Kendrick Lamar is Compton’s new hope. The LA district was put on the map with NWA’s incendiary one-two punch of albums Straight Outta Compton and Efil4Zaggin, and no rapper since has managed to map the drama, myth, desperation and humour of the area as vividly or accessibly. Considering that some 20 odd years have past since Dr. Dre manned the desk on the NWA classics, it’s high time their power was transcended- or at least matched- by one of today’s generation of street spitters. It’s fitting then that Dre is executive producer on Lamar’s Interscope debut- the album the MC considers his first ‘proper’ release (it’s preceeded by numerous mixtapes and the independently released album Section 80). Dre also squares the circle by appearing as a guest on the album closer Compton. That track, and the album throughout, narrate Lamar’s experience growing up in Compton- as the title suggest, he’s the good kid, and it’s the mad city. Contrary to the MCs previous assertion that he would keep on working with the relatively unknown producers he made his mixtape name with, a host of super producers have been enlisted to soundtrack his stories of a life assailed by temptation, violence and crime. This is pretty much the standard with major label hip hop releases, and often leads to fractured end results. Fortunately in Lamar’s case, a 70s Blaxploitation aesthetic hovers throughout, tying the record together with thick syrupy basslines, warm guitars and plenty of funk, alongside the ever present, obligatory monster kick drums.
Lamar favours a narrative, complex lyrical style with songs twisting through many layers. The Art of Peer Pressure is a great example – on an instrumental that switches from dusty jazz breakbeats to growling synthetic bass, Lamar examines his behaviour when he’s ‘rolling with the homies’ – simultaneously glorifying and undercutting his tale of street crime and wilful debauchery. This mix of the melancholic and the macho is very ‘now’, Drake’s confessional hip hop epiphanies bearing a similar hallmark, and the album has an introspective vibe that at times threatens to spill into self-indulgence. Three tracks break the 6 minute mark (Sing About Me I’m Dying of Thirst weighing in at a tubby 10 minutes), and the albums strongest moment comes on the face smacking Backstreet Freestyle, where producer Hit Boy’s titanic drums and sparse, aggressive samples leave no room in their booming three and a half minutes for naval gazing- Lamar roars, pure menace, taking the flow from Lil Wayne’s A Milli straight down to the gutter and gleefully strangling it.
There’s no doubt that Lamar is a skilled rapper, and there are some excellent moments on good kid m.A.A.d city – both the aforementioned Backstreet Freestyle and recent single Swimming Pool s (Drank) are modern classics, and a welcome addition to the canon of heady new RnB being created by new school artists such as Frank Ocean, Drake and The Weeknd. However at over an hour long (not including the many bonus tracks available…) the album is a bit of a bloated affair, and it seems Lamar’s potential to be Compton’s greatest remains – as yet- to be fulfilled.