It’s really amazing how far 25-year-old rapper Kendrick Lamar has come in the short span of 15 months. Don’t get me wrong, Section.80 is a fantastic album in its own right, but good kid, m.A.A.d city puts it to shame comparatively. Nearly every aspect of the new album is perfect, or very close, and it is ultimately one of the year’s essential albums.
What is perhaps the album’s biggest achievement is Lamar’s unrivaled storytelling. He expertly mixes fact and fiction to create a narrative that is cohesive, intense, and very emotional. In all seriousness, the story of a young man who struggles to survive peer pressure, gang violence and drugs while attempting to maintain a conscience is so poignant, touching and, at times, heartbreaking that it is actually a little reminiscent of La Dispute or mewithoutYou.
While Lamar’s story is already captivating enough, his vocal abilities and attention to detail enhance the narrative even more. Throughout the whole album, the emcee cycles through voice after voice in ways that would make Danny Brown jealous. Possibly the most layered and interesting example is “m.A.A.d city.” As soon as Lamar comes on for his first verse, it is very clear that his inflection is much higher pitched than it is on the rest of the album. And while there is no single obvious reason for this, it is an extremely thought-provoking decision. Perhaps it serves as an innocent-sounding contrast to the tale about violence, maybe it is meant to convey that Lamar was young when he experienced all this (he mentions that one of the events was “back when I was nine”), it could simply be that he wanted to show the raw emotional effect the crimes had on him, or it might be a combination of all those possibilities (and maybe even a few more). The best part is, though, that one change is just one small example of an album filled with many more similar and subtle elements; in other words, the thoroughness and meticulous intelligence displayed on that track is present throughout the entire record. The end result is a listen that is constantly interesting and multi-dimensional.
Of course the story wouldn’t mean anything if the music itself didn’t deliver, but thankfully, it does. The album is an extremely diverse listen that includes braggadocious bangers (“Backseat Freestyle”), somber love songs (“Poetic Justice”), trippy cloud-rap (“Real,” “Swimming Pools”), epic twelve-minute journeys (“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”), violent trap-rap (“m.A.A.d city”), and everything in between. One of the main reasons for all the musical variety is that, much like how Lamar’s flow and inflection are tailored to fit into the narrative of the song, so are the beats and overall production. A lot of the natural, tree-based imagery on the aptly titled “Money Trees” fits in perfectly with the very organic sounding beat, while the synthesizer-heavy T-Minus production on the slow and boozy “Swimming Pools” serves as a fitting foil. And even though some of the hooks do leave a little to be desired (the chorus on “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” is the worst offender), they certainly aren’t bad enough to detract from the otherwise fantastic music.
Overall, the storytelling on good kid, m.A.A.d city combined with its impressive sonic prowess makes for an incredible album. In fact, this is not just the year’s best hip-hop album or simply Kendrick Lamar one-upping his previous material; this album may actually be much more. In a decade or so, this could easily be looked back on as when Lamar stopped being just very good and started becoming a living legend.