"Would you believe me?" It's a question at the center of Compton MC Kendrick Lamar's second official album release, a question that at first is hard not to answer with a resounding "no." On "m.A.A.d city" the stormy track where that question appears, Kendrick takes us on a "trip down memory lane," where Pirus and Crips are out to get the "good kid," a place where wearing the wrong colors can get you killed. Kendrick tumbles further down the nightmarish rabbit hole, and soon he's foaming at the mouth struggling to make sense of how he got here, straining his voice in the hopes that someone can hear him.
The Kendrick of "m.A.A.d city" is a far cry from the "character" we are first introduced to, an idealistic youth thanking the "Lord Jesus for saving us with your precious blood." This Kendrick is all wide-eyed optimism, borrowing his mom's car to see his girl Sherane and soundtracking his ride with music that's "young and dumb." It's this Kendrick that we see rapping in the backseat with his friends delivering the ferocious Hit-Boy produced "Backseat Freestyle." On this track K-Dot is all brawn and no brain, he's dismissive of living his life on his knees and his rally cry is "damn I got b****es."
That boisterousness is funneled into brutality on the Mobb Deep-influenced "Art of Peer Pressure," a drum-beat and lurching synth are the only things accompanying Kendrick. Here he and the "homies" are hotboxing in a white Toyota rolling down Rosecrans Avenue, looking for trouble. All the restlessness materializes into a robbery that sees the group narrowly missing the police, Kendrick chalking it up to another "lucky night."
All that luck can't contain Kendrick's weariness on "good kid." For the first time on the day-in-the-life album, Kendrick confesses he's "easy prey." While he goes to Bible-study, his friends and neighbors go to war over turf. Soon his only escape is the bottle, and on "Song of the Year" candidate "Swimming Pools (Drank)" he deconstructs this rocky relationship. The snapping T-Minus beat is an indulgence in all things excessive, and Kendrick traces his new-found bottle-popping bacchanalia through the family tree. Much like the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" Lamar never openly endorses or lambastes this life, instead he describes it in pain-staking detail. He argues with his conscious, admits to an "appetite for failure," and invites everyone to drown with him. The only freedom from that failure is another shot and another bottle.
"Swimming Pools (Drank)"
Any last bit of luck or notion of crime disappears on "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" the twelve-minute epic that anchors the album. Here Kendrick's homies succumb to the streets, and he's left to tell their stories over somnolent strings and a faint piano. "F**k I'm tired of this s**t," a voice cries out from the ether in the song's bridge. All the running, gunning, and hunting has caught up to Kendrick and his crew. He's tired of it all and longs to wake up from the nightmare. Salvation comes in the form of a neighbor voiced by Maya Angelou who leads the troubled teens through the "Sinner's Prayer" and promises the group a "new day," the start of a "new life."
With his new found faith, Kendrick stares in the mirror at the start of "Real" and for the first time likes what he sees. He painfully realizes his love for fast cars and fast women is misspent, and that you can never love if "you can't love yourself." That love rains down from Kendrick's parents, who show him support for the first time on the album. His dad "Kenny" gives hard-earned fatherly advice, assuring him "any n**** can kill a man, that don't make you a real n****." Meanwhile his mother urges Kendrick to come back and learn from his mistakes. "Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let 'em know you was just like them."
All the talk of good kid, m.A.A.d city's "classic status" or game-changing nature is irrelevant, these are mere byproducts of the hip-hop hype machine always on the prowl for the "next big thing." Any and all comparisons to Section. 80 miss the point entirely, its misguided and egotistical to think artists will keep remaking and repackaging that album we first fell in love with. To project our own wants/needs/fears on Kendrick Lamar is also to miss the point. If you long for more gangster posturing turn to forerunner N.W.A's N****z4Life. If conscious lyricism and political discussions are more your cup of tea, Lupe's excellent Food & Liquor 2 will more than keep you company. What Kendrick Lamar has delivered with good kid, m.A.A.d city is an autobiography, a document of one teen making sense of the "m.A.A.d city" around him. No matter the intensity of the narrative, it's a record we can all relate to, a record to soundtrack our own struggle. Would you believe it?
"Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst"