In a state of hip-hop, where a large sum of rap is inflamed with made-strictly-for-wax, boastful raps of a luxurious lifestyle, Kendrick Lamar stands out for quite the opposite.
The West Coast rapper’s major-label debut studio album, “good kid, M.A.A.D. city” (Top Dawg Entertainment/ Aftermath/Interscope), breathes life into the game with the art of storytelling.
“good kid, M.A.A.D. city” surpasses the unprecedented anticipation with its compelling, lucid storytelling, which portrays a reflection of the harsh reality that was Kendrick’s adolescence while living in Compton in the 90s. Shorter stories — colored in with skits of his family and friends — are interwoven within the overall cinematic release to showcase the influence, from pain to beauty, that those around him, and their vices, inflicted.
An ethos of freedom — of both internal and external — builds throughout the album, as Kendrick tells of his story through the creative outlet that saved him from an alternate life ending.
Still, walking along a road less traveled doesn’t sound like a subconscious motive of Kendrick’s, but rather the icing that glosses over the album. Hit-Boy, The Neptunes, Just Blaze, Scoop Deville, Sounwave, and more plush the album with production that pulls inspiration from the sounds of 80s and 90s rap, from coast to coast.
Check out a track-by-track breakdown of the standard edition of Kendrick Lamar’s major-label debut.
1. “Sherane a.ka. Master Spinter’s Daughter”
“good kid, m.a.a.d. city” opens with a prayer for eternal salvation recited by Kendrick Lamar’s longtime friends. An eerie Tha Bizness-produced beat is introduced at the end of the prayer and calls forth a story of a sexually-driven relationship between his 17-year-old self and a young woman named Sherane. The opening prayer and his final bar — “I pulled up, a smile on my face, and then I see/ Two ni**as, two black hoods/ I froze as my phone rang” — gives listeners a sneak peek into coming stories that go into Kendrick’s adolescence.
2. “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”
“I’m a sinner that’s probably going to sin again/ Lord forgive me/ Lord forgive me/ Things I don’t understand,” Kendrick opens the second “good kid, m.a.a.d. city” cut, before getting into the difference of motives and lifestyles between him and the next person (rapper, label insider) within the current state of the music industry. “I can feel the changes/ I can feel the new people around me, just want to be famous/ You can see that my city found me and then put me on stages/ To me that’s amazing/ To you that’s a quick check/ With all disrespect let me say this,” K.Dot rhymes.
3. “Backseat Freestyle”
Kendrick lays boastful rhymes over a bed of Hit-Boy-produced menacing sounds.
4. “The Art of Peer Pressure”
“The Art of Peer Pressure” depicts the change of Lamar’s character when he’s around his boys. As Tabu’s production turns from smooth to sinister over Suspekt’s “Helt Alene” sample — coloring in the moods of the episodes within their day-to-day Compton living — Kendrick begins to tell the story of a planned robbery. Sound bites of his friends, during the ride and robbery, amplify the difference between Kendrick and his boys. “I never was a gang banger, I mean I never was stranger to the funk neither/ I really doubt it/ Rush a ni**a quick and then we’d laugh about it/ That’s ironic cause I’ve never been violent/ Until I’m with the homies,” Kendrick raps.
5. “Money Trees” feat. Jay Rock
“Money Trees” gives insight into the rapper’s present (“I’ve been hustling all day, this a way, that a way, through canals and alley ways, just to say, money trees is the perfect place for shade”), past ( i.e. robbery (“The Art of Peer Pressure”) and rhyming (“Backseat Freestyle), and forewarns the future (“Everybody going to respect the shooter, but the one in front of the gun lives forever”).
6. “Poetic Justice” feat. Drake
Kendrick digs deeper into the electricity between him and Sherane over the silky sample of Janet Jackson‘s “Any Time, Any Place.” Drake comes in mid-way to lend his own story of lust, rhyming, “Oh girl, you test my patience, with all these seductive photographs and all these one-off vacations you’ve been taking/ clearly a lot for me to take in.”
7. “good kid”
Kendrick tells the story of the internal struggle within a “good kid” trapped in the trenches of gang-banging. “I got ate alive yesterday/ I got animosity building/ It’s probably big as a building/ Me jumping off of the roof/ Is just me playing it safe/ But what am i supposed to do?/ When the topic is red or blue,” he rhymes on the first verse. Pharrell lends an allegorical hook to gloss over Kendrick’s fight, “Mass hallucination, baby/ Ill education, baby/ Want to reconnect with your elations/ This is your station, baby.”
8. “m.A.A.d city” feat. MC Eiht
Hopelessness can be heard in the softened tonality of Kendrick’s vocals, only for him to end the song with spoken word. He tells the story of his upbringing in corruption and its results, all while riding the wave of Sounwave, THC, Terrace Martin’s 90s left coast reminiscent beat: “I live inside the belly of the rough/ Compton, U.S.A./Made me an Angel on Angel Dust.”
9. “Swimming Pools (Drank)”
Kendrick follows the influence of a haunting vice; fighting against the corruptive side of his conscious. The extended version of the T-Minus-produced track presents a memorable skit, in which, Kendrick and his homies seek to take revenge on those who once harmed Kendrick (“good kid”), only to end with death.
10. “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”
In the first half of “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” Kendrick weaves in between the ins and outs of the harsh reality that his life has been, from the perspective of Dave’s brother (verse one), Keisha’s sister (who he rapped about on “Section.80” track, “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)”) (verse two), and his own (verse three).
On the second half of the song, Kendrick finally opts out of this hazardous life he’s felt indebted to.
What makes you real? Kendrick looks deep into himself to figure out what really makes one real, including himself and those he’s loved (“I love the first verse cause you’re the girl I attract/ I love second verse cause you’re the homie they packed”). A voicemail from his parents closes the song. His father tells Kendrick what “realness” really is (“Realness is responsibility. Realness is taking care of your mother fucking family. Realiness is god, ni**a”).
Kendrick takes the advice from his mother (“Real”) and closes the album with an ode to the city that raised him alongside the man that has passed the torch to him, Dr. Dre.