailed it. His second album begins when he's 17 and takes the listener through romantic, friendship, family, and personal struggles without making it seem like Lamar is elevating himself for having had these experiences. It's a straightforward, honest portrayal of how he became his adult self.

In "Sherane," Lamar tells us about a romantic tryst with a girl that he had as a junior in high school. This goes beyond a standard tale of puppy love, though. Lamar is candid with us about his typical 17-year-old urges but not in a way that is without romance; it's clear he genuinely liked this girl. "Who could imagine, maybe my actions would end up wifing her / Love or lust, regardless we'll fuck cause the trife in us" is such a brilliantly concise example of the confusing dichotomy one experiences while being in love at 17. The song ends ambiguously, and we're left with a sudden voicemail to transition to "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe," but it's safe to assume that the girl's "family history of gang banging" caught up to her unexpectedly.

"Backseat Freestyle" is further exploration of the straight 17-year-old male mindset. You're obsessed with your penis and the world is yours for the taking. He even sports an Eminem-style growl at certain points.

I love the lyric "usually I'm drug free, but shit, I'm with the homies" in "The Art Of Peer Pressure." The title is blunt and and so is the content - here we hear tales of regrettably getting into trouble because friendship means more than individualism (or possibly worse). It's easy to make heat-of-the-moment poor decisions when everyone else around you is making them too.

"Poetic Justice" is understandably one of the album's most critically acclaimed songs. It's a tribute to the 1993 film of the same title and samples Janet Jackson's track "Any Time, Any Place" from its soundtrack. It's a delightful, relaxed groove.

We return to heavier subject matter on "Good Kid," a tale of frustration and imprisonment, both mental and physical. Lamar expresses vaguely his experiences being profiled and harassed by police officers, feeling helpless to overcome their preconceptions about him. The final verse is particularly interesting, referring to various drugs as "grown-up candy for pain" and alluding to a neverending cycle and the unavoidable outcome of addiction. The narrative continues right into "m.a.a.d. city," where Lamar's gang activity becomes more serious. A few tracks ago he was stealing video games from cars, but now he asks if we'd believe he's killed someone. He and his friends(?) now run the block.

"Swimming Pools (Drank)" and "Sing About Me, I'm Dying Of Thirst" mark a grand shift in tone. Lamar starts by reflecting on his grandfather's drinking, then acknowledges his own alcohol intake, and mentions Sherane for the first time in a few tracks. We hear from his conscience, whose words don't seem to have much effect at this point as Lamar resigns himself to drinking and seemingly rejoins his friends. It feels like he's alone again by the time the introspective "Sing About Me" begins, lamenting about his life in a low-income neighborhood, of friends and relatives sucked into lives of drug abuse and prostitution.

The last two tracks serve as the conclusion - sort of - to the tale. In "Real" we hear Lamar profess to be his own person, but acknowledge how hard it is to shake the baggage that comes from family and surroundings. The final track, "Compton," features Dr. Dre and seemingly re-glorifies the booze and gangbanging lifestyle that Lamar just rejected in the last few tracks. Maybe it's a tongue-in-cheek way of accusing gangster rap of perpetuating those things, or maybe it's just a "fuck it, this is who I am and I'm not changing" song, though both options seem equally confusing considering the album's deeply personal and introspective nature to this point.

Musically, the album is fantastic. There's an interesting tinge of jazz added to the already fairly soft hip-hop beats that give the album a very calming feel, which makes it stand out among the usually aggressive nature of other music dealing with this subject matter.

Aside from its abrupt and confusing conclusion, this is a well-produced, well-written, carefully planned album that serves its purpose of telling us about Lamar's formative years. His music clearly resonates with many, which I'd credit to his blunt yet not overly crass lyrics.