One year ago today, Kendrick Lamar dropped his second studio album good kid, m.A.A.D. city and was catapulted to fame. The promising young rapper had been a presence for years, known for his unconventional voice, highly technical flow, and a propensity to murder industry beats. But with the release of GKMC, Lamar reached a new echelon of success and the question of whether his new album was an instant classic became the focus of thousands of reviews, thinkpieces, and barbershop discussions. Today I'd like to share my review of the record that was published last year around the time of its release. Read it below in its entirety.
Following last year’s critically-acclaimed album, Section.80, Kendrick Lamar debuted his sophomore effort last week, good kid, m.A.A.D. city. For the uninitiated, GKMC (subtitle: “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar”) is a semi-fictional, autobiographical album depicting Kendrick’s turbulent upbringing in Compton, South Central LA. Unlike most other albums being put out by his peers, GKMC is one that is best understood by fully immersing oneself in the record’s narrative. Kendrick takes us on a lyrical and musical journey from start to finish, touching upon significant moments of his youth along the way. I could delve further into the album’s fascinating plot but the purpose of this review isn’t to merely summarize.
More importantly, with the release of GKMC, Kendrick Lamar has successfully slipped out of the all-too-common major label chokehold over an artist’s creative control. Take for example the record’s lead single, “Swimming Pools,” a cunningly deceptive radio hit. On the surface, it sounds like just another cookie-cutter party anthem, but if the listener digs deeper, they will find a carefully written song on the perils of alcoholism. Even the song that does seem to conform to the label’s demands, “Backseat Freestyle,” still features some of Kendrick’s most technically-skilled rhymes to date. Over a bell-pounding Hit-Boy beat, he uses unconventional lyrics and a staggered flow to reinvent standard Top 40 hip-hop tropes: “All my life I want money and power / Respect my mind or die from lead shower / I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower / So I can fuck the world for 72 hours.” Overall, it is quite apparent that the label execs sat back and let Kendrick have more of a say in the creative direction of his album.
Please, when digesting GKMC, find a spot, sit down, and just listen to it. Don’t just bob your head to the masterful production (which deserves an essay of its own), but actually listen to the lyrics that are coming out of Kendrick’s mouth. Detractors of the album claim that it has no replay value to which I strongly disagree. Has the hip-hop world never heard of a concept album? The skits that tie together the songs on GKMC may seem a bit cumbersome but they serve an important purpose in the album’s storytelling and should not be overlooked. Yes, the songs sound much better in context, but once one is familiar with GKMC’s narrative, the result is quite rewarding.
[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/83816956" width="100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]
In the hip-hop community, industry folk, critics, and fans alike have been struggling to slap a label on the record. The major points of contention keep arriving at the same question: is the album already a “classic” or simply good music? There is no doubt that Kendrick is one of the most technically-skilled rappers of his era. But what truly elevates GKMC beyond just being “good music” is its overall cohesion and quality as an album. It is rare these days to find an artist that string together a record that is thematically consistent AND features a high-end level of skillful rhyming and well-crafted beats. Whether it is a classic hip-hop album or not remains to be seen and can only be judged over time, but for now we recognize good kid, M.A.A.D. city as a definitive album in the continuum of West Coast and introspective hip-hop.
Looking back on my review one year later, I think it's quite apparent that GKMC is not a certified classic. Sure, you have songs like "Money Trees" and "m.A.A.d City" that have stood the test of time and continue to set off crowds worldwide, but, in my mind, the album as a whole hasn't stuck. That's not to say that its impact isn't significant. Ask any fan of hip-hop today to name the top 3 rappers alive and you would be hard-pressed to find someone who wouldn't name Kendrick Lamar. His recent verse in Big Sean's "Control," calling out every relevant rapper you can think of, didn't hurt either. So what's next for hip-hop's crown prince? Right now he's on the road with Kanye West for select dates of the Yeezus tour, and a trip down under with Eminem and J. Cole is in the works. The hustle never ends.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.