Kendrick Lamar’s just been confirmed for a Vicar Street, Dublin show on January 14th. Tickets €30 plus fees on sale next Thursday the 15th.
Welcome to the best mainstream rap album of the year. Kendrick Lamar, the 25 year-old rapper with a voice that carries a weight beyond his young years has come correct and seriously stepped up from his previous material on his major label debut on Interscope via Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label.
Dre’s involvement is telling. Lamar is a Compton, Los Angeles boy, the same neighbourhood that informed Dre’s debut The Chronic. That album helped define ’90s West Coast rap along with his California peers in gangsta rap and g-funk: Snoop, Tupac, Easy-E, Ice Cube and by extension, NWA.
good kid, m.A.A.d. city is Lamar’s show though. The album moves the Compton story on from the black and white gangsta rap tropes the city has built its reputation on. Kendrick isn’t a gangsta, boasting doesn’t come natural to him except when he pretending, like on his first attempts at rapping on the brilliant ‘Backseat Freestyle’.
Where those LA rap gods pushed larger-than-life characters, Kendrick is himself, a good guy, relaying the things he experienced around him as a late teen. Lamar is the kid who saw the crime, the kid who knows what’s going on but tries to maintain a safe distance even when his friends pull him in. He struggles with the expectations around him. On ‘The Art Of Peer Pressure’, he claims he’s a peacemaker and catches himself acting out of character. “Look at me, I got the blunt in my mouth / usually I’m drug-free / but shit I’m with the homies.”
That Lamar is an empathetic relatable human encourages you to warm to the good kid, m.A.A.d. city album narrative. He’s an introspect who wants to do the right thing but sometimes strays into the dumb side. The album is pitched on the cover as “a short film” and the album is certainly cinematic, the songs are a document, featuring details of a young man growing up in a notorious place.
Those details include consistent mentions of his then girlfriend Sherane, first introduced when Kendrick is an hormonal teenager (‘Sherane aka Master Splinter’s Daughter’), phone calls from his mother looking for the car (a 2004 Mercedes Benz) he borrowed, specifics about songs playing on the stereo (Jeezy, new E-40) or a TV programme (Martin) he was watching, even down to the streets he’s passing in Compton.
These references and specifics sit amongst broader ideas that recount a young life in Compton wishing for a better situation: “dreaming life of living like rappers do / back when condom rappers wasn’t cool” (‘Money Trees’) where racial profiling is widespread (‘Good Kid’).
While these details are all good, they don’t get anywhere without a vehicle. The music on good kid, m.A.A.d. city is focused and thematic despite coming from a host of different producers: Hit Boy, Sounwave, Tha Bizness, Tabu, Dj Dahi, The Neptunes and T-Minus. The arrangements are heavy on nebulous synths, guitar, atmosphere, big bass and 808 beats.
The album’s 12-minute long ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst’ has a two-part production from two different producers but the simple, guitar lick lounge-jazz blues into a choral percussive beat is the perfect backing to a track which is so lyrically dense. It is Lamar’s last album overview recounting a woman who turned to selling her body, the death of a brother and Lamar desire to seek redemption from the malaise of society around him.
That track is one of the highlights. Others include ‘Backseat Freestyle’, a monster beat with Kendrick channelling himself finding his rap voice as a wannabe youngster trying on a big man’s bravado in the back of a car (“I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower / So I can fuck the world for 72 hours”). Lamar’s rapid-speed rapping is particularly impressive.
His endorsement of an anti-gang lifestyle on ‘m.A.A.d. city’ is notable as another two-sided track, the first a UK grimey-esque beat with gargantuan trap bass gives way to a classic Compton riding beat, narrated by local MC Eiht, the experienced elder and the only local legend to make an appearance on the album’s intended 12 songs.
Elsewhere, the single ‘Swimming Pool (Drank)’ is the album’s quickest way in with its direct “drank” hook and chorus (‘All the girls wanna play Baywatch / I got a swimming pool full of liquor and they dive in it”).
It’s telling that the tracks featuring the big guests: Mary J. Blige turn on ‘Now Or Never’ or pre-release single ‘The Recipe’ featuring Dr. Dre songs are relegated to bonus status, though ‘Compton’ also featuring Dre ends the album. The other tracks don’t fit the good kid, m.A.A.d. city thematic immersion so easily. This is Kendrick’s world.