Kendrick Lamar represents a new breed of rap superstar in that his buzz was built completely online. It started in 2010 with his mixtape Overly Dedicated that showcased a raw and talented rapper, but one not necessarily concerned with making an actual album.
Last year, Lamar released the popular Section.80 mixtape, which brought the conceptual fireworks that fans had been hoping for, but still felt undercooked with the actual music. All of this work culminated in the release of his major-label debut good kid, m.A.A.d. city.
The album starts with a recording of a prayer for repentance that fades into “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter,” an enthralling “booty-call” record. Where most rappers would be content to simply get “Sherane” in the sheets, Lamar dissects an entire summer of pent-up lust over album producer Tha Bizness’ eerie organ-infused beat. When it finally comes time for him to get the action that he wants so badly, the song is interrupted by a call from his mother asking for her car back so she can drive to an appointment.
Dialogues at the end of songs on other albums are usually grating, but here they move the story forward and paint a vivid portrait of Lamar’s life growing up in Compton, N.Y. This helps Lamar cover a ton of ground, from brushes with the law in “Money Trees” to rampant alcoholism in his community with “Swimming Pools (Drank).”
Lamar’s beat selection also perfectly complements each song’s theme. A sample of Beach House’s ethereal “Silver Soul” from its album Teen Dream tempers the youthful adrenaline pumping through “Money Trees.” On the breezy love song “Poetic Justice,” select verses from Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” play in the background and enhance its laid back tone.
One of good kid, m.A.A.d. city’s major strengths is that Lamar is unafraid to display his contradictions. Other artists - Lupe Fiasco for instance - speak from a pedestal detailing society’s ills but they never turn the lens on their own faults. “The Art of Peer Pressure” is about how kids can get suckered into a life of drugs and gang violence, but the story starts with Lamar feeling guilty for smoking blunts with his buddies.
Lamar is human, and that’s what makes the album so powerful. Even if the material essentially deals with flaws, good kid, m.A.A.d. city is flawless.