good kid, m.A.A.d city (Aftermath, 2012)
by Kendrick Lamar
originally published at Dusted Magazine
The subtitle on the cover is right: good kid, m.A.A.d city is a film (or a novel, or one of those television series we’ve taken to calling the new novels) masquerading as an album. Consider its careful pacing, its narrative backbone, its makeup of overlapping and interlocking scenes instead of discrete songs. “Short film” is false modesty, though: there’s nothing nearly so small about this record, in run time or in conceptual scope. This is a work of extraordinary ambition, easily on par with the most sprawling and grandiloquent rap albums you can name. Speakerboxxx. Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Adolescence.
And, just in case you haven’t yet heard it from even the most priggish malcontents of the blogosphere, Kendrick Lamar’s extraordinary ambition has begotten an extraordinary accomplishment. good kid is a powerful work of storytelling, an arresting memoir about growing up conflicted in post-Reagan Compton, and a piece of soundcraft so meticulous and routinely gorgeous that it’s hard not to be overwhelmed. But by the end of its 68-minute run, it’s also hard not to feel a little suffocated, a little talked down to, challenged in a way that may not have been exactly intended. (Especially in its final act, good kid is filled with set pieces that may serve a narrative or structural purpose, but have also made me think, each time after my first listen, “ugh, this [sanctimonious chorus/Urkel-voiced hook/excruciatingly expository answering machine message].”)
Last year’s Section.80 showed Lamar as an almost comically versatile rapper who could make terrifically freewheeling songs and insufferably moralistic ones but hadn’t quite figured out how to merge the two. To weave those strands into a larger and more intricate framework, as he’s done here, is sort of a stroke of genius; instead of sacrifice one or the other, he’s chosen to dramatize exactly how he came by both, and in the process became the complex narrator he is today. But with the more exacting framework come higher stakes and a greater fear of falling flat, and everything that’s annoying about good kid smacks of that fear: that we won’t get it exactly right. The master narrative is too important, the subtext seems to say, to risk leaving it up to our interpretation.
So – elegantly, eloquently – Lamar tells us details and shows them, nailing everything down to its precise place within the arc of the story. (“You keep fucking around in them streets, you ain’t gonna pass to the next grade,” his mother scolds him early on. “Eleventh grade.”) And this doesn’t feel poorly done or inconsistent so much as unnecessary: it’s almost too predictable to bear mention that good kid’s best moments, like “Money Trees,” “Swimming Pools (Drank),” and “Backseat Freestyle” (which is either a richly layered teenage dream of rap swagger or the best Lil Wayne rant of the last three years) will live on as singles rather than episodes. A few songs here can be both at once – perhaps this, when it happens, is the real accomplishment – but most of them are rooted so stubbornly in the flow and agenda of the whole that they have little capacity for subtlety or surprise. Most of them remind you that this isn’t an album of songs but, well, a short film.
This judgment sits somewhere on a slippery slope down toward a blanket claim about the place of seriousness and big-picture artistry in rap, a slope that surely says as much about my biases as it does about this album’s flaws. Lamar’s project is honorable and meaningful and human, and his tendency to overwrite doesn’t invalidate that. But there’s something in his insistence on telling his story in complete, unflinching, picture-perfect detail that winds up closing it off from the people who are meant to be hearing it, learning from it, connecting with it. Lamar has once more asserted a great and formidable talent, and good kid is triumphantly and unmistakably his, but the artists that stick around longest are the ones who let us make their art our own.back