Son Raw was ready to hate this album.
Kendrick did it. Compare him to the greats to knock him down a peg if you must and complain about what the album isn’t if needed but he still did it: he put out a genuinely excellent, cohesive rap album on a major label in 2012. Because no matter how Good Kid m.A.A.d City ranks next to Illmatic, Me Against the World or Ready to Die; compared to 2 Chainz, Drake, Minaj, Wayne, Ross and company, Kendrick and his album aren’t even in the same league. Or the same galaxy.
I’m not saying high-fanutin’ concept albums are inherently better than straight-up gangsta rap bangers. On the contrary, they’re incredibly difficult to pull off without the results sounding like the Hip-Hop equivalent of an overblown prog-rock record about the sun moon and stars. Give me a good Waka mixtape over Lupe Fiasco’s discography any day of the week. But this inherent difficulty of this format just makes Good Kid m.A.A.d City more impressive – making a record both this ambitious and this flat-out good in an industry increasingly beholden to the vapidity of Pitbull and Flo-Rida is like landing a quadruple back flip off a horse in Olympics gymnastics – you can’t help but wonder how he did it.
I mean, it’s on Aftermath for crying out loud: I don’t think they’ve released a proper album since Bush was in Office.
Best of all, there’s a subtlety to this album. Whereas Section 80 drowned in corny African-child hooks and trite earnestness, Good Kid m.A.A.d City is wonderfully ambiguous. With the exception of Just Blaze’s Compton, a euphoric coda following the tour de force, the production by a cast of up-and-comers and studio vets avoids obvious melodies and grand gestures in favor of dark atmospheres and soulful flourishes. Even the most obvious moment (m.A.A.d City pt. 1) is balanced out by pt. 2’s brilliant Ice Cube homage. Then there’s Kendrick. We already knew he could rap like a motherfucker but here, every word is carefully weighed and measured: compare Sing About Me to Tammy’s Song on Section 80 and try to tell me that there hasn’t been a significant leap in songwriting there. Backstreet Freestyle and The Art of Peer Pressure deliver A-list battle rapping and storytelling respectively and even Poetic Justice, despite an unwelcome Drake feature, will inevitably bump out of jeeps from now till next year. Truth be told, it’s hard to find a weak spot.
I don’t buy that this isn’t a “fun” album – throw on just about any track from the album’s first half and you’ll find yourself rocking out. On the flip side, playing the album front-to-back to decode its asymmetrical narrative is the kind of experience you just can’t get from ANY rap release in 2K12, be it a Trapaholics tape or a major label album. And for this alone: Kendrick did it. And now everyone’s going to have to work just a little bit harder to match him.