Kendrick Lamar's 'Good Kid' Values Complexity Over Easy Answers

Pick your poison: Halle Berry or hallelujah, flesh or faith, bad bitches or baptism. Do you want money or malt liquor, ambition or angel dust? Do you rep blood red or marine blue? Where does your grandma stay? Will you earn immortality through art or semi-anonymous martyrdom? Will you conform or stay true? Sacrifice your own life or learn to be man? And when are you going to give your mom back her Dodge Caravan?

These are the conflicts and conspiracies whizzing through the crossfire of Kendrick Lamar’s Interscope debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city -- the rare album to live up to its vertiginous hype. But to really understand what makes it so special, you have to understand what it’s not. This is 2012, a half-dozen years after we measured rap for a coffin and four after the economy flat-lined. With few exceptions, major label hip-hop acted immune to any ill effects. Newly formed rap groups included the Ferrari Boyz, the Bugatti Boyz, and Watch the Throne, the first album ever sold with free subscriptions to the Robb Report (probably).

The last half-decade produced no shortage of Internet-worshipped wunderkinds whose gift for social promotion and mixtape promise led them to the precipice of stardom. Then one by one they marched into what cultural geologists refer to as Wale’s Ravine, a name inspired by the Washington D.C.’s rappers infamous decision to abandon his neurotic introspection and nimble raps for obscure sports references geared towards the teen daughters of plastic surgeons. Yelawolf awkwardly streaked through the arena-pop world and no one even bothered to complain about indecent exposure (to Travis Barker). J. Cole was revealed to be the rap game, Tsetse Fly. Blu was shelved and descended into an insular noise-rap pain cave. While one-time would-be “savior” Jay Electronica disappeared into the Springfield Mystery Hole (may or may not be Rothschild-owned).

All these inauspicious omens loomed for Kendrick. The success of last year’s independent release, Section 80, led to a deal with Aftermath/Interscope, alongside the rest of his gifted Black Hippy crew. A decade ago, it would’ve been cause for celebration, but Dre’s loved and left enough rappers to star on Starter Wives. He also recently released the single, “I Need a Doctor,” the musical equivalent of a pulled groin. And when it was announced that Lady Gaga was going to be included on the album and Schoolboy Q wasn’t, the cynical money had Kendrick bartering his integrity for a midday slot at Summer Jam.

But not only does good kid, m.A.A.D. city avoid dumbing itself down, it’s almost as dense as an Aesop Rock album. That’s largely to its credit. While absorbing it in one listen can be fatiguing, the freeway interchange-intricacy lends itself to extensive replay. The subtitle reads a "Short Film by Kendrick Lamar" and the structure mimics a three-act script, set in Lamar’s native Compton during the spring and summer of 2004. Cassette tape sounds and prayers of thanksgiving frame good kid, m.A.A.D. city, shrouding it with a quasi-evangelical submission that occurs at Christian rock frequencies (at least it would if was made by a three-piece power trio of Hanson-haired eunuchs.) Despite the occasional preachiness, the Pentecostal fervor feels like an earned and sincere response to the soullessness of his surroundings.

"Without needing to explain, we sense the gravity of Kendrick’s world, where the wrong block or color can get you killed—even if you don’t bang."

The inciting incident hinges on Sherane, a Kardashian-curved hoodrat fatale with a cousin known for gangbanging. The plot’s novelty stems less from storyline than its immaculate execution. “Sherane (A.K.A. Master Splinter’s Daughter)” is far from the first rapper-gets-double-crossed-by-a-trifling-female tale.

But few, if any, have ever executed it with such subtlety. The two 17-year-olds Apache Dance around each other: she seductively wraps her leg around him, tells him he’s handsome, and vanishes. The set up is foreshadowed by an ostensibly innocuous examination about whether Sherane’s from Compton or Paramount. Without needing to explain, we sense the gravity of Kendrick’s world, where the wrong block or color can get you killed—even if you don’t bang. Throughout the record, the details are hyper-specific and vivid. One moment, he’s watching Martin re-runs and nearly crashing from receiving naked pictures on his Nextel, the next the hammer drops when two guys in black hoodies rush his car as he pulls up to Sherane’s house. To ratchet up the tension, the phone rings at the cliffhanger.

Both songs and interstitial fragments of conversation propel the narrative forward. Scenes bleed into the next through wraith-like vocals that resemble the mournful dying whale moans of Burial. The voices are distant, muffled and real, vaguely reminiscent of the skits from the GZA’s Liquid Swords. His mom begs him to return her car. His father is “on one,” and hollering Robin Harris-like about Domino’s. We hear the shots fired that kill Kendrick’s partner, Dave. We eavesdrop on his crew’s conspiracy for revenge and Kendrick’s ultimate refusal to sustain the internecine cycle of war. This falling action is re-affirmed by a final snatch of dialogue where his dad strays from the fool role to offer filial wisdom: "Any n*gga can kill a man…[but] real is responsibility. Real is taking care of your motherfucking family.”

What occurs between those boundaries is the most coherent concept-rap record in decades. It largely takes place on one sweltering day in the palm tree-purgatory of Compton Ca, with Lamar looking through a glass, darkly. The A/C is broken on his mom’s borrowed Dodge Caravan. Young Jeezy’s first CD bumps on a loop. We zoom in on K. Dot, the titular good kid in the mad city, 17, slightly reckless, and startlingly aware. The air is stained by the smell of both kinds of grass. Rosecrans and Alameda slur past, the car stocked with his homies, a quarter tank of gas, orange soda, and a pistol.

