Counterbalance: Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Good Kid M.A.A.D. City’

I can feel this week's album's energy from two planets away. I got my drink, I got my music, I will share it, but today I'm yelling. Yelling about a 2012 hip-hop breakthrough and the subject of this week's Counterbalance, that is.
Kendrick Lamar
Good Kid M.A.A.D. City
Top Dawg / Aftermath / Interscope

Mendelsohn: We’ve covered a lot of ground in the last couple of years. But we have yet to talk about an album like Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 release Good Kid M.A.A.D. City. This album was ranked number two for the year, behind Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, and currently sits at number 397 on the Great List (which seems unfairly low, but what do I know?). There is a cinematic quality to this record, one that exceeds even the best concept albums that rock ‘n’ roll had to offer — namely the Who’s Tommy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Those two albums seem almost silly in nature compared to the stark realities and self-awareness of Lamar’s vision. The incredible storytelling and unmatched lyricism has left me at a loss for words, Klinger. Where do you begin with an album as deeply layered as Good Kid M.A.A.D. City? Hip-hop albums have been few and far between on the Great List, and while I enjoy hip-hop and am happy to see it slowly working toward its rightful position next to rock ‘n’roll on the List, I can’t help but feel completely overwhelmed by the breadth of material on this record.

Klinger: OK, Mendelsohn, just take it slow and we’ll get this all figured out. After all, part of the reason we chose to step away from handling the Great List in numerical order was to talk in more detail about albums we feel passionate about. Clearly you enjoy this record a great deal, and judging by the critical reaction you are far from alone. So what is it that compelled you to select this album for our weekly jabberfest? After all, your personal experience as a suburban white kid with a (check me on this) cursory religious upbringing couldn’t be much more different from Kendrick Lamar’s. So is it Lamar’s ability to make his story resonate with you? And how does that differ from other contemporary hip-hop artists?

Sorry to pepper you with so many questions, but you seem to have a lot you want to unpack. I ask, so that I may help. I am a giver.

Mendelsohn: I am humbled by your generosity. To some extent, all rappers — like musicians — are storytellers. Some are better than others. Spinning a tall tale is nothing new to hip-hop; pulling on the feels, probing the human condition — it’s all been done. But I don’t think it has been done with the precision that Lamar brings to the table. It says on the cover, “A Short Film By Kendrick Lamar”, and he delivers. Good Kid M.A.A.D. City is the snapshot of a young man’s life, following the protagonist as he deals with the trials of growing up. This is just one day, told in the present and in flashbacks, as Kendrick plays the part of narrator and protagonist. Peer pressure, navigating sexuality, dealing with parents — it’s the universal language of teen angst. Teen angst, Klinger, launched a thousand rock albums. Teen angst fuels the music industry. It’s universal, but I’ll be damned it Kendrick doesn’t put it all together in a way that puts any rock ‘n’ roller or rapper to shame.

Last week you were on about Jason Isbell’s ability to craft a great line and effective turn of phrase. You want to talk about attention to detail? It’s in Good Kid M.A.A.D. City. Start to finish. You want a turn of phrase? How about: “Its deep rooted, the music of being young and dumb. It’s never muted, in fact its much louder where I’m from”. You want to get literary? Kendrick switches points of view with ease, drawing the listener deeper into the story, fleshing out characters with just a couple of bars.

Klinger: To be fair, they can both be good at that sort of thing.

Mendelsohn: And they are. But I think the nature of hip-hop allows for both greater detail while truncating the delivery. Does that make sense? Hip-hop is ideally suited for the communicators of the 21st Century, an era in which 140 characters is more than enough space to complete the next great American novel.

I do feel like a bit of an interloper because I can’t relate to the setting. It’s true, I’m suburban and six shades of pale to the left of white on the color spectrum. But that might be Kendrick’s greatest achievement. As important as the setting is, this record is transcendent enough to bring the listener into the fold. Kendrick is talented enough to make his story relatable no matter who you are.

Klinger: I think what makes Good Kid M.A.A.D. City ultimately relatable is its universality, which probably helps explain why the album managed to receive critical acclaim across the board as well as massive commercial success. When we were covering the Great List numerically, I got the real sense that there was a pretty vast disconnect between the critics and the masses. Not only did Kendrick Lamar close that gap with a platinum-seller, but he did so with an ambitious concept album, even as we’ve been hearing about the death of the album for some time. And his success has been sufficiently mainstream that Good Kid M.A.A.D. City got recognized by that silliest of institutions, the Grammys (although they were predictably ridiculous enough to give the actual awards to Macklemore—never change, Grammys). It’s all pretty impressive.

And yes, I do appreciate the artistic ambition that drives Kendrick Lamar, and I think it’s been interesting that hip-hop is becoming the primary source of so much overt ambition in music today. Even as Kanye West irritates the popular celebrity media with his Kardashianery, he’s still keeping critics and other serious music thinkers on the run with his actual, you know, records (Lou Reed’s New York Times review of Yeezus is worth a read). Quite curious, and Kendrick Lamar appears to be at the front of the pack even by those standards.

Mendelsohn: For being such a young man, Kendrick has figured out how to pull all of the discordant threads of hip-hop together to create a masterful work. I’d stop short of calling him the uniter of a fractured genre (he’s got his beefs, but it wouldn’t be hip-hop if there wasn’t a reason to release diss tracks) but he doesn’t shy away from the hard truths and pushes for greater thought, be it on vinyl or on the streets. I don’t view this record as overtly religious, but there is a contemplative quality to his music, urging the listener to seek redemption and he works it all into a cohesive statement that seemingly fits within the constraints of the typical gangsta rap album that the A&R folks at the major labels are so fond of foisting upon the public.

I don’t know how deep you got into this record, but in “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst” (the centerpiece of the album and the denouement of the storyline), the grandmotherly voice, the voice of reason, the voice of redemption belongs to the late Maya Angelou. Kendrick asked Angelou to play a part on the record of peacemaker, a part she once played in real life for Tupac Shakur, one of Kendrick’s idols.

Klinger: I don’t view this as a religious album either, but it does begin with a unison recitation of a sinner’s prayer, and that obviously sets the tone for the whole record. The push and pull between sainthood and sinnerdom is what’s really driving Good Kid M.A.A.D. City in my mind (the title alone is a tip-off, as is a track like “The Art of Peer Pressure”). M.A.A.D apparently stands for both “My Angry Adolescence Divided” and “My Angels on Angel Dust”, the latter of which also seems to help get the point across.

And Kendrick Lamar’s ability to structure the album so effectively so that the listener is caught up in that inner dialog and every cell phone interruption is used to immediately snap the listener back into another place. On those strengths, Good Kid M.A.A.D. City comes as close to living up to its “Short Film” tagline as it possibly could. I’m going to assume by your general effusiveness so far that you believe that Good Kid M.A.A.D. City s on the Great List to stay (and I’m not inclined to disagree), so I’m going to ask two final unpacking questions: Do you think the album will continue to climb the Great List (a feat that recent releases generally don’t accomplish), and do you think Kendrick Lamar is an artist who can replicate this level of success?

Mendelsohn: The first question is easy. I don’t see this album going anywhere but up, especially as hip-hop makes more of an impact on the Great List in the years to come. Will there be extreme gains in the future? No. As we’ve come to realize, the Canon is essentially closed, but music is changing and the future will not revolve around rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t want to answer the second question. I would like to hope Kendrick Lamar has more to give. He is an amazing artist, with a range unmatched by his peers, who possesses a rare musical vision. His future success or failure all depends on how he uses that vision. Deep down, I hope Good Kid M.A.A.D. City isn’t the best album he ever releases.