Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, MAAD City

I was hesitant to listen to Kendrick Lamar's major label debut. The expectations were too high (the next Tupac!), the remnant of the man who was once Dr. Dre was too prominently involved (Beetz...), and even Section.80, which has some truly great songs, also has its share of pretentious duds, I trait I feared major label money might only exacerbate.

Yet, I did download it Monday morning (legally), and... it has taken me about 6 listens to figure out what is going on. Which is a lot.

 From the best I can tell, this is a concept album displaying song-story vignettes of a 17 year old or so Kendrick Lamar growing up in Compton, with the main story played out in skits, songs, and skits-within-songs. Frequently, Lamar adopts a novelty voice to inhabit other characters (or even his own conscious).

A commercial play, this is most definitely not. In fact, I would venture to say that the dominant tone of the album is despair. Compton emerges as a hellhole of needless violence, and wasted lives. Indeed, Lamar seems hell-bent on removing any lingering romanticization of Compton's gang-war mystique from the public conscious, especially in the rap industry.

As an artistic statement, more than anything I am struck by what a unified statement this album is. Lamar seems to have one message to communicate and works together many songs, skits, and mini-songs within songs to accomplish his goal, completely ignoring the modern state of single-driven music commerce.

Time will tell if this album's reputation lasts, but I am enjoying it hugely. Moreover, I think it is immediately noteworthy that I was completely shocked by the scope of Lamar's ambition with this album -- even beyond the consistency of his adroit rapping throughout, his artistic consistency of message is strange to hear in 2012. It is disarming to realize the only way to way to really listen to the proper-album tracks is from the first second on, without skipping a track. The bonus tracks are clearly distinct and are lighter fare.

 To be honest, I didn't ever except to see a unified rap album statement of this kind again in the vein of Ready to Die or Only Built for Cuban Linx... again, not that this album is of that caliber, but it definitely sounds like a coherent whole much like those albums do, rather than a collection of singles patched together (usually with a dose of filler to round out the playlist) as has come to define the rap ablum.  I mean we hear things like Lupe Fiasco's The Cool will be a concept album, but of course it arrives and it isn't at all... After years of this, you become jaundiced.

Well, I am not jaundiced anymore.

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