Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, who used to rhyme under the alias K-Dot but eventually switched over to two-thirds of his given name, is a Compton, California-based blogger's darling who has just released his major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, on Aftermath/Interscope under the executive production guidance of Dr. Dre himself. He managed to swing this after spending the early days of his career unleashing free mixtapes and Internet-only albums to the public: this caused him to amass a large Interweb following that the majors couldn't ignore for much longer.
good kid, m.A.A.d. city is subtitled A Short Film By Kendrick Lamar, and it is as ambitious an attempt as one might expect: it's a loosely-formed concept album based around Kendrick's life growing up in Compton, and the trials, tribulations, and triumphs that came with it. It's also only twelve tracks long, which is ambitious in a different way. The fact that he didn't feel the need to stuff the project with every single idea he's ever had musically speaks volumes for the man's confidence in his own abilities: he knows he'll be around for a while, even if just on the Internet.
good kid, m.A.A.d. city is actually the second project effort from his crew, Black Hippy, to hit store shelves (colleague Jay Rock's solo debut, Follow Me Home, was released by Strange Music, a label I had never heard of but one with enough pull to release the project and cause my local library to take notice and purchase at least one copy for lending purposes). Black Hippy, made up K-Dot, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and Schoolboy Q, have been making their respective marks on our chosen genre for quite a while now, with numerous mixtapes and Interweb albums filling the space in their combined back catalog. Most of what the Black Hippy crew has released has been hailed by critics as new and refreshing, or at the very least entertaining. Curiously, only Jay Rock plays a co-starring role on Kendrick's album, but that's more because Kendrick was attempting to tell a cohesive story and didn't want to get bogged down in the drama. However, that doesn't mean they weren't around to support their boy (*cough* bonus tracks *cough*).
good kid, m.A.A.d. city joins the ranks of debut albums executive produced by Dr. Dre, an exclusive list that includes Snoop Dogg and the major label debuts from The Game, Eminem, and 50 Cent, which essentially means that Kendrick is all but guaranteed a spot on the mythical Detox album that's never materializing. However, unlike with those other artists named, Dre doesn't write Kendrick any prescriptions for his project. How does one work alongside Dr. Dre so extensively and not secure at least one Dre beat? To me, this just means that we need to watch out for a random leak from K-Dot himself in the near future.
Here we go.
1. SHERANE A.K.A. MASTER SPLINTER'S DAUGHTER
As a pop culture nerd, that song title appeals to me, but goofy reference aside, this wasn't bad. After an introductory prayer where the distorted vocals creeped me out and I now have evil spirits living in my iPod, K-Dot launches into a one-verse wonder about a girl named Sherane who he met back in high school (so the note about her being only seventeen isn't all that disturbing, although it is made known that he was only in the tenth grade at the time, so wouldn't she have been brought up on statutory rape charges? But I digress), and although the story ventures into typical "bitch set me up" territory (if you're familiar at all with the non-titular characters from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, that song title will suddenly make a lot more sense), Kendrick's attention to the little details makes this track much more entertaining that it should be, with an assist from the instrumental from Tha Bizness, which was simple and effective enough. The voicemail outro was a bit goofy ans ran for far too long, but Kendrick is trying to tell a story here, so I'll let it ride.
2. BITCH, DON'T KILL MY VIBE
The first track on good kid, m.A.A.d. city where Kendrick's voice may affect your listening pleasure, thanks to a weakly-performed hook that still lends itself to an easy hashtag-slash-catchphrase that you two will use on your significant others right before being forced to sleep on the couch. Sounwave's instrumental is quiet when it needs to be, but when the drums kick in, it reminded me a bit too much of "Swimming Pools (Drank)", which isn't a bad thing, but I was expecting something much different. I did like how K-Dot kept adding new tweaks to the hook while performing said hook toward the end, since it came across as stream-of-consciousness rapping, but otherwise, I'll move on to the next track, if that's okay with you.
3. BACKSEAT FREESTYLE
True to its title, “Backseat Freestyle” is more of a freestyle session that a true song, even though K-Dot provides his own hook throughout. The ubiquitous Hit-Boy, who's been having one hell of a 2012, provides yet another simple, repetitive, and will-get-stuck-in-your-head-but-it's-okay-because-you'll-like-it instrumental, and Kendrick obliges by running around like a kid on a playground filled with swings, slides, and candy. This isn't the best representation of Kendrick Lamar lyrically: hell, at one point he chooses to just repeat the word “beeyotch” a bunch of times. But it's clear that he didn't take this track seriously, which is actually kind of refreshing in today's hip hop world. Not bad.
