The connective tissue of Kendrick Lamar’s major-label debut is a series of not-quite skits — prayers, voicemails, front-seat conversation — that string together an album that reveals itself as a long day in his adolescence. This isn’t exactly a new trick in rap, but it’s rare that found sound is so immersive, and so effective at absorbing the listener. Then again, the Compton rapper subtitled the album “a short film by Kendrick Lamar,” so maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that good kid, m.A.A.d city is purely cinematic in scope and execution.
It is, to be clear, a striking achievement. Yet the truest strength of the album is that it still hits even once you’ve untangled its various knots. The complex narrative is a leap in ambition for Lamar, but in doing so he’s retained the elements of his writing that made him famous in the first place. On his last album, Section.80, he showed a keen eye for observing, analyzing and understanding those close to him, and it’s from that place this record grows.
The story isn’t the only thing that stuns. Despite being raised in L.A. rap’s epicenter and mentored for years by Dr. Dre, good kid sounds like it was stewed in the South. Its sonic bedrock is the same muted, plaintive future-funk that bathed the Alabama group G-Side’s Starshipz & Rockets — a sound shaped for, and by, dark nights and deep thoughts.
In totality, the album awakens the spirits of Outkast’s legendary Aquemini — no small praise, indeed. That is rarified air in hip-hop, but Kendrick Lamar, out from the jumble of a new class of rap stars, now finds himself in very different company.