Judging a hyped-up album is a tricky thing. Sometimes all that hype is inorganic, founded on good PR and an artist's charisma. You've heard the mix tapes and the singles -- in Kendrick Lamar's case "The Recipe" and "Swimming Pools (Drank)" -- and everything has been truly impressive, almost surprisingly so. And there's always that worry that strong early efforts will cloud your judgment of the remaining body of work (an example: the singles "Ambling Alp" and "O.N.E." completely misrepresenting the rest of Yeasayer's second album, Odd Blood). So take this next statement for what it's worth. Kendrick Lamar's debut album good kid, m.A.A.d. city is the best rap album of 2012.
The astounding storytelling is what immediately stands out, feeling like a vision of a talented auteur's first film (it's actually very easy to call this the musical equivalent of Boyz in the Hood, which Lamar is smart to point out before anyone else can). Beginning with "Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter's Daughter," Lamar begins his story of being a teen growing up on the hard streets of Compton, Calif. with nasally smoothness. From there you're thrown into a night, driving in Lamar's mom's van. Small vignettes build into one compelling story -- fooling around with girls and friends devolves into drinking and gang-banging violence before Lamar finds solace from the haunting cycle of the inner-city in God and rap -- literally, the artist's journey from K.Dot to Kendrick Lamar. Strung together by voiced skits featuring Kendrick, his friends, and parents, the story is touching, vivid, and palpable. When Lamar loses a friend in a shootout, you actually feel it -- making "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" extremely sad and moving.
Because of the strength of the album's structure, Lamar is able to clearly express the gamut of issues a kid faces growing up in Compton, from the difficulty of keeping clean while also keeping friends on "The Art of Peer Pressure" ("Usually I'm drug-free but shit, I'm with the homies") to the hereditary consequences of alcoholism in "Swimming Pools (Drank)." Not surprisingly, the album's thesis (how often can you say that an album has an overarching thesis?) comes over the course of the songs "good kid" and "m.A.A.d. city." On "good kid," Lamar raps about living in world of Crips and Bloods, being unwillingly cast into thug life when all he wants to do is walk home peacefully from bible study -- literally, he's a good kid, but it's impossible to be good in a city so bad. How bad is it? Well, just listen to "m.A.A.d. city": "Pakistan on every porch is fine/We adapt to crime, pack a van with four guns at a time."
In an era of "celebration rap," Lamar's preface in that same song is notable: "Brace yourself, I'll take you on a trip down memory lane/This is not a rap on how I'm slinging crack or move cocaine/This is cul-de-sac and plenty Cognac and major pain." Lamar's refusal to praise the crime-heavy follies of inner-city life is brave and truly remarkable considering the rapper's age. Instead of glorifying drive-bys (Chief Keef, we're looking at you), Lamar cries out against the no-gain reality of crime. Pointing out his hometown's flaws and admitting that they're at least somewhat self-induced may not be a popular move ("If Pirus and Crips all got along/They'd probably gun me down by the end of this song"), but the right thing isn't always the easiest. He's volunteering to be a voice of change to the kids growing up in Compton, pleading that everyone take his story as a source of forewarning and inspiration in the album's penultimate song, "Real" (Actually, his mother does the pleading for him in a voiceover: "Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let 'em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person").
But the truth is: if the music isn't good, no one's going to listen to Kendrick Lamar's message. So it's a good thing that the music is almost as impressive as good kid, m.A.A.d. city's content. Lamar's producers do an unbelievable job matching Lamar's lyrical seriousness and honesty with thoughtful, often haunting beats while also capturing the sound of rap-history-rich Compton. Songs like "The Art of Peer Pressure" and "Swimming Pools (Drank)" are equipped with droning, carefully minimal samples that highlight the darkness of Lamar's confessions, while "good kid" and "m.A.A.d. city's" N.W.A. influences are purposefully telegraphed -- gangster rap beneath a sly condemnation of gangster culture. And then there are songs like "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" and the Beach House-sampling "Money Trees" that touch on the chiller, more laid back tendencies of California rap (not to mention the "California Love" vocal allusion on the Cali-banging "Compton").
What solidifies Kendrick Lamar as a triple-threat is his staggering talent as a rapper. Not only does he have impeccable flow and impressive words-per-minute speed at times, but his ability to switch personalities mid-song echo Notorious B.I.G. or a "Monster"-era Nicki Minaj. The second verse of "Swimming Pools (Drank)," where he and his conscience converse is enthralling, and only a small sample of what he pulls off throughout good kid, m.A.A.d. city. By going from nasally plucky to relaxed and raspy to violently forceful and everywhere in between, Lamar makes his debut effort that much more engaging to listen to.
The fear with a debut album this good, this personal, and this autobiographical is that the artist had been building to it his whole life. Everything he experienced in the past was fueled into an amazingly stark collection of songs. But the next time around, is he going to have anything left? It's clear that Kendrick Lamar threw a good deal of himself into good kid, m.A.A.d. city, so that question certainly applies. But with such an all-around strong album with such a powerful message, it doesn't really matter what the answer to that question ends up being. good kid, m.A.A.d. city is by far good enough. Besides, if Kendrick Lamar can reproduce half of the magic he captured on this album, he'll be just fine.