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Lamar’s ‘good kid’ Enthralls With Evocative Compton Narrative

Heights Editor

Published: Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

Kendrick Lamar is too good at rapping. He’s too smart for hip-hop. He’s the voice of a generation, he knows it, and he’s too driven to let anything get in his way. But for 12 brilliant, difficult songs on his first studio album good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lamar looks back to a time when he didn’t have any of that, back when all he had was his city and his family.

He’s not too good in a hyperbolic way. He’s simultaneously too good for his own good and for everyone else. Compton’s finest rhymer in a decade knows that this album, a borderline classic, only has three potential hits on it for the masses. “Backseat Freestyle” leaves you gasping for breath, he goes so hard on his verses. In the story of the album, a young Lamar is going off on a beat to prove that his talent can’t be touched. Good kid could have been filled solely with tracks like this, technically perfect boasts about his power and his women, and he’d be up there as one of the most famous rappers alive, but Lamar has a mission and it’s not fame.

“Swimming Pools (Drank)” is almost designed for a party, and it’s probably been blasting at a bunch since it released late this summer, but it’s more of an indictment of alcohol than a celebration. As enticing as the swimming pool full of liquor is, it’ll drown you inevitably. Lamar toes a tough line on every track of good kid, between being too preachy and telling his story. The only reason he comes out safe at the end is because he refuses to point the finger and condemn others. The whole album is his story and his experiences, and it’s tough to hate on him for sharing that.

The rest of the album tells the story of Lamar’s rise through Compton. The first half shows the city’s newest star trying to fit in with the girls and the gangs he sees everywhere. “The Art of Peer Pressure” hints at Lamar’s discontent with the violence, the crime and the hate, but he’s not ready to turn his back on it yet. By the end of “Money Trees,” Lamar begins to become more aware that this scene isn’t for him. He raps, “Everybody gon’ respect the shooter, but the one in front of the gun lives forever.” It’s another track that borders on being preachy, but Lamar easy rhyming —which switches from slowed all the way down to turned all the way up while contorting his voice and providing better lyrics than most artists dream of—keeps you enthralled rather than annoyed.

Drake shows up on “Poetic Justice” to show another direction that Lamar turned his back on. Lamar does his best Drake impression, spending two verses rapping about nothing but a girl and his struggles with her. Surprisingly, his two verses sandwich Drake’s beautifully, and it’s another example of how dynamic Lamar is. He can do what Drake does, not quite as well but close enough, but on the very next track he’s back to the streets with his homies. The allure of making Top 40 hits about women drew him in for a second, but again, bigger and better things are coming.

“Good Kid” begins the second half of the album and leads into “m.A.A.d city” when Lamar stops immersing himself in the gang culture and begins to question it. His HiiPower movement, which doesn’t show up at all on good kid because this young Lamar doesn’t have it in his life yet, is about questioning things. It’s almost shocking that a big-time rapper could go 12 tracks on a debut album without mentioning his crew, TDE, or his movement, but that was the only way for Lamar to stay true to his story and stay true to himself.

Good kid is intentionally inaccessible on the first listen. It’s supposed to be a difficult album to listen to from start to finish, but the payoff is so sweet. Before Lamar can step into the light and become the genius voice of his generation, he had to give clarity and truth to his own voice. Good kid accomplishes that, and now he’s ready to take over.

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