Due to its spoken word, rhythm-based nature, hip-hop has been a primary home for musical storytellers ever since Kool G Rap, Chuck D and Rakim posited that MCs were authors and DJs provided the paper. “I start to think / and then I sink / into the paper, like I was ink,” Rakim said, and thus the game was changed. Nas arguably perfected this idea, cutting a nine-song album in 1994 with five different producers that came across as intensely singular, as though the MCs will and vision could enact marshall law on disparate sonics and attitudes, coalescing a fractured state of mind into one that represented a particular time and place. At the same time, Prince Paul was offering the opposite hyopthesis: give a genius three imaginative MCs (or, in the further along case of A Prince Among Thieves, 19 guys playing minutely specific roles) and he’ll spin you a yarn that builds from a beginning to an end. De la Soul Is Dead (1991) presented a story within a story, as a trio of crackheads listened to an album about life on Long Island and criticized it at every turn, metaphorically representing the group’s opinion of the media’s influence on the hardcore direction hip-hop was taking.
Other MCs, most notably Masta Ace’s early 2000s work on M4 Records, have expanded on Prince Paul’s formulas by creating albums that play as audio books, but besides Ace and Doseone’s Subtle project, few MCs have seen hip-hop’s narrative tendencies as an opportunity to weave explicitly connected music, where albums act as acknowledged sequels and the duty of the fan is to piece together the artist’s 1,000 piece puzzle. Lupe Fiasco, perhaps this generation’s most revered and pored-over by message boards rapper, infamously shied away from straightforwardness by splashing the story of Michael Young across multiple albums and mixtapes, daring audiences to find where the storyline begins and ends. Kendrick Lamar appeals to both formulas, as good kid, m.A.A.d. city alludes to previous works (primarily Section.80‘s “Keisha’s Song” and “Poe Man’s Dreams”) without needing them and follows a very specific structure with a beginning, middle and end as implied by the cover art’s subtitle “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar”.
And what an incredible weave it is. I’ll save most of the notes for those smart enough to seek this album out, but in general terms the album begins with a betrayal, and then doubles back to the beginning of the relationship to detail Kendrick Lamar’s life as an “Average Joe” (Overly Dedicated mixtape) in the buildup to his escaping the hood via a record deal. With a little digging, good kid reveals itself to be a remarkably personal release for Lamar, with stories like his accidental smoking of a cocaine-laced blunt and the death of his Uncle Tony lending not only narrative heft but a very real gravitas to Lamar’s presence. Generally, this would be enough for a hip-hop album: we love to believe Ghostface Killah is a dangerous man with a soft spot for women because his details overcome the usual tropes of hardcore corner store MCs, or that Drake is a be-cardigan’d playboy who can’t stop thinking about his high school girlfriends because his word choice delineates the progress from one to the other so cleanly. But again, Lamar concentrates the ideas of hip-hop narrative and nonfiction into such a form that’s shocking for how simultaneously accessible yet full of depth it is.
Nowhere is this more interesting than the album’s lead single, “Swimming Pools (Drank)”, produced in the typical manner of “I’m on One” / “She Will” producer T-Minus. Where both of those tracks were explicitly about affluent escapees of the hood mentality throwing money at strippers and drugs, so too does “Swimming Pools” feel on its surface like an anthem for late night stumbling. “Fill a swimming pool full of liquor then you dive in it,” Lamar plays with mainstream hip-hop’s favorite subject, uninhibited and unnamed women. This track is an axis for the character of Kendrick Lamar to have epiphanies about the actions he’s taken throughout good kid. It becomes even more subversive, a moment of nihilism more accessible than those that came before it (robbery, gang activity, promiscuous sex) and then serves as illumination: I am Compton… how real is that? The next three tracks find Lamar enraptured in the realization that he’s been all too willing to succumb to his environment, with “Sing About Me” deconstructing the various characters he’s called friends merely due to economic identification and social stratification. Then onward to “Real”, where he doubts the lessons he’s learned in Compton are true, and “Compton”, where he pays dues to the world that made him ready for the world despite all the tragedy he’s witnessed.
Providing the sort of semi-autobiographical character arc, good kid would be enough for some, but it’s the lush environs surrounding this “short film” that makes good kid not only a compelling story, but also musically interesting. “Sherane” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” open the album as something of a 2012 West Coast version of OutKast’s Aquemini, the former presenting Lamar’s vision of an Andre 3,000-word barrage storyline and the latter Big Boi’s laid back masculinity. “Backseat Freestyle” is a chauvinistic “Racks” creed whipped together by Kanye henchman Hit-Boy, couched in the thematic conceit of freestyling in the backseat of his boys’ car, imagining a world that doesn’t exist. “m.A.A.d. city” revives Compton’s Most Wanted leader MC Eiht over a second half beat change from Terrace Martin that feels like Dr. Dre’s The Chronic had a love child with Chronic 2001.
It’s not all perfect, however. Repetition and excess reigns over moments of this album, as it fills an entire CD at a mere 12 tracks. “Real” is the album’s most obvious sufferer, with generally efficient Anna Wise being required to incessantly repeat “I’m real, I’m real, I’m really really real” throughout a seven-and-a-half minute track that very easily could have been closer to five. And much like narrative albums that have come before it, good kid hustles through a setlist that’s not nearly as stand-out and introduction-ready as Section.80 (itself a conceptual album, in a less linear sense) was, creating moments during your fourth or fifth listen in a row that feel less engaging than they did before. But if those minor nitpicks are what it takes to bring an album like this, one that so effortlessly bows to the needs of both mainstream and underground hip-hop heads, bring them on.