From Nas’s notepad scribblings to Scarface’s diary entries to Kanye’s tortured therapy sessions disguised as art-rap opuses, hip-hop has always been a safe haven for self-consious artists looking to express their feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy and fear. Since he was a teenager, the Chicago-born and Compton-raised Kendrick Lamar has been carving out a very specific lane in this lineage, releasing mixtapes throughout the late ’00s, taking a cautious but muddled step toward joining the big leagues of mainstream rap with 2011′s Section.80. And now he’s released good kid, m.A.A.d. city, a thoughtful, almost impenetrable fortress of a major label debut that manages to provide a wide-eyed, panoramic view of city life while still telling a complex narrative of self-discovery and self-evaluation. It’s a wise, mature labyrinth of an album that’s both filled with vibrant life and haunted by death. And here’s the thing: Lamar is only 25.
Long considered the brain-y, dorm-room philosopher of L.A.’s Black Hippy rap collective—there’s a reason his best pre-GKMC track was called “A.D.H.D.” and was basically about talking a girl’s ear off at a party—Lamar is above-all-else a fantastic rapper and an even better writer. He has a whole slew of warped voices (hyperventilating-helium voice, gravely-threatening-dude voice, reflective-sensitive-friend voice, etc.) and twisted deliveries (double-time, triple-time, create-your-own-time-signature-time) that he uses to inhabit different characters from his adolescence and elements of his own psyche. But what unifies this at times disorienting polyvocal experience is an intense journalistic attention to detail and a steady thematic ambition. Despite its fractured, discursive narrative structure—some songs, like the rollicking “m.A.A.d. city,” resemble modernist nesting dolls more than traditional hook-laden rap songs—the album is never afraid to overreach.
Like any good rap historian, Lamar is simultaneously fond and skeptical of certain classic rap tropes. “Bitch, Dant Kill My Vibe” is ostensibly a breakup song or at the very least an autopsy of a relationship strained by the pressures of unchecked careerism and the pursuit of fame—typical pop star problems—but in Lamar’s fever-dream execution it becomes a heavy meditation on the nature of morality, the cycle of sin and value of isolation. Over a languid guitar sample from a Boom Clap Bachelors song, a skittering beat and even some maudlin strings toward the end, Lamar delivers psycho-drama-filled lines (“We live in a world on two different axles/You live in a world, you living behind the mirror/I know what you scared of, the feeling of feeling emotions inferior”) and those of earnest soul-searching (“I am a sinner/Who’s probably gonna sin again/Lord forgive me”). He plays the role of preacher and scoundrel with the same level of conviction.
Over easy-going, slowly bubbling beats that pay tribute to Aquemini-era Outkast, the California haze of the Pharcyde and the cerebral stomp of Rawkus, Lamar reveals himself to be not just a cunning vocal imitator but something far more significant: a savvy social code-switcher. It’s not surprising that his tale of a youthful indiscretion is called “The Art Of Peer Pressure.” Its collection of specific idiosyncratic quirks is staggering: “orange soda,” “basketball shorts with the Gonzales Park odor,” “bumping Jeezy,” “Boost Mobile sim cards,” “in search of any Nintendo.” These aren’t just bits of cultural flotsam and scene-setting references, though they do lend an unshakable aroma of authenticity; these details are serving the goal of total immersion. To listen to this album is to wander around in Kendrick’s Compton. It’s less a “short film” like the album’s sub-title claims and more like a completely engrossing video game experience, one with very real consequences.
There are a few concessions made to commercial radio that get in the way of this type of total immersion, but they’re blurred by the album’s hard-headed commitment to Kendrick’s vision. Drake shows up to talk about sundresses, but he sounds like another variation on Lamar’s own horndog persona. MC Eiht’s verse on “m.A.A.d city” serves a similar symbolic role. Even the album’s hit single, “Swimming Pools (Drank),” is pseudo-party song that’s actually about the perils of alcoholism, and it’s immediately followed by a 12-minute soulful reflection on regional responsibility and senseless violence (“Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst”). “Compton,” the album’s much-hyped Dr. Dre collaboration, isn’t so much a passing of some mythical (and non-existant) West Coast torch as it is a goofy-ass, joyful ascension. None of these songs are particularly catchy, sometimes to the album’s detriment, but they all work as part of a carefully constructed diorama of city life.
It’s an album about being conflicted, about learning to embrace the ambiguity of being proud of your origins—specifically your family and your city—while still feeling the urge to transcend them. The voicemail messages and spoken-word interludes that serve as connective tissue for many of the songs are poignant and funny, but they’re not really necessary given Lamar’s ability to completely inhabit the many voices of his city. Like any genuine neurotic, Lamar is always second-guessing himself, and that fussiness means the album perhaps bears too many smudgy fingerprints. “Now am I worth it?” he asks at one point. “Did I put enough work in?” Lamar’s concerns can’t be dismissed as mere paranoia or artistic egomania. They grow out of a very real moral fear: How can we be good? Or, more importantly, how can we be better?