4. THE ART OF PEER PRESSURE
Allow me one quick moment of sheer juvenile excitement: this shit was awesome. Okay, I'm calm. This song was the shit, as K-Dot's three-verse tale of a night out with the homeys he didn't usually run with is told with clarity, conciseness, and a hurried, hushed tone that will heave you holding your breath. The beat at the very beginning was pretty interesting, as it combined West Coast funk sensibilities with some experimental drums, but when the instrumental switches...fuck, this gets good. The second beat, from Tabu, lifted from the work of the Danish group Suspekt's “Helt Alene” (which I tracked down after listening to this, and even with the obvious language barrier, I thought that shit was dope, too), reaches OutKast “Benz Or Beamer”-levels of dopeness, and it fits the tone of “The Art Of Peer Pressure” like a glove. Four songs in, and we've already stumbled upon something great. This is a good sign.
5. MONEY TREES (FEAT. JAY ROCK)
Smart move, Kendrick, don't even try to match the intensity of “The Art Of Peer Pressure”; instead, he opts to use DJ Dahi's okay-enough beat to discuss the financial stream that comes after a home invasion and to mispronounce the word “bitch” in such an egregious manner that you may want to shut the six-minute-plus track off. I wanted to, anyway. Doing so would cause listeners to miss out on an interesting hook and a cameo from K-Dot's Black Hippy cosplayer Jay Rock, as well as another voicemail interlude that keeps the album's general theme going. I can take or leave this song, though.
6. POETIC JUSTICE (FEAT. DRAKE)
Drizzy pops in to return the favor Kendrick originally gave to him in form of a verse on Take Care. Scoop DeVille's beat samples Janet Jackson's “Anytime, Anyplace” with meh results (although the use of the sample makes the song title retroactively funnier, I guess), but at least Aubrey attacks it as though he were actually alert during the studio session (even though the shit he spits mirrors what he's been getting away with writing for the past few years). Kendrick's contribution was pretty fucking dull: it's almost, almost as though he didn't want Drake to even appear on this album, but felt an obligation to allow him to return said favor, even though he had long since moved on at this point. Pass.
7. GOOD KID (FEAT. PHARRELL)
Apparently this was produced by Pharrell Williams. Not by the Neptunes, but by Pharrell himself. (Although Chad Hugo allegedly contributes some ad-libs somewhere.) And doggone it, “Good Kid” has got to be the most musical thing that motherfucker has conjured up in years. The instrumental sounds like the score to an unreleased indie film featuring Kendrick Lamar trying to survive the elements and save his dog or house or guitar or some shit, I don't know (I'm kind of tired right now). K-Dot's verses form a synergy with the music, as well: shit, even Pharrell's hook wasn't bad. So yeah, I liked this song. That's all I got. Not all of these descriptions will be long, you know.
8. M.A.A.D. CITY (FEAT. MC EIHT)
Kendrick does it again, playing with the audience's natural expectation that the instrumental they hear will be the instrumental the song will end with. The first beat, which houses the first verse, is pretty goddamn good, but the world turns on a dime once Compton's own MC Eiht (the hell? Where the fuck has he been?) steps onto the scene, as producers Sounwave and THC switch everything to a motherfucking boom-bap-esque banger of a beat, and both emcees own the shit out of it. This was nice, son!
9. SWIMMING POOLS (DRANK) (EXTENDED VERSION)
The second single released from good kid, m.A.A.d. City, albeit now in an “extended” form that neither adds nor subtracts from the overall experience. I actually really like this song, as simple as it is (the track glorifies drinking and accomplishes nothing else, although K-Dot does attempt some actual depth within his verses), since the first time I ever really paid attention to it was while driving home drunkenly from a friend's house: the simplistic hook spoke to me (mainly the word “drank”, but still). The T-Minus beat sets a darker tone than what the song itself ever delivers upon, or at least that's what I thought before hearing the extended album version, which tacks on an additional verse that attempts to change the meaning of everything you just heard previous to it. It doesn't quite accomplish its goal, but I still dug this a lot.
10. SING ABOUT ME / I'M DYING OF THIRST
The moment I noticed that “Sing About Me / I'm Dying Of Thirst” was more than twelve minutes long, I screamed. Out loud, no less. Unless it's the final song on a project and it contains a hidden bonus track (or if you're The Roots), there's almost zero reason for a rapper to pull this kind of stunt. Anyway, as you could probably tell from how I typed out the title, this is actually supposed to be two separate songs that share a common theme: Kendrick's dual obsessions with death and salvation. “Sing About Me” has a Like beat that is alright, but K-Dot's lyrics dominate throughout, even during the second verse, where he fades out his own vocals well before he's actually finished (a trait you all know I fucking hate), but then returns for a third verse? Huh? After a brief interlude, we transition into the Shkye Hutch-produced “I'm Dying Of Thirst”, with its superior instrumental and a polarizing K-Dot performance that I enjoyed, but a lot of people may hate (even though he doesn't use a weird accent or anything). There was no real reason in my mind to keep these two tracks together.
After a brief interlude that thoroughly explains what Kendrick meant when he said he was dying of thirst (that technically ended the previous track), our host attempts to become a “Real” boy. Which, apparently, is supposed to happen on this annoying-as-shit song produced by Terrace Martin. My problem isn't so much with K-Dot as much as it is whit guest star Anna Wise, whose hook makes me want to punch a wall. Easily the most fucking godawful song on good kid, m.A.A.d. city, and yes, I realize I still have several songs to go before I should be able to make such a declaration, but fuck it. This was terrible.
