André 3000 never finished his thoughts on The Love Below. On its last song, “A Life in the Day of Benjamin André,” we don’t know what became of the metaphorical Rabbit sitting in the yard, whether he gave it rims, or simply bought a Cadillac. It’s part of the reason why we clamor for a new OutKast album, and why we salivate over every André feature or substandard guitar solo. It’s the continuation we want, as every good story needs a conclusion.
Nine years later, and André’s narrative has new life, although the Atlanta, Ga., native isn’t behind the microphone this time. On his recently released album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar largely forgoes California’s glossy West Coast funk for something a bit heavier. Here, the young man seems enamored with Southern crunk and spacious rhythms that seem a worthy heir to the Dungeon Family aesthetic. The instrumentals are expansive and brooding, and Lamar injects subtle dashes of gentlemanly charm into each song. He tells stories of his own perseverance. A good kid in a mad city.
He’s not totally innocent, though. On good kid, Lamar steals his mom’s van to meet “Sherane,” the youngin who lives “borderline Compton or Paramount.” On “The Art of Peer Pressure,” he and his friends ride four deep in a white Toyota, “a quarter-tank of gas, one pistol and orange soda.” In their mission for “bad bitches and trouble,” they vandalize a vacant home and just narrowly miss getting arrested. “One lucky night with the homies,” Lamar says with confidence, the beat a quiet blend of deep synths and filtered drum taps. The André comparisons are strongest here: Much like the ATLien, Lamar is meditative and slightly aloof. From him, you get the sense that he purposely recedes from the foreground to tell a robust story of his immediate surroundings.
There’s also a practical aspect to Lamar’s narrative. As good kid progresses, it becomes clear that this story isn’t specific to the main character, and that teenage mischief can happen anywhere. Yet with Lamar, nothing is what it seems. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” begins with an explanation of why he’s drawn to liquor in the first place. He grew up with people “livin’ their life in bottles.” His grandfather had a golden flask. From there, Lamar falls victim to a dark room and a bender, lathering the woozy soundtrack with a personal tale of alcoholism. On “M.A.A.D. City,” the rapper’s vocal pitch is noticeably uneasy amongst an equally anxious soundtrack; MC Eiht punctuates its second half with a cinematic walk through 1980s Compton.
At its core, good kid is a story about Lamar’s breakthrough and his struggles with maturation. The album begins with a prayer (“Lord God, I come to you a sinner, and I humbly repent for my sins”) and wields that spiritual fabric throughout the recording. On “Sing About Me,” Lamar remembers fallen friends by rhyming from their perspectives. We hear the gunshots that killed one, while the other simply fades away. By the song’s second half — the stirring “I’m Dying of Thirst” — the mood is alarmingly cathartic: Lamar condemns himself and the black-on-black violence in which he’s taken part. He sounds exasperated with himself and his reality.
Still, the results are remarkable. While Lamar is the main character, good kid is given new life by its supporting cast. Through voicemail, Lamar’s mom implores him to bring back her van. And his dad keeps pressing about his missing dominoes. But as they realize the hardships their son endures, the tone grows supportive. “I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes, and come back a man,” his mom says at the end of “Real.” “Tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton.” His dad’s approach is callous, though the sentiment is genuine: “Don’t learn the hard way like I did. Any nigga can kill a man; that don’t make you a real nigga. Real is responsibility. Real is taking care of your mothafuckin’ family.”
Upon its conclusion, you feel Lamar’s ready to tackle that greater responsibility, even if he’s just a young man prone to making mistakes. Though with Lamar, he uses the past as a teaching tool for surviving the inner city. Surely there’s despair and persistent uncertainty, but there’s an unspoken beauty to the struggle. It’s easy to route for a flawed protagonist, especially when he’s trying to do right.
– Marcus Moore