Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)


HIGHLY RECOMMENDED [re-graded A+ in 2019]

Lamar is not kidding by labeling this "a short film." This is the sharpest narrative about troubled childhood and adolescence in LP form maybe ever, but certainly since the Mountain Goats' The Sunset Tree, and its hallmarks are cinematic: City of God, The 400 Blows, Breathless, Double Indemnity (the lust element), and Shoot the Piano Player, troubled people, usually young people, in troubled places, sometimes thrust upon them and sometimes of their own making. Lamar's narrative of swiping the keys to Mom's van and scampering out the door -- before she can demand an explanation -- in order to follow a pretty girl and get suddenly mixed up in a violent underworld is so vivid and personal that by the end of it all, in its wispy detail and carefully explored and evolving mood, you deeply wish it were a film. As it stands, there's little doubt it's the most emotionally affecting album of the year, and it's so clearly the best hip hop record since Kanye West's very different and completely outrageous My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that it seems trite to even bother saying so.

It's a lot to grab hold of, largely because it's an album in the classic sense -- that is, like Loveless or 3 Feet High and Rising or Here, My Dear, it's far, far more than merely a collection of songs, and it stretches the boundaries of what a rock & roll album is and what it can do, how it can touch us. More than that, it doesn't even boast any songs that are particularly grand or distinctive out of context -- the hit "Swimming Pools (Drank)," for example, carries none of its power and scariness on the radio -- but listen to the thing in sequence and there's not a dud to be found, at least until a slight fizzling of power on the two closing tracks. We've known for years, anyway, that sad albums with this much that's dark and downbeat are seldom producers of great dance club tracks. Isn't that why Pet Shop Boys lost their entire American audience with Behavior? Whatever -- for those open to an experience that's fragmented, nonlinear, and naturally paced with a strong sense of journey, here is your album, all beautiful and ambitious. It effortlessly fuses the mainstream and the underground contingents of hip hop (Lamar now a Dre-endorsed hitmaker but not so long ago an indie-rap fixture) while retaining a wit and good-hearted intelligence that may not always survive such a transformative period.

Lamar's style remains paranoid, nervous, but here more reflective than before; one of his strongest and most distinctive capabilities is of playing roles as various aspects of himself, changing his voice nearly unrecognizably at times in tracking a transformation from precocious kid to wizened adult -- "the music of being young and dumb," as he puts it early on. His lyrics are perceptive ("I love so much I love when love hurts"), but the richly varied yet texture-consistent music requires little aid in telling his gripping story. So it is that "Sherane" opens the album in minimal, conversational and intimate fashion, the spell broken briefly by a humorous voicemail message that turns out to have great significance for the record's narrative and jets us into the Outkast-derived "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe," the perfect example of Lamar's tricky syncopation and semi-sarcasm, broken by the periodic line that's as profound as anything you'll hear in pop music for a while yet. "I am a sinner who's probably gonna sin again," he announces, effortlessly setting up a spiritual undercurrent that will peak in an hour or so.

You wouldn't have to look far to find a variation on "Backseat Freestyle," fucking the world for 72 hours, that's entirely sincere in its eagerness and overconfidence, but Lamar puts on this distinctly adolescent air like a costume, generating a vocal that comes from an entirely different place than all else so far. Soon enough, on "The Art of Peer Pressure," he's clarifying his duplicity and conflict: "I'm a peacemaker, but I'm with the homies right now." As intensity gains -- the capturing of a city, nocturnal and desperate -- he narrates a first criminal offense with choking poetry, "circling death." The record could consist of little beyond those few minutes and still be a landmark.

But there's more. More, like "Money Trees" and its sweet abrasion, the chilled braggart "dream[ing] of livin' life like rappers do," the smoothless of a groove backdroped by the darkness of a terrifying lyric like "The one in front of the gun lives forever." More like the slow-jam of conflicted wants and fucked-up love ("a lot for me to take in") "Poetic Justice," and more like the '70s-infected Roots revision "Good Kid" and its goofy choral melodrama. Then the nightmare starts. The midsection of good kid, m.A.A.d city is a chronicle of gang violence as it falls upon a kid caught in a whirlwind -- gritty but unflinching, honest but as poetic and surreal as something only vaguely remembered. The first fifteen seconds of "m.A.A.d City" itself are as wild and commanding as anything here, and they spill out into the horrorshow insistence of the ugliest of this record's songs, addressing the permanence of violence: "You killed my cousin back in '94, fuck your truce." Yet again, Lamar tracks the contrast of the adolescent steeped in a culture and the bigness of the world around him -- his voice begins to crack as the skeletons in the closet come out, as Schoolboy Q lends him some harsh lessons about the street. And then, the hit.

"Swimming Pools" makes sense here, and it does play somewhat on its context as a prior radio success -- its starkness and rumblings of the conscience become a feverishly teenaged vision of young love and young damage, the trippiness of the extended portions fully earned, the devastating cut-through-the-bullshit tone of "All I have in life is my new appetite for failure" hardly Hot 97 bait, and then when the shots fire, it seems the perfect aural resignation, the signal that we can never crank up the van and really go home again, not to the place we left. "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" is such an evocative title it's a pity it actually refers to two separate recordings, but steep yourself in their sincerity all the same: "Promise that you will sing about me" is a deep enough signal of fear and depression without the more on-the-nose "my mind is really distorted," but listen carefully. Lamar sings as a woman here, as a bent and human older man looking back there, and his barely scripted, barely restrained "I'll never fade away I'll never fade away" seem the waning call of the boy looking to reconnect, to get out, to escape. The song itself (songs, rather) evolves with Lamar's increasingly dark mood, from lite jazz to Danny Elfman schlock, until being "tired of running" from desperation down through the years leads us to the only redemption he sees as possible.

That's the available redemption. Who knows if it will enrich him, will free him, will liberate this kid. Let's hope it does, or did if this is reality. But there's a sense that the damage is done, especially on that last, horrible, moving message from the boy's parents, and especially again when we revisit the almost prepubescent kid on the Morning Of, trotting out the door telling his mom he'll be back in fifteen minutes. Rewind, fast forward, you can't change anything. Kendrick Lamar is a famous rapper who's recorded a genuinely great album now that may prove a masterpiece; others who've lived this tale or something like it, if by no means all of them, remain in permanent shadows. Lamar hasn't just presented a narrative that may or may not be but certainly feels strikingly personable and real; he's told a collective story that falls not on generational or societal lines but on the lines of adolescence itself -- and, inevitably, on race and class and Compton and America's treatment of, even awareness of, its own. Like one group put it when Lamar was four years old, "How will I make it? I won't, that's how." Little has changed. Will it ever?

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