Music Reviews
good kid, m.A.A.d city

Kendrick Lamar good kid, m.A.A.d city

(Polydor) Rating - 8/10

You used to know where you were when it came to breaking an artist. They’d maybe release a few singles or EPs and when the album was just about ready, the promotional juggernaut would rumble into life. If just enough excitement had been generated, you’d get a few weeks of people clamouring for the record before its release, hungrily sinking their teeth into any review or snippet of information they could get. Then, the culmination of all the hard work – the record would drop, first week sales would be huge and the PR machine would move onto the next poor fool.

However, momentum isn’t that easy to maintain and judge any more. Music fans are wise to the inner workings of the industry and won’t accept having any old rubbish foisted upon them. They want to make their own mind up about new artists, and this has two potential consequences: the sleeper hit or the burn-out before the album even hits the shops. Consider the case of Alt-J, whose debut album, An Awesome Wave, snuck up on everyone to become one of the success stories of 2012. Conversely, look at the examples of Azealia Banks and A$AP Rocky. Both these MCs were slated to be huge at the start of the year, but it transpires they were far from the finished product, and the year ends with the hype surrounding them dwindling and no full-length LP on the shelves.

In the instances where a promising artist doesn’t deliver for one reason or another, the industry is sufficiently saturated that someone else will come and take their place. Banks and Rocky didn’t do what you hoped? No problem, Kendrick Lamar is here and all of a sudden, he’s grabbing all the column inches and he’s "saved" 2012 in the world of hip-hop.

True, Lamar has been tipped for a while now, and good kid, m.A.A.d city isn’t even his first record, but it there does seem a certain amount of serendipity on his side. good kid, m.A.A.d city is a concept album billed as a “short film” which is likely to have you screwing your face up whilst telling yourself that Speakerboxxx/The Love Below can surely be the only exception to that rule. However, while over-long (it’s a major label hip-hop album, of course it’s over-long), the thread running through the album doesn’t derail the quality of the songs and, in many cases, actually helps it to hang together as intended.

good kid, m.A.A.d city’s tracklisting has a dozen tracks, which is something of a misnomer, as songs volte-face at a moment’s notice, giving the album a feel more akin to a mixtape. This can be frustrating or invigorating, depending on how much you’re enjoying what’s going on, and it makes the decision to let penultimate track, Real, play out well beyond its welcome all the more baffling. This is the exception rather than the rule though, as Lamar’s dextrous flow provides the perfect foil to either the mid-90s gangsta or minimialist production that are the hallmarks of the record.

In fact, the opening trio of songs give you a good idea of what Lamar is all about: Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter is full of bass and preoccupied with macho self-aggrandisement, Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe is a laid-back slow jam with plenty of R&B tropes and Backseat Freestyle has an raw, underground, confrontational feel. In many ways, good kid, m.A.A.d city feels like a throwback record, housing as it does many calling cards of Dr. Dre’s Compton sound. This is little surprise seeing as Lamar is signed to Aftermath Entertainment, hails from Compton and is joined by Dre himself on the album’s closing track entitled, appropriately enough, Compton.

All of the above makes for an above-average record, but what sets Lamar apart from his peers is his willingness to explore difficult lyrical avenues and show his chops as a storyteller rather than simply yet another solipsistic MC. The Art Of Peer Pressure is a brilliantly recounted tale of being egged on and reveals the rarely seen chink in the gangsta armour. It also features a sublime scene-setting opening couplet (“Me and my niggas four deep in a white Toyota / A quarter tank of gas, one pistol and orange soda”) that’s up there with Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls in terms of instant intrigue.

The Art Of Peer Pressure is topped only by the twelve minute epic, Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst. Partway through the song, Lamar references 2Pac’s Brenda’s Got A Baby, which is apt seeing as it shows the same expert approach to characterisation and gritty realism. Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst may sound smooth, but it’s an unflinching diary of struggle with a truly macabre sense of humour. Not since the halcyon early days of Eminem have we seen as MC tackle difficult topics with such insight.

good kid, m.A.A.d city is a cocksure record, but that confidence isn’t misplaced. It heralds Kendrick Lamar as a worthy addition to rap’s top table and displays enough to both set him apart and suggest that better may be yet to come. Sometimes not being at the forefront of blogosphere hype gives you time to develop your own sound in your own time. Kendrick Lamar may not have saved hip-hop, but he's certainly provided us with one of 2012's best records.