Published Nov 26, 2012Kendrick Lamar celebrated his 24th birthday performing a concert in Toronto. At the end of the show on a summer night in 2011 at the Sound Academy, the Compton, CA MC sported an ear-to-ear grin as he blew out the candles on a birthday cake brought to him on stage while Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" played. Earlier that night, he'd previewed songs from his then yet-to-be-released Section.80 album, acting out the verses of "A.D.H.D." and "Hol' Up" with non-verbal mannerisms as if he were playing charades. Another segment of the show featured a chair-bound Lamar in an endearingly profane mini-play, recreating a scene from his childhood; he played both his mother and father bantering over a "gangsta rap and oldies" playlist with ribald selections from West coast pioneers like Snoop Dogg's "Ain't No Fun."
At the time, the giddy presentation seemed to be tied to the celebratory mood of the night, but in hindsight it was particularly prescient. Now 25, Lamar recently released Good Kid m.a.a.d. city, subtitling the album "A short film by Kendrick Lamar." Cinematic aspirations on record are often easily dismissed, but Lamar's vivid knack for storytelling, technical superiority and poetic lyricism have garnered him the most critical acclaim for any rap album this year and arguably the biggest buzz for a major label debut since Kanye West's The College Dropout. It wouldn't be an understatement to say that Good Kid, m.a.a.d. city was one of the most highly anticipated records of the year. With everyone from Lamar benefactor Dr. Dre to Lady Gaga somehow associated with the record, the album not only matched the attendant hype surrounding it, but surpassed sky-high expectations with ease, leaving listeners slack-jawed. It's simply that good.
"I haven't been surprised," Lamar says of the almost unanimous critical acclaim. "I was confident enough to know I was able to deliver, you know," he says matter-of-factly. "I was just very aware and put the effort into making a timeless album."
Good Kid, m.a.a.d. city is a stubbornly parochial soundtrack to Lamar's early life in Compton, CA, irrevocably shaped by the neighbourhood and familial bonds of his precarious environment. (Lamar's own real-life parents are prominent figures throughout, leaving voicemails in skits that move the story along.) What distinguishes it from a rote coming-of-age story is the intricate attention to detail. Lamar's descriptive skills are so vivid that he immerses you in the topography of his world, his street corners and his state of mind. Ultimately, we bear witness to a narrative detailing Lamar's transformation from a boisterous, impressionable, hormone-raging teenager ("Backstreet Freestyle") to a spiritually infused maturity ("Real").
"There came a point in time in life where, in the album and in my life — it's a true story — where you've got to make a decision," Lamar says. "What do we believe in? Do we believe in God, drugs, or some kind of higher power? And that was really the beginning of the decision-making of me doing something positive with myself. I put that actual story within the album and that's a true story of making that decision. The album is really about choices, y'know and that was one of the choices. Whether you are spiritual or not, you can learn something."
Before Lamar, in the album narrative, reaches this realization, there's emotional turmoil to be worked through. The Beach House-fuelled "Money Trees" deals with the temptations brought on by economic strife and, after being physically assaulted by gang members, Lamar turns to alcohol. "Swimming Pools (Drank)," Good Kid, m.a.a.d. city's first single, is a reflective treatise on the perils of alcoholism and peer pressure. Ajax, ON's T-Minus, who has also scored beats for Drake, Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj, helms the track's downbeat melancholia, coating it with an ominous sheen. "[W]hen I was finished recording, it felt like one of the records where I wasn't defined by the laws of radio," says Lamar of the single. "It's really making the radio or the mainstream world come to me rather than me doing some over-the-top shit that's not my style."
This spirit of non-conformity extends to Good Kid, m.a.a.d. city's mournful "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst," a song that runs about 12 minutes. The first half features Lamar's rhyming from different perspectives: a now-deceased friend, the sister of a dead prostitute he wrote about on Section.80's "Keisha's Song," and as himself. The song's emotional clout doesn't dissipate even after repeated listening and its intricacy makes you wonder how long it took to craft. "I wanted to really, really, really justify the situations in my life from the perspective of my homeboys, from the perspective of females and from my own perspective," says Lamar. "I wrote that record rather fast actually. There really weren't any rewrites because it's that close to home and the thing about it, you really wanted to identify not only with yourself but everybody. It's as universal as possible."
Lamar readily assumes the role of spokesperson, something he previously explored on Section.80. That album's title referred to the disaffected members of Generation Y born in the '80s, feeling the trickle-down effects of Reaganomics. It's telling that Section.80 ends with the J. Cole-produced "Hiiipower" a rousing, strident call for collective agency as an antidote to the apathy and disillusionment he reports elsewhere on that project. In some ways, it's a concept that could have been presented after the autobiographical bent of Good Kid, m.a.a.d. city. So why did Section.80 come first? "Good question," says Lamar. "I knew my [major] debut was [going to be] a reintroduction to a whole new demographic of people. [I was coming] from an underground world where just one set of people listen to you. So I want to start off on a clean slate as far as new listeners. What better way [to start] than the prelude story of my life. The prelude to all the tapes that I put out where I put little intricate details but not the whole story. It was really just about the timing and knowing for a fact that I wanted this to be a self-portrait on my debut."
Playing to his underground constituency on that birthday night in Toronto, it's apparent that Lamar's theatrics were part of his evolutionary process, ironing out the kinks in his future material, laying the groundwork for his newfound position as an influential hip-hop figure.
"I've really been sitting on [the album] for a long time, y'know," he says. "It was a six month recording process, but the actual concept and idea — I'd done had it prior to me putting out [2009's] Kendrick Lamar EP, [2010's] O.D (Overly Dedicated) [mixtape] and Section.80. I always knew [Good Kid, m.a.a.d. city] would be my [major] debut album. Somebody always told me you gotta stay two projects ahead of the game. And that's what this album is a pure example of, and that's what my next project will be in the future. You know, just being prepared about what I want to talk about and what I want to say and not being indecisive in this time to come."