12. COMPTON (FEAT. DR. DRE)
good kid, m.A.A.d. city is all about Kendrick Lamar growing up in Compton, so it makes sense that he would end the project with a song blatantly named after it. This celebration of his hometown, one that glosses over the prevalent gang lifestyle, violence, and general economic stressors plaguing the area, is produced by Just Blaze, who seems to pop up but once a quarter with a beat or two, and it sounds okay but not great, as it aims to be an anthem but lands somewhere in “background noise” territory. K-Dot is joined by ultimate Compton spokesperson Dr. Dre, whose rhymes, as expected, take on the cadence of the guy who actually wrote them for him (um, that would be Kendrick), but he recites them well enough. I did find it weird that Dre would boast about having a ton of his own beats with him while rhyming on someone else's instrumental, but whatever: this was an okay enough way to end things.
The deluxe edition of good kid, m.A.A.d city, which should be the only one anyone ever considers purchasing, comes with a bonus disc with three additional songs.
1. THE RECIPE (FEAT. DR. DRE)
Dre didn't produce this one either (he landed a co-production credit somehow, but I'm sure he just mixed it and nothing more), but “The Recipe”, K-Dot's ode to the “women, weed, and weather” of Cali, still sounds fucking great today. It definitely doesn't fit the overall theme Kendrick was going for on the proper album, so I do understand why it was committed to the bonus track ward. Andre's vocals on here are so obviously Kendrick's that, when Kendrick appeared on BET's recent Hip Hop Awards show to perform Dre's verse, it didn't even click until halfway through that it was, in fact, Dre's verse that he was reciting. Scoop DeVille's Twin Sister-sampling beat still bangs hard today. The hell with the fact that it apparently signifies a shift toward a Kendrick Lamar model that “sold out”: if it draws more people to the project and sounds good while doing so, what's the harm?
2. BLACK BOY FLY
I liked the instrumental, and the verses themselves sounded okay, but “Black Boy Fly” never gelled for me, as the bars continually clashed with said beat, and K-Dot's introduction was motherfucking terrible. I liked the overall story, though, as our host breaks down his train of thought when he decided to pursue this here rap shit as a career. Too bad this track wasn't better.
3. NOW OR NEVER (FEAT. MARY J. BLIGE)
I'm pretty sure that Mary J. Blige has made more appearances in a cameo capacity on rap songs than she has on her own goddamn albums: it used to be a stab at legitimacy when you managed to get her on your album, but now it seems she'll work for anyone who'll write her a check (including Burger King, but I digress). She's now just a part of a checklist label A&Rs print out when they're in charge of putting a project together. At least she isn't just limited to the hook on “Now Or Never”, but I still didn't care for this shit: even with Jack Splash's okay-ish production, I could still see the numbers hidden beneath the shoddy paint job.
In an effort to branch out as much as possible, Kendrick Lamar provided different additional bonus songs to different outlets, specifically iTunes, Spotify, and Target. One of them, the iTunes-exclusive “Swimming Pools (Drank) (Single Version)”, is self-explanatory, but the other five, although easy to track down, haven't graced my ears as of yet. Here's where you come in: I want you, the reader, to listen to the extra bonus tracks and let everyone else know what is and isn't worth hunting down in the comments section below. My burnt-out self appreciates it.
THE LAST WORD: Prepare yourself, because I'm going to say something you may not appreciate: there are songs on Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d. city that aren't very good. There, I said it. A handful of these songs will never be listened to by me again, because the beat was bland, or the voice being utilized on the track gave me a headache, or whatever my reasoning is (I'd say I don't have to explain everything to you, but that's kind of what I'm supposed to be doing on this blog). Are you finished screaming at your computer or iPad screen yet? Okay, now here's the rest of the review: the songs that are good on good kid, m.A.A.d. city, and yes, I mean "songs" in the plural form, are fucking excellent, and they elevate the entire project to the level of what is quite possibly the best major label release of 2012. Thanks to his time toiling in the mixtape mines, Kendrick comes out the gate with the knowledge of how to not only write an actual rap song, but how to best get his point across: aside from the handful of poor tracks, which are easily overlooked in the iTunes age (just don't upload those songs, duh), the only rookie mistake he makes on his major label debut is in including those really fucking long interludes, which were intended to keep the story moving, but cause the album to grind to a halt whenever they pop up. I understand that the subtitle of this album is A Short Film By Kendrick Lamar, but it might have been too bold a choice to go with a concept album right out of the box. Still, Kendrick has a mostly excellent ear for beats, and even if he doesn't always connect with his different flows, he at least always sounds interesting. good kid, m.A.A.d. city is actually successful overall; he at least won me over, as I have yet to listen to any of his previous projects, but now I suddenly feel the need to do so. So yeah, I would recommend that you pick this one up, if only for "The Art Of Peer Pressure", which is one the best songs I've heard during my run on this site. And that's not hyperbole.