|2012||good kid, m.A.A.d. city||9/10|
|2015||To Pimp a Butterfly||7.5/10|
|2022||Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers||8/10|
Review last updated: June 19, 2020
good kid, m.A.A.d City
Okay ignore my initial review for this album, I really didn't know what I was talking about. good kid, m.A.A.d City is not only Compton gang life survivor Kendrick Lamar's personal masterpiece, but among one of the most iconic, influential, hypnotically infectious, and especially personal and intimate masterpieces of the entire genre of hip hop. The album impossibly, doubly serves as both, an autobiography for roughly 20 years' worth of young Kendrick's life (pretty much up until he was successful enough to make this album), and a day-in-the-life style stream-of-consciousness ramble that spans 8 or 12 hours' worth of time in a single night. A lot of rappers have used personal voicemail messages (I made a sound collage out of mine for Domestic Violence) in a lot of their albums, going all the way back to Public Enemy 25 years prior, but none of them have ever used them in the painfully intimate and personal ways that Kendrick did. These are actual voicemails and tape recordings from his mother, father, grandmother, brothers, friends, and bullies, and these personal recordings are very revealing of the real-life situations that unfolded while people were trying to get ahold of Kendrick: his dad demanding Domino's and then forgetting about it, his buddies relieving a house of its valuables, his friend shooting a few rival gang members that turned out to be his other friend's brothers, and his mother and father assuming that their son simply isn't coming back tonight, or ever. Notice how the names of a lot of his friends, and the eyes of his family members, have been censored. This is not just because gang members are smart enough not to incriminate themselves, but also rings true with the age-old "snitches and rats get shot in the face" code of the streets.
The subject matter of the individual songs are varied. Multiple songs are about herd mentality ("Really I'm a peacemaker but I'm with the homies right now"). "Swimming Pools" is about alcoholism, addiction, and escapism via parties and social events, and all of the depressing consequences ("All I have in life is my new appetite for failure"), so this one especially hits home for me. "good kid" is a confessional about being accosted, abused, and terrorized by the police (therefore having one's life threatened), so by Kendrick sharing a deeply traumatic experience, he is commenting not only on police brutality, racial profiling, and systematic racism, but also the lack of choices and brutal threats involved in gang life, and making a tragic, all-too-familiar song that the entire black population can unfortunately relate to ("Kendrick, Compton's human sacrifice"). "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" is about the divine guilt and looming threat of hell that devours Christian gang members like Kendrick who live their entire lives based on murder, death, stealing, and violence. Kendrick pays tribute to a friend (or brother?) who had asked to be sang about before he died. This song has one of the album's most chilling moments: "And if I die before your album drop--" "POW POW POW POW" "......." The woman, Anna Wise I think, singing "Promise that you'll sing about me forever" has been mixed and panned to induce the image of an angel rising to heaven.
"Backseat Freestyle" is about a teenager's basest desires to get pussy, get money, and shoot his enemies, and how hollow and unfulfilling these pursuits often turn out to be. My favorite moment on the whole album is the drop at the end of "m.A.A.d City", after the line "Compton USA made me an angel on angel dust what" (I think this is what m.A.A.d stands for, angel on angel dust). Take note of the careful mixing of Kendrick's rap in the silent part of the song ("If I told you I killed a nigga at 16 would you believe me?"). This particular mixing technique gives me the image of a black kid riding around in circles on a bike. Kendrick's voice quickly drops a couple octaves from his usual soprano and distorts mid-verse, symbolizing not only adolescence, but the ever-corrupting condition of a child, and the decaying of innocence that might have never even been there. It takes a few listens to really appreciate how baroque, operatic, theatrical, and divine this album really sounds. You have original viola and violin parts, piano and guitar arrangements, operatic female vocals, and a lot of guest appearances. All of the guests on this album, from Dre to Drake, each play important and symbolic characters in Lamar's drama. Within the songs, some of the individual lines are chillingly emphasized and exaggerated by angel or devil voices, Anna Wise's grandiose opera, ghosts, or things Kendrick or his friends said on the voicemails. "What are we doing? Who are we fooling?" from "Dying of Thirst", "One day it's gon burn you out" from "The Art of Peer Pressure", "The one in front of the gun lives forever" from "Money Trees".
Another thought about the production on one of the songs. "Swimming Pools" has four choruses. The first three sound alike. They sound triumphant, euphoric, blissful, and heavenly, and they sound like how it feels when you're at a party with friends and hot girls (or guys), plenty of weed and booze, and plenty of action. You just feel invincible, and like you're on top of the world, and you want to keep feeling that way forever. Then at the end of the song, the final chorus sounds fucked up, destroyed, garbled, ruined, and mutilated. The refrain that was once triumphant and euphoric has almost instantly disintegrated into barely-recognizable fragments of what it once was in a cloud of silent ambience. "Swimming pool full of- full of- full of-" "Watch em all flock-ah-ah-ah" "Girls wanna play-ay-ay-ay". Hopefully it is clear to most listeners that this production technique is symbolic of how you usually feel when you wake up the morning after a party: you remember it being awesome but not much else, you remember vague images and a handful of details without context, but not the entire narrative. It also doesn't help with retaining memories if you're a daily cannabis, benzo, or opiate user. Something that is really, really great about this album, is the circular bookend of "Mom I'm taking the van I'll be back in 15 minutes!" at the end of "Compton".
Well I better wrap this up. It took me several listens to truly appreciate the masterful, intelligent production, the mature, wise, and thoughtful songwriting, and the undying ever-relevant legacy of GKMC. I am currently undecided on whether I prefer this one or To Pimp a Butterfly, but I plan on reviewing that album too. I am giving this album a lot of credit for being the first hip-hop album to make me cry, and for Kendrick Lamar being the first black person I would consider a personal hero (I've admired many others, but none in this way). The part that always gets me is his mother's defeat at the end of "Real", her saying how if Kendrick doesn't come back tonight, she hopes he comes back a man and learns from his mistakes. While I would not consider this an all-time masterpiece or even my favorite rap album, it is possibly the most socially relevant, timeless, historically important rap album ever made by anyone. The Polaroids used for the album covers are each worth a thousand words.