Empty cartons of fast food idle at Lamar’s feet and there are elderly evangelicals begging him to find Jesus at the Food for Less. He breaks to freestyle on “Backseat Freestyle.” His crew stages a home invasion on “Money Trees.” And on “good kid,” the religious teen walking home from bible study is jumped to a soundtrack of Chad Hugo interpolating Roy Ayers (also a South LA native).

Not only is Lamar’s rapping consistently on par with his early stylistic models, E-40, Wu-Tang, Kurupt, Ice Cube, Andre 3000, and Eminem, but his musicality’s achieved an alluvial richness rarely found outside of the classic Dungeon family records. Atliens, Aquemini, Soul Food, and Love Below operate as sonic touchstones for the asphalt and swamp symphonies, but samples from Twin Sister, Beach House, and Danish horror-core rap give it a uniquely contemporary feel. “Backseat Freestyle” finds Hitboy updating the “A Milli” blueprint. While “mad city” reminds me of “Beamer Benz or Bentley” crossed with a Compton’s Most Wanted B-Side.

Billed as the executive producer, Dr. Dre’s hidden stethoscope adds a focus to hooks, themes, and musical ideas. One gathers that for the aging producer, good kid offered the opportunity to do what Detox couldn’t: remind the next generation that raising the bar is more important than being able to buy the bar out.

Unlike few writers, rap or otherwise, Lamar has a gift for condensing complex ideas in few words. "good kid” juxtaposes red and blue gang colors with the similarly hued flashing lights of a squad car. We feel his neck stomped by both sides, a soul seeking transvertebration in a city entering its fourth decade as a cenacle for sin. “Art of Peer Pressure” touches on classist differences between “the bougie bitches with no extensions” and the “hood niggas with bad intentions,” conspicuous from their cheap Boost Mobile Sim cards. “Sing About Me” finds him musing about how “it’s a trip how we trip off of colors.” There are references to how burgers at Compton landmark, Louis Burger, will never taste the same due to the deaths he’s witnessed there—adding that a Louis Vuitton belt will never ease the pain.

The radicalism of good kid, m.A.A.d city partially stems from this rejection of false dualities. Rather than temporarily satiate himself with a Sky Mall’s worth of luxury goods, Lamar seeks to quench his spiritual thirst. The most obvious contrast is Drake, who appears on the swooning loverboy romp “Poetic Justice.” But both Lamar and Drake are both inherently seekers repelled by rampant materialism—yet Lamar refuses to indulge the gloss or play-act with silicone Nepenthes. His more direct opposite is Kanye West, the previous greatest rap artist alive, whose once-sincere religiosity seems to have mutated into a shield for bad behavior. Kanye’s answer to the void is trips to Paris, models, and more champagne. Kendrick is monkish, an ascetic more interested in enlightenment. Even the non-Drake guest spots (MC Eiht, Jay Rock) are minimal and selected with only regard to thematic cohesion.

"We can’t predict the longevity of art only exposed to oxygen for a few days, but good kid, m.A.A.d city has as good a shot as any album released in recent memory."

Good kid, m.A.A.d city is a story of self-realization. Like former Dre Academy grad, Eminem, Lamar’s conscience rarely strays far from the scene. It’s loudest on “Swimming Pools,” where he rejects the societal din to drown his sorrows in liquor. Nearly 20 years after Doggystyle, Lamar delivers the anti-“Gin & Juice.” Like the straight-edged punks on Dischord, he realizes that sobriety might be the ultimate rebellion. But revelations also emerge from reversals of once-scathing (but also sympathetic) condemnations. He puts himself on blast on “Sing About Me,” apologizing for the easy angel-whore dichotomy of Section 80’s “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain),” a story of murdered prostitute. Her defender is her sister, herself wary of her own imminent demise.

Section 80 addressed the symptoms of his generation’s woes, but good kid turns inward to attack the root causes. It’s the sort of record that invites a litany of comparisons, some explicit, some obtuse. Its unvarnished portrait of inner-city woes is reminiscent of early Wu-Tang, Nas or The Chronic. Not only do the cinematic flourishes invoke early '90s hood movies: Menace II Society, Boyz in the Hood, and Juice (not to ignore the obvious, Poetic Justice), but Lamar achieves a deeper discontent that goes beyond regional conflict or slang. It might remind me most of the Italian neo-realist classic, The Bicycle Thief, stocked with verite actors, few right answers, and a pervasive sense of decay and hopeless. Or maybe Richard Wright’s Native Son, with the final act finding Kendrick rejecting the doomed stairwells of Bigger Thomas.

We can't predict the longevity of art only exposed to oxygen for a few days, but good kid, m.A.A.d city has as good a shot as any album released in recent memory. It inhabits an unfamiliar and familiar terrain, both within and apart from humanity. Lamar’s mad city is a turbulent moral wilderness where not all poisons are panaceas and not all panaceas are poisons. It’s testament to the human capacity to find hope in the most hopeless environment. The rare record that refuses easy escape routes. Compromise and conformity are unthinkable. The answer isn’t exclusively Halle Berry or hallelujah. It’s a reminder that if you search hard enough, you might discover a third way.

Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is out this week via Interscope.