Hip-hop is the most subjective form of popular music because there are so many different ways it can fail or succeed. Someone like A$AP Rocky may make music that succeeds almost solely on the basis of its production; on the other hand, Curren$y or Tyler, The Creator might make absolutely fantastic rap music with solely their personalities or their natural, God-given voices to elevate their music. The same could be said about Big Sean’s punchlines, Lil B’s infectious positivity, or Lil Wayne’s sheer insanity. People might respect a politico-rapper like Immortal Technique for speaking what they might perceive as “the truth,” or someone like Aesop Rock because he’s so inscrutable he’s almost certainly a genius.
On the other hand, you have Kendrick Lamar. Lamar has everything going for him; he’s an incredibly nimble rapper, his writing style is clear and evocative, and he’s as capable of telling a great story or making a keen sociopolitical commentary as he is at firing off boasts and disses. But those things are not what makes his major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, a success. This is an album that works on the basis of one of the best narratives I’ve heard on any recent rap album.
good kid is a rap opera through and through. There is a very clear narrative to the work; it’s largely autobiographical, recounting the eight years of Lamar’s life prior to the release of the album. It begins with a teenage Lamar taking off in his mother’s car to meet up with a girl, Sherane; his parents’ voicemails asking for the car back tie the album together, even much later in the narrative. As a conceptual device, it’s incredibly effective, and the final voicemail is one of the most poignant moments on the album. By scattering the voicemails (which were presumably sent in quick succession over the course of not more than a few days) across several years of narrative, Lamar creates a complex time-frame that nonetheless manages to flow with chronological ease. Characters who appear earlier in the album return later, as well as some minor characters--on the 12-minute seance “Sing About Me I’m Dying Of Thirst,” Lamar delivers an entire verse from the perspective of Sherane’s sister, and it is without a doubt the most devastating moment on the album.
However, as do many such concept albums, good kid relies heavily enough on its narrative that the impact of its individual songs are blunted out of context. When you take a song like “Swimming Pools (Drank)” by itself, it’s a great track, with fun production that warps the synth-heavy sound of mainstream rap to effectively convey Lamar’s psychoanalytical perspective on getting wasted. But after you’ve heard the eight songs that precede it, the song’s first chorus simply rams into you, hitting as hard as the shots of liquor Kendrick describes himself consuming.
Yet good kid’s greatest flaw is, perhaps counterintuitively, Lamar’s own personality. Throughout good kid, Lamar portrays himself as a model of goodness whose only reason for indulging in things like drug consumption or even robbing houses is because the pressure from the people around him was simply too great for him to resist. At his most sanctimonious, Lamar sounds like he’s trying to shrug off any responsibility for his actions; he’s a good kid, he swears.
“Backseat Freestyle” is the worst offender. At first glance, it’s a boast track, with brags that wouldn’t be particularly impressive from any rapper and a grooveless beat that sounds like someone loudly practicing the drums on the other side of the room while you’re trying to have a conversation. It’s also the only moment on the album where Lamar indulges in any such bragging, something which he has proven to be incredibly good at (check out “Rigamortis” or his cypher with Big K.R.I.T., Tech N9ne, MGK, and B.o.B). Yet it, too, is loosely tied into the narrative, becoming a recreation of his first attempt at rapping when in the car with his friends. In this context, it becomes something of a parody--the real brag Lamar makes on the song appears to be his own elevation above rappers who actually do brag about such things. I would like to think that “Backseat Freestyle” is a boast track Lamar recorded for fun and then decided to insert onto the album; it’s a much more appealing explanation than what Lamar gives.
In spite of all of this, good kid is ultimately a success. In the context of being a high-concept rap record, you won’t find many better albums than this one, and the skill with which Lamar executes his complex narrative is what saves good kid from being the overly ambitious mess it could have been. Even if you don’t come out of your listen particularly liking Lamar as a person, it’s difficult not to be affected by his story and even more difficult to deny his skill as a storyteller.