In the world of hip-hop, singles and club bangers tend to dominate the landscape to the extent that most major-label releases of the genre are merely a collection of material meant to appeal to a wide audience. Albums end up sounding watered down and devoid of any of the vision that characterize a hungry artist on the "come up." When Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar announced his major label debut, Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, I was skeptical that the highly ambitious, stunningly lyrical artists attempt at a crossover record would fail to deliver on the promise that the 25 year old MC showed on his 2011 album Section.80. On, GKMC, Kendrick blows past expectations with a cinematic masterpiece of an LP, showcasing some of the finest lyrical depth and thematic concision ever seen on a hip-hop album. Like the title suggests, GKMC tells the story of a well-meaning young man trying to overcome the poisonous nature of his environment. The true storytelling ability of Kendrick lies in his ability to acknowledge the lure of the troubling, self- destructive decisions he can make rather than merely denouncing them. Instead of taking on the preachy tone that so many "conscious" rappers take on, he tells a real story of how conflicting it can be for one to rise above such troubling surroundings. The self-analysis and transparency that the MC gives the listener throughout the record is undeniably engaging and unheard of in mainstream rap where any bit of self doubt or questioning of motives is seen as weakness in an industry where ego, or at least the appearance of an unbreakable ego, is everything.
The albums opener "Sherane" sees a young Kendrick driving his mother's van to go see a girl he met at a party only to find out he has been set up to get jumped. Ending the track is one of many interludes on this record, this one in the form of a voicemail from his mother demanding that he return her van and that he stop messing around in the streets lusting for girls. "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe" is an incredibly well produced track that discusses the rappers' rise to mainstream light and the changes that come along with that journey.
One of the tracks that was released in anticipation of the album, "Backseat Freestyle" seemed highly uncharacteristic of Lamar, as it features a banger of a beat by Hit-Boy and deals with the mainstream prevalent subjects of money, power, and women. When placed in the context of GKMC, however, we see that this track is from the point of view of a young Kendrick boasting in the backseat of his friend's car trying to impress with his ego driven rhymes. The following song, "The Art of Peer Pressure," deals with a similar situation, as the young rapper finds himself conflicted when he's with his group of friends. Talking about how he's "usually drug free, but shit he's with the homies" fits in to the thematic context of the album how environment can make even those with the best intentions take the wrong path.
With what might be one of the best beats in hip-hop this year, the Beach House sampling "Money Trees" features a killer guest verse by fellow Black Hippy member Jay Rock and one of the better hooks on the record that brings to mind the work of Outkast on records like Aquemini and Stankonia. On an album that changes pace as often as this, the R&B jam "Poetic Justice" doesn't feel quite so out of place and showcases the rapper's range on a track led by a Janet Jackson sample and a Drake appearance which could have been left out without sacrificing any commercial appeal. The lead single from this record, and undoubtedly the one that will receive the most airplay is the synthetic sounding "Swimming Pools (Drank)". Yet another track that struck me as uncharacteristic when it was released at the end of the summer, the undeniably catchy hook overshadows the fact that despite appearing as a theme song endorsing drinking, Kendrick brings to light the choices we make with alcohol and how we choose our relationship with the substance. The skit that follows acts as the climax of the albums storyline, as Kendrick and his crew try to avenge the beat down that was set up by Sherane. Amidst gunfire, one of the rapper's friends is shot and killed. "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" follows this traumatic event and is a two part, twelve minute turning point of the story. Delivering one of the most emotionally powerful performances the genre has ever seen, Lamar deals with his feeling of responsibility to tell the story of those who could not overcome their troubling lives. The second part of the track discusses turning negative events into something positive and creating a new path of enlightenment to escape the toxic environment that the rapper found himself in growing up.
In the age of internet hype, albums often get prematurely labeled as classics without an understanding of what truly cements a work as a classic; time. GKMC has been out less than a week but it's clear that the more listens this record receives, the more praise it will ultimately garner. Records that get remembered for generations are usually the result of a perfect storm of elements coming together to create something special that sounds unlike anything before it. Bringing ambition, thematic vision, and incredible depth to a hip-hop album isn't something that was believed to be possible on a major label, crossover release. Kendrick has managed to create an energetic and highly listenable record that compromises none of the passion and meaningful content the rapper has become known for. Injecting life back into mainstream hip-hop, GKMC could just end up going down as the blueprint for how to reach a large audience without sacrificing originality or purpose.