“The world looks at this album as very personal,” a tired-sounding Kendrick Lamar explains over the phone en route to a concert in West Virginia. “But I don’t think they would understand how personal it is unless you grew up around the cats that’s on the actual skits. Those are my real homeboys on those skits, those are my real parents on those skits.”
It’s been a few days since the release of good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lamar’s challenging and much-praised debut. It’s the only thing I can listen to right now, and always from the beginning onward. It’s a totally immersive experience, the kind that rewards the careful listener. Or maybe it necessitates obsession, over analysis. Listening to Lamar talk about its creation – and it’s strange to hear him just speak, given how many different voices he adopts in his songs – this effect was clearly by design. When I remark that it’s an album that doesn’t work as stray tracks on a shuffled playlist, he sternly agrees. It’s an album for people who like albums, he explains. “It’s a cassette tape on disc. No skipping to the next track.”
Hip-hop will always make room for a young talent with Lamar’s backstory. His parents went from one frying pan to another, escaping Chicago’s violent streets for Compton in the 1980s. He was a toddler when his hometown, once a model of American suburbia and now a gangland image factory, became one of the most famous places in America, thanks mostly to N.W.A. and Boyz N the Hood. This was his birthright. He watched Dr. Dre and Tupac film the first “California Love” video. He was eight years old. Lamar released a series of charismatic mixtapes through his late-teens, eventually carving out a niche for a self-aware South Central new wave alongside Black Hippy comrades Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q.
But none of this was guaranteed, as any number of post-Death Row Los Angeles rappers who never made it past an ad in XXL will tell you. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason Lamar succeeded where so many others didn’t. Perhaps it’s a coincidence of timing. A previous era – just a few years ago, even – wouldn’t have granted a charismatic purist – the kind who speaks of returning hip-hop to previous “eras” and “climates” – full creative control. Maybe Lamar was lucky enough to emerge at a time when the album has been devalued as a concept, for the thrills and profits lie somewhere else. He worked closely with his producers (“I’m very hands-on”) to insure that good kid had a cohesive and consistent sound, and then he spent “months” sequencing it. “It’s real critical, you have to sit and live with it.
“In the early stages, I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to do what everybody else was doing. I’m sorry, I couldn’t. I was already in the back of my mind thinking people wouldn’t understand itâ€¦or I knew they would catch on, but I figured it would be gradual over time. Not instantly. And that’s what’s surprised me. It’s like, ‘Whoa. This dude just went somewhere totally different, and I totally understand it.’ The person that really put that fear aside when I played him the album was Pharrell. He told me, ‘It ain’t no need for them to understand. Understanding comes with thought – and they fear that.’”
Good kid is, as Lamar admits, a demanding piece of art. You may have heard “Swimming Pools” as a single, but it takes on a new meaning within the context of a deeply spiritual album and the possibility that the only thing saving him from that teetering into a bottomless drink is holy water. The skits are long and meandering, until you find yourself wondering what his father is up to, whatever happened to his friends. Fragments of conversation are recalled later in the night, and someone gets shot mid-verse during “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” the beat going on without him. It’s one of the most chilling things I’ve heard in a long time – a different, quotidian version of “reality” than you’re accustomed to hearing. The album closes with “Compton,” the reckless teen K-Dot reborn as the affected rapper Kendrick Lamar, Dr. Dre cosigning him over Just Blaze’s fanfare. As the tape nears the end of the spool, the story-cycle resets itself.
“I didn’t write (good kid) in order,” Lamar explains, “I just knew what I wanted to talk about, the actual concepts I wanted to talk about and how I was going to tie them in. There were five specific ones I wanted to tie into a 12-track album.
“I wanted to hit the points of my parents – their character and morals as well as their faults. I wanted to hit my homeboys – their characters as well as their faults. I wanted to hit the use of drugs. I wanted to hit the use of peer pressure – being surrounded by peer pressure. And I also wanted to hit the sense of feeling the need for spirituality within myself growing up.”
Despite these broad themes, good kid‘s sense of scale is minuscule when compared to most other so-called classic debuts, where the tales of struggle merely anticipate the present-day’s presumed riches. “That album really represents everything that happened within one day that changed my whole life. From meeting up with a girl named Sherane,” he explains, to chilling with his homeboys to “something happening to my homeboy,” to “the actual lady coming up and saying, ‘What are you guys doing? You got to change your life.’”
As he explained this, I realized that what I find haunting about good kid is that it feels totally bereft of fantasy. When he was 17, Lamar explains, his life was oriented around “money, hoes and whatever else evil in the world.” And while there are brief glimpses of possible futures – “dreams of living life like rappers do” (“Money Trees”), visions of being “the man on these streets” (per Young Jeezy, on “The Art of Peer Pressure”), the possibility of “wifin’” his girl Sherane (“Sherane aka Master Splinter’s Daughter”), the righteous path’s vague promise – the only horizon that truly matters is tomorrow. The album’s single, unstated fantasy: “Getting past this one day.”